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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.