In the early days of sparkling Champagne, the wines were praised for their lusciously sweet style that could well exceed 200 grams of sugar per litre. Yesterday’s hero is today’s villain; in the modern era, the thirst for more ‘natural’ wines has meant cutting down on the sweetening dosages. Aided by climate change and changing consumer tastes, the dosages for brut Champagnes have gradually been lowered and some brands (such as Drappier and Bollinger) have bruts that border on extra brut today. Bone-dry styles of Champagne are also gaining foothold in the Champagne houses’ portfolios, even if the trend is largely driven by grower Champagnes.
Sugar can be used to highlight desired features or to gently cover some flaws
What is the deal with sugar in Champagne? The matter is much more complicated than it first seems, as sugar comes with multiple effects. Bear in mind that a brut Champagne is not supposed to be obviously sweet but harmonious. Sugar helps to enhance the body, mid-palate weight and length of flavour. Equally, it may aid the balance between alcohol, acid and phenolics. In the past, the main function of sugar was to balance the acidity but in today’s riper conditions, softening the pronounced phenolics has become increasingly important. Sugar also plays a role in post-disgorgement ageing, as well as in combatting oxidation as the wine ages. Thus, sugarless Champagnes might come with disadvantages, even if they can be applauded for their philosophy of maximum transparency.
I fully agree with the much-used analogy of sugar acting on Champagne like makeup on people. It can be used to highlight desired features or to gently cover some flaws. But as with both makeup and sugar, less is more. Thus, the game of dosage is one of precision. Too many producers have jumped on the bandwagon of dry Champagne just by lowering (or altogether skipping) dosage on existing cuvées. Frequently, such wines end up feeling short and hard – and too often prematurely oxidized (especially if SO2 levels are minimal). Yet, there are today increasingly beautiful examples of brut natures that shine, leaving no craving for additional sugar.
There is no-one in Champagne with more experience in brut nature than Laurent-Perrier. In 1889, the house created the region’s very first dosage-free Champagne, Grand Vin Sans Sucre. Some 100 years later – again ahead of their time – Laurent-Perrier brought their Ultra Brut cuvée to market, long before the official foundation of the brut nature category. And in 2018, the Blanc de Blancs Brut Nature was added to the range. Chef de cave Michel Fauconnet knew exactly what he wanted from the Chardonnay house’s long-awaited blanc de blancs. Here, the more exotic and broader Montagne de Reims Chardonnay balances the mineral style of the classic Côte des Blancs fruit. Top vintages with some warmer years’ wines bring a more supple feel to the blanc de blancs. Finished with extended lees-ageing in the cellar, I have never missed a gram of sugar in this wine.
At Louis Roederer, it was the celebrated designer Philippe Starck who threw in the brut nature challenge to chef de cave Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon. Given Roederer’s brightly fruity and brisk, no-malo style, producing bone-dry Champagne needed careful consideration. To make such a wine happen, terroir conditions were carefully defined. Cuvée Brut Nature is solely crafted on sunny, ‘continental’ vintages from grapes originating in a nine-hectare site in Cumières, where the clay-rich soils add to the favourability of the ripening conditions. To make the equation even more challenging, all grapes are picked as a ‘field blend’ and co-pressed in one day.
The game of dosage is one of precision
‘This wine supports no mistakes, it is bare naked. We have worked a lot especially with the texture of the wine’, says Lécaillon. He calls this Cumières site their ‘climate-change laboratory’, where they have now also planted Champagne’s ancient varieties. ‘We try to minimise this wine’s entire footprint on nature. Overall, we use too much energy in producing wines’, he states. Energy in cooling and heating is saved and no sugar is added at dosage. Lower pressure (4.5 bar instead of the customary six) adds to the suppleness of the bone-dry, yet broad and textured Champagne. ‘These experiments keep me optimistic about Champagne’s bubbly future in the face of climate change’, Lécaillon concludes.
Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon is not alone in embracing climate change. Ruinart recently added the cuvée Blanc Singulier Brut Nature to its range, whose message in the bottle is Chardonnay facing climate change. Equally trailblazing, Moët & Chandon recently launched the first ever brut nature in the 280 years of the house. Collection Impériale Creation No 1 marks a wholly new, bone-dry era in Champagne’s prestige cuvée universe.