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Wine tastingI was at a champagne tasting the other day. In fact it was me who had organised it on behalf of one of my clients – a champagne producer who wanted to get an independent evaluation of his champagnes.

Seeing that they were tasting champagnes the discussion soon came around to the issues of dosage, the amount of sugar added after disgorging to adjust the sweetness of the finished wine. Some of the comments got me thinking that there may be a complete divergence between on the one hand, what sommeliers are interested in and are happy to promote and, on the other hand, what the consumer actually wants.

Whether you’re a sommelier or a person who sells or makes wine I’d love to have your views.

Read the rest of the article and see what you think.

To get a balanced and broad view I had invited three expert tasters from different sections of the wine trade: a consultant winemaker, a retailer and last but not least the director of a trade organisation.

Many of the champagnes being tasted were dosed at 8 or 9 g/l; in other words they fell fairly and squarely into the category of brut champagnes that represents (I would estimate) 80% of more of the market.

Whilst one of the tasters commented that this was quite a low dosage, another taster said that in his experience if you asked a sommelier these days to taste a champagne that was dosé at anything more than 6g/l he or she wouldn’t give you the time of day and that’s because all the ‘buzz’ these days is about low dosage, or zero dosage champagnes.

The expert went on to tell an amusing but very revealing little story. At a recent trade tasting he had presented a champagne to a sommelier. The sommelier did what you would normally expect: he sniffed, swirled, examined, tasted and eventually spat out and pronounced that this was a lovely champagne: lots of terroir character, smooth on the palate, with a long finish and above all well-balanced. Certainly something he would be interested in buying.

As an afterthought the sommelier asked for the technical sheet. “Ah”, he said, perusing the information, “7g/l dosage. I thought there was a bit too much sugar in it.”

For the sake of 1 g/l of sugar (the difference between brut and extra brut) which all but the most sensitive of tasters would find it hard, if not impossible to discern, the sommelier’s opinion of the wine changed from superb to not very interesting.

Why should this be when there is no logical reason for it at all?

The level of dosage is irrelevant

Manceaux Brut Nature cropThe actual dosage in champagne is almost irrelevant; it’s just a number. What’s really important is that the dosage should be perfectly chosen for each blend to give a balanced wine that delivers a great drinking experience to the consumer and there is no rule that says the dosage should be above or below a given threshold. You can find superb examples of champagnes in all of the different categories of sweetness.

However it’s undeniable that there is a tendency towards lower and lower dosages especially amongst the better known artisan champagne makers, or grower champagnes, who have become more and more popular over the past few years, but who’s driving this trend? Is it the wine makers, the consumers, or the sommeliers?

Extra brut champagnes with a dosage of less than 6 g/l, or even Brut Nature champagnes (sometimes called Brut Zéro) with no added sugar at all, are seen by many as being more natural, and more pure and as delivering a more authentic taste of the fruit and of the terroir. There seems to be an unwritten concensus that it requires more skill to produce a wine with a low dosage because the wine must be faultless since no sugar is added to mask any possible defects.

But is this a true reflection of the state of wine making these days? I suggest that it is not.

Whilst poorly made champagnes still exist, as do poor wines in any wine region, the days when wine makers poured in sugar to make a bad wine drinkable are, in the main, long gone. The advances in technology, in the expertise available and in the care and attention given to the viticulture and vinification by the majority of wine makers, means that the bar has been raised far beyond what it was a couple of decades or so ago. There is far less need to resort to expedients such as adding lots of sugar to hide poor wine making.

Fashion or fad?

Ploughing300So where is the focus on low dosage coming from? Could it be that in the wine trade as in many others, things move at an ever faster pace because of the way we all live our lives these days? We have (or so at least the media and the marketers would have us believe) a need for news with ever increasing frequency. A wine that was perfectly sound and enjoyable yesterday, is old hat today because it doesn’t tick any of the trendy boxes: organic, bio-dynamic, micro production, vineyards ploughed by horse, low dosage and so on and so on… I wonder to if these trends will last. Are they just passing fads, or will they stand the test of time?

I sympathise with wine journalists and sommeliers: to make their journal or restaurant stand out it is almost required that they produce an unrelenting stream of new ideas and new wines and I wonder if it isn’t this that is at the source of the increasing interest in low dosage champagne, and perhaps some of the other innovations too.

For the sake of transparency I should say that I love low dosage champagnes, but then again I’ve lived in Champagne since 1996 and have tasted lots of great champagnes and a few poor ones as well so I cannot claim to be anything approaching an average consumer when it comes to champagne.

By the same token a professional sommelier certainly has a palate that is more experienced and probably more refined than the majority of wine drinkers, so isn’t it difficult for a professional sommelier to put him or herself in the shoes of the typical consumer and know what they are looking for? Interest in low dosage champagne may be growing, but this style of champagne is still just a minuscule part of the total champagne market, so should it be attracting the amount of attention that is given to it by the trade?

That leads us on to another question about the role of the sommeliers and wine journalists, should they lead and direct consumer tastes or should they simply respond to what the consumer wants?

It’s an open question and I’d love to read your point of view…