Once upon a time, when Champagne was a marginal climate for ripening grapes, growers and winemakers developed a tradition of adding a touch of sugar to balance the acidity in their wine. They called it dosage, which was usually in the form of sweet grape must, or liqueur d’expédition, a solution of cane or beet sugar and wine. But it isn’t there just to sweeten the wine. When considering the role of dosage in Champagne, Peter Liem of ChampagneGuide.net compares its function to salt in food. “We don’t necessarily add salt to a dish to make it salty, but to enhance our perception of other flavors,” he wrote in A Seasoning for Champagne (W&S, 12/17). “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.” I’ve been challenged by non-dosed Champagne in the past, so when I read Liem’s note that “there are Champagnes that feel complete and expressive without any dosage at all, yet in this era of climate change they are rarer than commonly presumed,” I was compelled to seek out the rarities. Here are five that performed particularly well in our Champagne panels, the ratings and tasting notes from Joshua Greene.
Mostly pinot noir (90 percent) and mostly from Bouzy (80 percent), with a contribution from Ambonnay, this is a brisk and briny Champagne. You might think of a lobster-shell broth when you smell it, or Granny Smith apples when you taste it. That fruitiness makes it feel richer than most Brut Natures, and the mineral abrasion cuts back on any excess richness, so the wine races forward, ready for a plateau de fruits de mer, or, if you’re headed to a Japanese restaurant, hamachi kama. (90 points, $70; V.O.S. Selections, NY)
Georges and Nicole Laval gained organic certification for their vineyards in Cumières in 1971; their son, Vincent, came on board in the 1990s and makes the wines today, including this cuvée based on the 2014 vintage. It’s a blend of chardonnay (50 percent), pinot noir (30 percent) and meunier, fermented in oak barrels. At first, it feels aggressively naked, with apple and sandalwood notes and nonstop minerality. There’s a cidery side to the flavors that had one taster suggest the wine was “courting hipsters,” but that melds into the mineral tones that emerge with air. It turns fresh and salty, a wine to decant for the Montauk fluke, pickled fennel, trout roe and Thai basil at Four Horsemen in Brooklyn. (92 points, $90; Transatlantic Bubbles, Woodbridge, CT)
Working in the Côte des Bar, Bertrand Gautherot has farmed his Demeter-certified vineyards biodynamically since 1998. Fermented spontaneously in oak barrels, presented without dosage, Blanc d’Argile is a bare, naked chardonnay that bristles with energy, then quiets to the warmth of the cool autumn sun. Crunchy apple and complex herbal notes add to the wine’s stony, mineral power. It’s lovely Champagne, elegant and compellingly drinkable. (94 points, $108; Avant-Garde Wine & Spirits, NY)
Combine barrel fermentation with no dosage and the initial impression of this wine is stark, as if sucking all the air out of the room, even as it coats your mouth with flavor. Once you acclimate to the wine’s intensity, you might find the detail in those flavors, the underlying sweet ripeness of the fruit, a gracious, pinot noir–driven sweetness that feels brisk and classically vinous, with a mineral elegance that brings you back for more. (92 points, $90; Charles Neal Selections, San Francisco/AP Wine Imports, NY)
Musky and muscular, this wine starts out with unforgiving acidity, yielding to the fruit as the structure mellows with air. It’s a Champagne to decant or, if you’re opposed to losing bubbles, to stopper and revisit as it develops over the course of hours and days. The wine’s austerity fills out in notes of almond and honeysuckle, salt and citrus. This is a collaboration between Roederer and French designer Philippe Starck, a blend of pinot noir, meunier and chardonnay grown in the clay soils of Cumières, harvested and fermented together. It’s a wine that requires a sunny vintage, as it’s produced without malolactic and without dosage. (95 points, $89; Maisons Marques & Domaines USA, Oakland, CA)