Why zero-dosage, super-dry Champagnes are popping everywhere
Picking up the wine list at New York City’s Frenchette, a contemporary bistro in the trendy Tribeca neighborhood, guests will notice something unique about the sparkling wines: They all feature no dosage and are often labeled “brut nature.”
“It is something Champagne was missing for a long time and has begun a serious shift within the community,” explains Frenchette’s wine director Jorge Riera. “The more hands-on approach of the newer generation has tended to go the more natural—and drier—route [with] the wines.”
Zero-dosage Champagne, also called brut nature, is Champagne without sugar added in the dosage during the winemaking process. Most wine drinkers, though, have no idea what these terms really mean.
The process of making Champagne in the traditional method, as they have in France for hundreds of years, is complicated. But the gist is that Champagne undergoes two different fermentation cycles. The first turns grapes into still wine, like a winemaker would for a red or white from anywhere in the world. Then, there’s a second fermentation. This is what sets Champagne apart and gives the wine its bubbles. To kick off the second fermentation, though, winemakers would add a mixture of wine and sugar to the bottle before capping it. The yeast in the bottle of wine would eat at the sugar, kicking off fermentation, trapping CO2, and giving the bubbles, bubbles. If the yeast didn’t finish the sugar, those particles would be designated residual sugar left in the bottle and passed along to the sipper.
Not only was the sugar to help the fermentation, but it also served another important purpose: Sugar covered up imperfections in the wine. When Champagne first gained popularity as a style in the 1800s, it was a sweet wine that today would be termed demi-sec, with 32 to 50 grams per liter of sugar, or more. Over time, winemakers gradually decreased the amount of sugar as they learned more about farming techniques and winemaking processes. There is a detailed history, but long story short, by the latter half of the mid-1900s, Champagnes were largely a brut style, meaning they use up to 12 grams per liter of sugar. By comparison, brut nature is zero to three grams per liter of sugar, and zero-dosage Champagne add none.
“Why the dosage? This gesture was used very early on in Champagne to reduce the acidity of wines from grape harvest with little maturity,” says Anselme Selosse, the winemaker behind Champagne Selosse. (Responses have been translated from French to English.) “Adding a pinch of sugar can be compared to a cook adding a pinch of salt or a zest of citrus—the presence should not be felt, but it makes the dish shine and enhances the taste. The possibility of not dosing comes from the grape harvest at the right maturity.”
Selosse has gained a very loyal following for his wines, which all feature zero or low dosage, a style he started perfecting with the house’s 1975 vintage. He explains that he and his team conduct dosage tests for every harvest, up to 2.5 grams per liter. “We started listening to the wine and knowing what it needed,” Selosse says. “It’s very revealing.” He can even list off vintages—including 1996, 2004, and 2008—which he believes should not have sugar. (“In this case, the sugar does not integrate with the personality,” he adds.)
Though Selosse tests every year, he admits he finds that zero is, more often than not, the “most respectful dosage.”
Similarly, Champagne Marie Courtin’s Dominique Moreau is all about no dosage in her wines. She believes in low intervention in winemaking, including farming her vineyards biodynamically for the past 15 years. She says that picking grapes with good maturity is the key, and by skipping added sugar, the real expression of the wine and terroir will show.
Selosse and Moreau are among a set of younger winemakers who have really embraced the style, leading it to hit wine store shelves in the past 10 to 15 years. While brut Champagne still makes up 96% of all Champagne sold in the U.S., the brut nature style has increased by 51% in 2018, year over year, according to the trade group Comité Interprofessionnel du vin de Champagne.
It’s not a style limited to smaller producers. Larger houses, like Champagne Laurent-Perrier and Champagne Pommery, make zero-dosage versions of their typically brut tentpole cuvèes. In late 2019, Champagne Laurent-Perrier launched its Blanc de Blancs Brut Nature, after 15 years of aging and experimentation. “We have long wanted to combine these two areas of expertise—zero dosage and blanc de blancs—but we just didn’t have enough of the right grapes to make it happen,” says Michelle DeFeo, president of Champagne Laurent-Perrier U.S. She notes the brand’s long history with low-dosage wines, including producing a zero-dosage Champagne in the 19th century and its ultra brut style that launched in 1981.
Pommery produced a zero-dosage version of its 2004 Cuvèe Louise, its higher-end Grand Cru cuvèe, when winemaker Clément Pierlot saw that the warmer year gave riper fruit. Owner Nathalie Vranken explains that it was fitting for the brand in that Madame Pommery had actually created the first brut Champagne in 1874, and the idea of freshness is at the heart of all the house’s wines. “The vintage can truly take center stage; it has nothing to hide,” Vranken says. “With zero dosage, wine connoisseurs can discover the best wine.”
Vranken notes a benefit to zero dosage that other winemakers and sommeliers also echo: its ability to pair with food. As an aperitif with small bites or as an accompaniment to an entire meal, it highlights the aromas and taste of the meal. It allows Champagne to be something enjoyed every day as part of a regular dinner, not just for special occasions or New Year’s Eve. That has the culinary industry—and foodies—jumping on the bandwagon.
Like anything, just because winemakers produce it doesn’t mean the public wants to drink it—but in the case of Champagne, it appears they do. “The wine drinking public is coming around to drinking more wines that are drier,” explains Dustin Wilson, cofounder of Verve Wine, a wine shop with locations in New York City and San Francisco, who also notes that he sees the shift to drier styles in categories beyond Champagne too. “Champagnes with more sugar carry more mass appeal, but for those who are more interested in what they are drinking and to better understand the complexities of Champagne, they are drawn to producers that are making wines in a lower dosage or no-dosage style.”
It’s still a small subset of the wine drinking population, though, that are asking for the style at a bar or restaurant. Justin Chearno, partner and wine director at the Four Horsemen in Brooklyn, admits that it’s rare for a guest not in the wine business to ask for a zero-dosage Champagne outright. The reason he is selling more zero-dosage Champagne is because he stocks more of it on the list. But he is able to introduce the wines to unassuming guests thanks to its gastronomical attributes. “It opens up the ability to pair the wine with a much wider variety of food and to think of Champagne as the grapes it contains rather than the process that made it,” Chearno says.
Champagne aficionados can likely see more of it in coming years, not only for its culinary accolades but also because it’s getting easier to make. “They’ve become easier to produce due to warmer growing seasons, which are unfortunately related to climate change,” DeFeo says. The consistently warmer weather in the Champagne region has led to riper grapes and lower acidity, meaning the addition of sugar is not as necessary to create a delectable wine. “With global warming, the producers of great no-dosage Champagne are kind of ahead of the game,” Chearno says. “As grapes get riper earlier, the need for sugar in the wine is sure to decline.”
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