Friday, January 18, 2008

Non-Dosage Champagne

If you're anything like me then you've been thinking recently about non-dosage Champagne. I mean, who wouldn't be - it's such an interesting issue. Non-dosage Champagne has no sweetener added to the wine used to top up the bottle after disgorgement. Stop right there - I've heard words like "disgorge" many times without knowing exactly what they mean. Maybe before I tell you why I think non-dosage Champs is so interesting, a brief bit about the methode Champenoise is in order.

Still wine is made from one of or some combination of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and possibly but very rarely Pinot Blanc and the obscure Arbane and Petit Meslier. A producer can blend wines from older vintages with the new wines before bottling, if they like. The blended still wine, or the assemblage, is bottled with yeast and sugar and a second fermentation occurs inside the bottle. The carbon dioxide produced as a byproduct of fermentation is trapped by the thick glass bottle and is absorbed into the wine. The dead yeast cells, or lees, are not absorbed - they are still there in the bottle and must be removed. How to gather and remove them without losing the wine?

Through the art of Remuage, the French term for the process of gradual (daily) adjusting the bottle, moving it over time from an upright to an upside down position so that the lees settle in the neck of the bottle. This must happen for every bottle of Champagne, and there are houses that produce 50,000 bottles in a year. Most big producers use machines to do this nowadays, but there are still some who keep staff to do nothing but Remuage, as it once was in every Champagne house.

Anyway, now the lees are ready to come out of the bottle. This process, called disgorgement, can be done by hand simply by opening the bottle and allowing the pressure to force out the yeast plug. Most big producers use machines that submerge the neck of the bottle in freezing salt water so that the yeast plug freezes. Whether this is done by hand or by machine, some wine also escapes with the yeast plug. There is a short video that shows this process on the official website for Champagne wines. Check out the narrator's tone - it's as if he is revealing to you directions to Atlantis or the secrets surrounding JFK's assassination - it is that weighty of a subject he's discussing. Oiy, the nonsense that is the marketing of Champagne, but that's another story...

The bottle must be topped off before corking and cellaring. A mixture of wine and a sweetener, usually sugar but it can be concentrated grape must, is added to each bottle. The cork goes in and the bottle rests in the cellar for at least 15 months (3 years for vintage Champagne) and depending on the producer and the type of wine, for much longer.

Some producers do not add the sweetener to the dosage. No sugar? What's the big deal? It is a really big deal, as it turns out. Big houses add lots of sugar as part of their effort to make wine that tastes the same year after year, and people like sweet, so the more the merrier. Some folks say, though, that adding sugar masks the true flavors of the wine. Even a moderate amount of sugar in dosage can make a big difference in the flavor profile of the finished wine.

I am not interested in this issue as a debating point about what is the "real" Champagne, or anything like that. I'm interested in learning about my own tastes: what does non-dosage Champagne taste like?

So I've tasted a few non-dosage bubblies recently and I've tried in general to pay attention to the level of dosage in Champagne. It's easy to pick out non-dosage Champagne because it is usually named Brut Zero or Brut Natural, and the words "Non-dosage" might appear on the label somewhere. That doesn't mean that it's easy to find, though. It is not all that popular, although there is definitely a niche for it. And some producers use very little sugar in the dosage, so tasting those wines gives a pretty good idea of the character of non-dosage Champagne.

Some producers include information on the back of the bottle including the disgorgement date and the dosage level, something I wish they would all do. Look at the label from the back of the NV Tarlant Brut Zero - if only all Champagne bottles provided this much information!

Here are a couple of non-dosage bubblies I've tasted, along with some notes:

NV Tarlant Brut Zero, $41 at Chambers Street Wines.
Grower Champagne. Bright, fresh, and clean - such a pure feeling. The red fruits are sweet and delicious, but the wine is slender and elegant in the mouth. Nice biscuits to go with the fruit. Just delicious wine, and incredibly clean and well delineated flavors. I must say, I wouldn't have guessed this is non-dosage Champs because there was plenty of sweetness. Probably because the fruit is mostly 2003, a hot year that produced super-ripe grapes. Tarlant has a great website too - check it out.

1999 Pierre Gimonnet Oenophile Maxi Brut, at a tasting. Grower Champagne. This was quite obviously non-dosage wine. Very saline, like beach air, and full of chalky minerals. There is some fruit in there, but this wine is more about the interaction of minerals and nuts. Not my favorite as an aperitif, but what about with shellfish, or dare I say...caviar? An intense and wonderful Champagne experience.

2000 Chateau Tour Grise Saumur Brut Non Dose, $16 at Slope Cellars.
There are sparklers made outside of Champagne, I hesitatingly admit, and some of them are made without sugar in the dosage. This one comes from biodynamically farmed vineyards in the Loire Valley. And it's got some age on it too. Not much mousse left in this one, with weakish bubbles. And the wine is deep gold with plenty of orange hints. It is quite funky at first, but after 10 minutes the nose was all about clementine oranges and honey cake, and the palate echoed this exactly with some minerals too on the finish. An interesting mature wine with no real sweetness to it at all. I think this would be great with a charcuterie plate or with cheese.

Here are some other esteemed Champagne producers making non-dosage or low dosage wines:

Larmandier-Bernier Terre de Vertus - I hear this is top of the tops. Their other wines are low dosage, this is non-dosage. Pierre Moncuit, Drappier, and Boulard are next to taste on my list. What about you - any non-dosage wines to recommend or opinions / stories to relate?


David McDuff said...

A worthy project, Neil. Thanks for the notes. I've never gone out of my way to seek out non-dosage Champagnes. I have recently enjoyed the Extra Brut (another synonym) Reserve NV from Bereche et Fils.

One nit to pick with your synopsis of the Champagne method. The bulk of aging/cellaring for Champagne occurs "sur latte" (bottles laying horizontally) prior to remuage and then again after remuage but prior to disgorgement, a period during which the bottles are stored "a point" (in a completely inverted position). Autolysis, the enzymatic breakdown of yeast cells, occurs during these periods (particularly the latter) giving Champs much of their unique character.

The usually shorter cellaring period following disgorgement is meant to allow time for the liqueur d'expedition and any dosage to integrate with the wine.

Joe said...

Always a learning experience, thanks Neil. I buy champs so rarely I never read the label - 2/3 of the time it is a gift, further reinforcing my stupidity. A project after I "master" German Riesling...

Anonymous said...

What about Non-Dosage Franciacorta?

Oh, we had this "Larmandier-Bernier Terre de Vertus" three weeks ago, our first bottle from this biodynamic producer. Quite good!

Brooklynguy said...

thanks for adding that David. chemistry is so weird - why would the breakdown happen only if the bottle is inverted...appreciate these clarification, thanks again.

that's nice to say joe. so i guess you mean that you'll get to champs in like 12 years?

that's the one i want to taste next Jack. i hear its like drinking the ocean, but in a good way. what did you find?

Joe said...

Hi Neil - I meant "master" in quotations...12 years would be far too long...:)

Anonymous said...

Laurent-Perrier makes a non-dosage Champagne called Ultra Brut. Believe it or not, it actually doesn't taste quite as dry as their regular Brut. The difference is the acidity. Because the Ultra Brut starts off with lower acidity, it doesn't need the addition of sugar to balance it out.

Brooklynguy said...

hi paul - i've seen that wine, but not tasted it. i have not had a good experience with this brand (or any of the LVMH wines). thanks for pointing this out though. you like this wine, are you recommending it? i'm always open to tasting something.

Joe said...

Sorry to disappoint you Neil, but I do like the Laurent-Perrier NV on occasion...

Anonymous said...

How interesting to seek out non (or lower) dosage champagnes.
Just wanted to add that a non dosage champagne must be naturally richer (so that it does not need extra sugar to balance the acidity).
That can come from harvesting riper grapes, non-filtration and keeping the wine 'sur latte', as David explained, for longer periods of time.
A grower like Egly Ouriet is moving towards longer time on lees and no filtration that allows him to have very low dosage.