If you are a lover of Champagne, then you will have noticed the range of zero dosage and extra brut styles of bubbles is growing. Slowly, but steadily. What are they? Can you tell the difference?
And we are talking zero added sugar, NOT zero alcohol wines here….
What is dosage?
To understand dosage, we need to go a step backwards in the winemaking process.
In the traditional method of making sparkling wine, the base wine goes through the second ferment and spends an extended time on the dead yeast cells. Centuries ago, these yeast cells were left in the bottle and the wines were hazy when they were poured. Madame Cliquot has been credited in developing the method to remove this yeast. Today, during the final sparkling winemaking stage, or traditional method, the yeast is removed through disgorgement before bottling. During disgorgement, a frozen plug of wine and yeast is removed from the bottle.
After disgorgement, the wines need to be topped up otherwise you would notice a hefty slug out of your bottle. And no one likes to feel jipped out of bubbles! The bottles then have an addition of still wine that ‘tops up’ the sparkling wine that has been lost during disgorgement. Added to this wine is a sugar solution to sweeten the wine to its desired level of sweetness.
About zero dosage wines
Simply, zero dosage, also known as ‘dosage zéro’, ‘brut nature’ or even ‘pas dosé’ has no additional sugar added to the final wine. The dosage contains just the wine selected for topping up the bottle ie. it may be the same base wine or a reserve wine kept for just this purpose. It does not mean that there is no residual sugar in the wine remaining from the first ferment. Though this is usually minimal sugar remaining.
Extra brut has had less sugar added than a wine at ‘Brut’ level of sweetness. This addition of sugar is known as ‘liqueur de dosage’.
The dosage balances the Champagne on the palate where it softens the acid, sweetens the palate, as well as counters the ‘prickle’ of those bubbles. This addition will also add palate weight, making the wine seem fuller and rounder in the mouth. In vintages where the grapes are not optimally ripe acid can be an issue. After all Champagne is in the northern most ripening zone for France. Of course, with global warming, these vintages are getting rarer.
Those bubbles can ‘strip bare’ a wine and make it less flavourful and fruity, as well as texturally lighter and more puckering in the mouth. Adding carbon dioxide to a liquid in any way counters sweetness by giving the perception of dryness. Unfortunately for those who are watching their sugar intake, bubbles of carbon dioxide do not remove the sugar from the wine. It would be magic if it did though, wouldn’t it?
In the 1980s, Laurent-Perrier released their Ultra Brut wine. However, this was merely a rebirth of a wine first made in 1889 – the Laurent-Perrier Grand vin Sans Sucre. According to Laurent-Perrier, it was available in the Jules Verne restaurant at the Eiffel Tower until 1913. At the time, the wine was being lauded for its ‘remarkably fine flavour’ and ‘bouquet’ and its ‘clean taste’.
What perhaps made this wine unusual was that until the 1920s, Champagne tended to be on the sweeter end of the scale.
In general, there seems to be a trend towards drier Champagnes. This can be partly attributed to the warming of the region’s climate meaning grapes tend to be riper than before. These riper grapes need less sweetness added at the final winemaking stage.
Choosing a zero dosage Champagne
To me, zero dosage Champagnes are a matter of taste over any other consideration. Some Champagne houses use the world ‘pure’ on their labels for good reason. To make this style well requires very high quality grapes and skilled winemaking. The larger houses may choose to leave these wines on lees for longer to add complexity, fullness and mouth feel.
There is no winemaking artifice in these wines in which to cover up a poorly made wine or poor quality grapes. This also means that the wines are more reflective of the grape variety, where they were grown and the vintage. Something that appeals to many people seeking individual wines with authenticity.
This authenticity is very much key to the many ‘Grower’ Champagne producers. Especially for organic and biodynamic Grower Champagnes. These are quite literally those who traditionally used to sell all their grapes to the large houses and are now producing some of their own wines.
This means that if you cannot find a zero dosage wine on offer from the large Champagne houses, you might have more success from a grower Champagne such as JL Vernon. (click here to read a review of JL Vernon Murmure) Larger houses that have a zero dosage wine in their range include: Ayala, Louis Roederer by Philippe Starck duo, Philipponnat non dose, Laurent Perrier and Drappier.
Of course, there is a lifestyle choice that can be made here too.
I have heard these Champagnes called ‘skinny’ Champagnes. This is very misleading. There are calories in these zero dosage wines simply because there is alcohol. The Zero in these labels do not quite mean the same as Coke Zero which you might label as a ‘skinny’ soft drink option.
In fact, in a typical 125ml glass of zero dosage bubbly will contain around 60 – 70 calories depending on the alcohol content and the natural levels of sugar remaining in the wine. However, if you look at it compared to a glass of brut bubbly it does have 30 – 40 odd less calories. So that is good news, I guess.
How do these wines taste?
When you are tasting zero dosage sparkling wines, you may hardly notice the lack of that balancing dollop of sugar. Particularly if the grapes making the base wine were ripe at the time of harvest. These wines may have a noticeably lighter texture in the mouth. You may notice there is more acid and the wine may have a lighter body.
The ripeness of the grapes is the key to a high quality zero dosage Champagne. If the grapes are fully ripe, there is enough fruit weight and naturally sweet flavours to leave the wine to cope with the effect of those bubbles. It is important to remember here that sweet fruity characters are the result of ripe grapes and not the result of sugar.
Some Champagne houses, Ayala comes to mind, make a ‘brut nature’ version of their Brut non-vintage wines. These ‘pairs’ are an excellent way to see the difference if you are lucky enough to taste them side by side.
Other winemaking techniques such as maturing the base wine or the reserve wine in oak barrels can also add extra complexity to the wines. This reduces the degree to which the wine requires its ‘balance’ to be adjusted.
A note on organic & biodynamic producers
It is a popular style with the organic and biodynamic Champagne producers such as Champagne Larmandier-Bernier . Champagne house Louis Roederer has used a top down approach and their Cristal and Roederer by Philippe Starck range are biodynamic with more vineyards coming on line in the future.
These growers put great effort into making sure their vines are in the best condition which often results in these grapes achieving ripeness, even in more stressful vintages. By leaving the wines without the addition of sugar also fits in with the philosophy of ‘no additions’ to their wines. Others such as Colette Bonnet and Pascal Doquet have very low dosage levels, often below 4 grams per litre.
Click here to read more about organic and biodynamic Champagne and the people who produce them.
Just how sweet are they?
The terms for the levels of sweetness are not well understood. For example, more Brut Champagne is sold than any other level of dosage. If you look up ‘Brut’ in the French phrase book, it translates as gross or raw. Appetising as that translation is, it does not tell you much about the wine inside. Even if you translate brut to mean dry, it is not dry in the purest sense. In the wine world, the term ‘dry’ is loose. Dry wines can still have some residual sugar.
Confusingly, there is also a level of sweetness known as ‘extra dry’ which actually has more sugar added than brut.
Most Champagne is sold at brut level or less, meaning the majority of Champagne is sold with less than 12 grams of sugar per litre. ‘Extra Brut’ is for levels 0-6 grams of sugar per litre and zero dosage has no added sugar.
Outside of Champagne
Of course, sparkling wine is produced all around the world and often is produced using the same methods of Champagne. Indeed, Champagne houses invest in buying vineyards and releasing wines in countries such as Australia, USA, Argentina, South Africa and even China and India.
It is not surprising to see similar levels of sweetness used in these sparkling wines. You will find some great examples of zero dosage wines from some of these countries as well. However, they may be cellar door ‘specials’ like the Australian Chandon version has become.
Cava, the sparkling wine of Spain, is also a traditionally made sparkling wine and you will also find zero dosage Cava. There has also been an increase in zero dosage Prosecco from Italy.
Visit Champagne.fr for more information.