Feature Story

A Seasoning for Champagne

On the long white table in front of me were six glasses, all containing Jacques Selosse single-vineyard Champagne from La Côte Faron, in the village of Aÿ. I was tasting these with the estate’s charismatic proprietor, Anselme Selosse, and apart from the thrill of experiencing this rare wine, this tasting had a twist: The wine in each of these glasses was identical except that each contained, in ascending order, different quantities of dosage.

Champagne samples with different dosage levels. Champagne samples with different dosage levels.
Champagne is unusual among wines in that a small quantity of sugar (or, in the case of producers such as Selosse, concentrated grape must) is normally added to it just prior to release. Known as the dosage, this is one of the most misunderstood features of Champagne, and its primary purpose is commonly considered to be adjusting the sweetness of the wine to align with the winemaker’s personal preference or the preferences of his or her clients. In fact, dosage is much more complex than this, playing a critical role in a Champagne’s harmony and expression.

At this tasting, the first of the glasses contained no dosage at all, and despite its richness on the palate, it felt straitjacketed and austere, its flavors short, mute on the finish. It was astounding how much the wine changed with just a minute amount of dosage: The second glass contained the equivalent of 0.67 grams of sugar per liter, and while this might sound like an insignificant quantity, it perceptibly expanded the wine’s flavors, increasing their length and complexity and smoothing the wine’s edges. “Côte Faron always feels a little burnt, a little dried on the palate,” noted Selosse, “and my task in dosing the wine is to balance this sécheresse, this drying effect.”

In the third glass, which doubled the level of sugar to 1.33 grams per liter, the wine became noticeably richer in texture, yet the striking thing about the wine’s balance here was not only the intensity and complexity of fruit flavor, but the increased complexity and expression of minerality as well. That vivid clarity and energy was lost in the final three glasses, where the sugar seemed to fight the other elements in the wine.

In the larger context of Champagne, these levels of dosage were exceptionally low, as Brut Champagne can contain up to 12 grams of sugar per liter, including the dosage and whatever leftover sugar remains after fermentation, which is normally less than a gram or two. Yet this tasting demonstrated how even small adjustments in dosage can have surprisingly pronounced effects.

“The challenge of dosage is to express the character of the site while civilizing and refining the wine.” —Anselme Selosse
Historically, dosage has been necessary to balance Champagne’s naturally high acidity—the town of Épernay, in the heart of Champagne, lies farther north than Seattle, New York, Paris, Munich, Beijing and all of Japan, and even fully ripe grapes in Champagne are notoriously low in sugar and high in acidity compared to those in most other wine regions of the world. It’s true that dosage levels have been decreasing slightly in the modern day: Twenty years ago, it was not uncommon to find Champagnes dosed at 10 to 12 grams per liter, whereas today a typical dosage among high-quality Champagnes is more like 6 to 9 grams, and it’s growing more common to see Champagnes such as La Côte Faron that have even less. This decrease is partly because a warming climate has resulted in riper fruit, changing the point of balance in the wines, and partly due to modern tastes, which have become increasingly tolerant of a more pronounced acidity.

Yet properly used, dosage is not about adjusting sweetness, or even merely about balancing acidity. Rather, the importance of dosage in Champagne lies in its intricate interaction with other elements of the wine. “Dosage isn’t a matter of adding sweetness but instead of encouraging synergy and complexity,” says wine importer Terry Theise. “Dosage is both a flavor enhancer and a catalyst for harmony and for a vivid and beautiful dialogue among flavors.”

In this way, dosage functions much like salt: We don’t necessarily add salt to a dish to make it salty, but to enhance our perception of other flavors. It’s plainly evident when a dish has too much or too little salt, yet when a dish is properly salted, we don’t even notice the presence of the salt itself: Rather, the dish gains completeness, harmony and complexity due to salt’s ability to interact with and enhance other flavors. Dosage performs the same role in a Champagne, and the common mistake that is made by both winemakers and consumers is thinking about dosage solely in terms of sweetness: In reality, dosage is, as Theise puts it, “an imperfectly understood mechanism whereby sweetness interacts with other flavor elements in a Hadron-Collider dynamism there seems to be no other way to bring about.”

Laurent and Jean-Hervé Chiquet Laurent and Jean-Hervé Chiquet
The best producers conduct tastings like Selosse’s, disgorging each of their Champagnes at different levels of dosage and tasting the results to determine the correct amount for the final release. At an incorrect level of dosage, the sugar stands apart from the other elements and doesn’t integrate into the whole, yet when an ideal level is achieved, the sugar disappears into the fabric of the wine. It’s often assumed that the richer and riper a Champagne is, the less dosage it needs, yet a larger dosage can result in a greater clarity and transparency of flavor, as if focusing a camera lens, and it can make a wine appear more graceful and lighter on its feet.

There are Champagnes that feel complete and expressive without any dosage at all, yet even in this era of climate change they are rarer than commonly presumed. At the house of Jacquesson, I have tasted dosage trials over multiple vintages with proprietors Laurent and Jean-Hervé Chiquet, particularly of their single-vineyard Champagnes. Vauzelle Terme, a pinot noir Champagne from a renowned terroir in Aÿ, often acquires greater complexity and length with one or two grams of dosage. Yet the chardonnay from the Dizy vineyard of Corne Bautray consistently shows best without dosage, and adding sugar to it often decreases its length and expression, causing it to feel disjointed and unharmonious.

Selosse’s home village of Avize Selosse’s home village of Avize
It’s tempting to think that the Corne Bautray is somehow superior to the Vauzelle Terme since it doesn’t need dosage, yet this is as nonsensical as saying that a particular dish is superior to another because it doesn’t need any salt. A growing danger today is the expanding and erroneous perception that dosage exists simply as an additive, and that in the ideological interests of “non-manipulation” or of what is “natural,” it should automatically be reduced or even eliminated. This has led not only to a kneejerk reduction of dosage that has caused some wines to suffer, but also to the release of zero- and low-dosage Champagnes that are clearly unsuited to being so. In turn, this has created a belief in consumers that these wines are acceptable or even preferable. Today, more than ever, the challenge for Champagne producers is to recognize the role that dosage plays in their wines and to taste their wines with open mindedness and precision. The issue is not more or less dosage, but finding the dosage that’s correct for a particular wine, no matter whether it’s 2 grams per liter, 10 grams, or none at all.

This isn’t to say, though, that there isn’t room for disagreement between tasters. With Selosse, we tasted all six of his lieux-dits, or single-vineyard champagnes, at different dosage levels, and when tasting the Cramant vineyard of Chemin de Châlons, the results weren’t quite as clear cut as the others. Chemin de Châlons is a warm south-facing parcel, creating wines of pronounced body and ripe flavors, and Selosse’s vines here are up to 70 years old, contributing further to the wine’s concentration and intensity. For Selosse, finding the correct dosage is not only a means of harmoniously bringing out elements of the wine, but also of fully representing the identity of the terroir.

Dosage functions much like salt: We don’t necessarily add salt to a dish to make it salty, but to enhance our perception of other flavors.
“The challenge of dosage is to express the character of the site while civilizing and refining the wine,” he says. The Chemin de Châlons was interesting at higher levels of dosage, where the fruit felt opulent and assertive; even without dosage, the fruit felt warm and ripe, although the wine lacked length and composure. Like La Côte Faron, though, it was at 0.67 and 1.33 grams per liter that the wine felt most expressive, and Selosse preferred the latter, which was complex and authoritative, with an intensely saline minerality. I argued in favor of the former, which I found to be more clearly focused, with a lean, nervy demeanor and a subtle detail in both fruit and mineral components.

Selosse just shrugged. “Maybe it’s more coherent, more harmonious,” he said, after a while. “But maybe it’s less Chemin de Châlons.”

This story was featured in W&S December 2017.