Dosage is the small amount of sugar that is added to most champagnes after disgorgement to improve the wine’s balance (sweetness or roundness).
The process is called dosage because in French this word means the addition of a small measured amount of a substance to something, of sugar to champagne in this case.
Dosage is probably the most discussed, confusing, misunderstood, and controversial aspect of champagne making.
In this article we provide an overview of the historical origins of dosage and its evolution over time, explain all the benefits of adding sugar to champagne, and discuss the latest trends on dosage, together with the comments of the chef de caves of some of the best Champagne houses.
What is Exactly Dosage and Why it is Added to Champagne
Dosage is a small quantity (up to 5-6 cl) of liqueur de dosage, also known as liqueur d’expédition (shipping liquor) added to almost all bottles of champagne after their disgorgement (when a bit of champagne is lost) and before corking.
The few champagnes that do not receive dosage are called brut nature (aka zero dosage) champagnes. We discuss them in detail below.
The dosage liquor consists of a mixture of cane or beet sugar and wine. There is also a new trend among some smaller champagne producers to replace sugar with concentrated and rectified grape juice or MCR (mout concentré rectifié).
Why is sugar added to champagne? Because champagne is very acidic.
Champagne is among the most northern wine regions where the grapes mature and are picked with more acids, lower PH, and fewer sugars than in southern regions.
In addition, the second fermentation–part of the Méthode Champenoise–eats (almost) all the residual sugars and any sweetness left in the wine.
The perceived acidity of champagne lowers during its in-bottle aging on the lees–as for any aging wine–but it remains high due to the presence of the lees and gas that preserve it.
Odilon de Varine, chef de cave of Gosset, sums it all up: “In Champagne, the grapes do not always reach full maturity, and we must give them the balance that the aging on the lees does not completely bring. Dosage adds the last touch of perfection to champagne, so it is a consequence of the wine.”
So the high acidity needs to be tamed a bit, but not too much as the power of seduction of champagne also relies on its distinctive crispness.
The underlying idea of dosage is to reach the perfect balance, thus making champagne more pleasant, with a dash of sugar added after disgorgement.
This step is a key component of champagne making, and its role has become more than just correcting the acidity, as its impact on the taste of champagne is dramatic. This is why dosage is sometimes called supplément d’âme (extra soul).
That’s also because dosage often includes reserve wines that bring a nice coating to the champagne and add extra richness to it.
And some houses put extra care into working these older wines used in the dosage. For example, Drappier uses very old wines up to 25 years of age, which rested first in oak, and then in glass demijohns for further aging to avoid any excessive oak taste.
History and Evolution of Dosage in Champagne
It was probably in the 1830s that dosage became a standard procedure in the making of sparkling champagne.
Dosage was not merely used to balance its high acidity, but to deliberately make it sweet because this was what the consumer wanted.
The incredible high sweetness of champagnes made for the Russians, a major market in the 19th century, is legendary, with a dosage of 300 g/l.
On the other side of the spectrum were the British, who demanded much drier champagne that became known as goût anglais (British taste), with a dosage of about 20 g/l. This was dry champagne at that time but it is considered sweet today.
The British kept on asking for drier and drier champagne with less and less added sugar and and it is in the United Kingdom that the first champagne with very little dosage saw the light of the day.
In 1848, a London wine merchant, Mr. Burne, asked the house Perrier-Jouët to send him their 1846 champagne with little dosage so that he could sell it more easily as a fine table rather than a dessert wine, avoiding direct competition with the sweet Port and Madeira wines.
He received the Cuvée K, the world’s first lightly dosed champagne. According to Perrier-Jouët’s cellar books, this champagne received a dosage in sugar of less than 5% when most champagnes regularly contained up to 40%.
Legend has it that the French referred to the British as brut (brute, unrefined) for their request for drier champagnes. This is how from 1876, brut came to define very dry champagnes.
And around 1881–again under the request of British customers–the house Laurent Perrier created the first champagne with no dosage whatsoever: Grand Vin Sans Sucre.
An English printed ad of that time reads: “A wine of marvellous clean taste, superior to all champagnes containing sugar.”
But until the middle of the 20th century, champagne was still mainly a dessert wine, particularly in France. It eventually became a drier wine for the aperitif, possibly due to the sugar shortage during and after WW2 and fueled by the evolution in the consumers’ preference for drier wines.
What is sure is that the level of dosage has fallen since then and continues to do so, given the current global taste for drier wines and the tendency to consume less sugar. Also, there seems to be less need for dosage with global warming and better grape maturity.
Nowadays, virtually all Champagne houses have reduced the amount of dosage in their Brut champagnes by a tiny bit. If the norm used to be 11-12 g/l in the early 2000s, now it’s 8-9 g/l and sometimes even less.
Dosage Level and Champagne Categories
The amount of sugar added to the champagne bottle, together with the natural residual (unfermented) sugar left in the wine, dramatically impact its sweetness and profile.
This is why champagne is divided into sweetness categories according to its sugar content (dosage + residual sugar) per liter, with their names clearly indicated on the bottle label.
Brut nature / zero dosage = no added sugar and under 3 g/l of residual sugars
Extra Brut = between 0 and 6 g/l of dosage + residual sugars
Brut = less than 12 g/l of dosage + residual sugars
Extra dry / extra sec = between 12 and 17 g/l of dosage + residual sugars
Dry / sec = between 17 and 32 g/l of dosage + residual sugars
Demi-sec = between 32 and 50 g/l of dosage + residual sugars
Doux = more than 50 g/l of dosage + residual sugars
The vast majority of the champagnes sold are brut, and this is what you read on the label of almost all champagnes you come across.
The overlapping of the first three categories means that an extra brut may be sold as brut if the producer doesn’t want to scare the unfamiliar consumer who may think the champagne is too dry and acidic.
Also, keep in mind that there is a tolerance of +/- 3 g/l on the figures of residual sugars and as such, a brut may be an extra brut, and vice versa.
Increasingly, houses disclose the exact amount of added sugar per liter on the label, although this does not account for the residual sugar.
How to Achieve the Right Dosage for the Right Balance in Champagne
For Caroline Latrive, chef de cave of Ayala, a house that pioneered drier champagnes at the end of the 19th century, dosage represents the final touch in champagne making and must be as subtle as possible to bring the right balance.
As for most houses, the main aim of dosage is to create a balance in the champagne between its acidity and sweetness, but without imparting obvious sweetness, with the sugar mingling perfectly with the acidity, alcohol, and fruit, in a way that it does not overpower them.
This requires the right dosage in terms of grams of sugar for each champagne. If a brut champagne tastes obviously sweet, the dosage used was excessive. Conversely, if it is too little, you may feel excessive acidity and an overall feeling of austerity.
And oddly, sometimes, if you can almost feel the texture of sugar on your tongue when drinking champagne, it might not be due to excessive but again insufficient dosage, and adding a little bit more sugar would make it mingle with the rest and “disappear” in the wine.
Sandrine Logette-Jardin, chef de cave of Duval-Leroy, has a very clear idea of what the optimal dosage is for her champagnes: “To obtain a finish with the right acidic tension to make the consumers salivate and ask for more.”
And getting the dosage right requires true know-how. For each cuvée, houses test different dosage levels, usually with increases of 0.5-1 g/l to taste and compare.
Sometimes brut champagne will be balanced at 8 g/l, sometimes at 6 g/l, sometimes at 12 g/l and this can change from one year to another for the same champagne, but the idea is that you should not notice the difference.
This is why the actual dosage figure in g/l can be misguiding and some houses are reluctant to disclose it on the champagne label, although they all do it now, at least on their websites.
Furthermore, what is the “right balance” may not be the same for different palates. In fact, a chef de cave may deem a dosage right for most consumers, but slightly excessive for his/her personal taste and that or other discerning consumers.
Keeping this in mind, Piper-Heidsieck has taken dosage to the next level with “Essentiel By.”
Under this program, special clients of the house can participate in the creation of their own liqueur de dosage–playing with the wines and sugar used–together with Chef de Cave Émilien Boutillat, to get their dedicated Essentiel cuvée with the dosage right for them.
But others think that dosage should not be an issue and just be left to skilled and experienced hands of the chef de caves, as the actual amount of sugar is, once again, misleading on what is the final perceived sweetness in the champagne.
He refers to dosage as “salt in a dish.” How does a dish or a food taste to you without salt, with too little or too much of it? Exactly. And do you ask a chef how many grams of salt he/she added to your dish? No.
However, salt, and sugar, are sometimes used to mask shortcomings in foods and make them more palatable. And it does happen in champagne too, where excessive sugar can be used not only to round up acidity but “help” lesser wines, covering faults and giving extra taste.
This is how extra brut champagnes have been gaining attention and respect.
Extra Brut Champagnes, Are They Better?
Extra brut champagnes, with a reduced dosage of up to 6 g/l, are in vogue nowadays with the current trend of consuming drier wines in general.
Furthermore, sugar is getting out of fashion for health reasons.
But the main reason is probably the fact that excessive sugar can mask some of the nuances in champagne.
Charles Philipponnat, president of the eponymous house, is clear in that “dry wines are more transparent, and the aromas come through more clearly, whereas large amounts of the sugar can hide them, and if you have a well-produced wine with good aromas and no defaults, you have nothing to hide but rather something to show. [That’s why] there is a tendency among connoisseurs to drink drier wines.”
In that vein, almost all houses now include extra brut champagnes in their range, whether they clearly label them so.
And since “unmasking” champagne with less sugar permits a better expression of the subtleties in the wine, it makes very much sense for the prestige cuvées made with the best grapes available and the best care in winemaking to allow discerning consumers to indulge in a chiseled analysis of the wine and throughout tasting.
For Frédéric Panaïotis, chef de cave of Ruinart, a higher dosage goes against the current trend for drier taste, for very sharp wines. And in the old days, a higher dosage was also used to mask some faults in winemaking, as not all the processes were mastered.
“Nowadays, we have all the tools in the vineyard and the cellar to make super clean, beautiful, and precise wines; meaning we do not need as much dosage.” And to avoid higher dosage, all their wines undergo full malolactic fermentation, which makes them softer, riper, and creamier.
This is why extra brut dosage is also increasingly used for “upgraded” versions of popular brut non-vintage cuvées, dedicated to more savvy champagne consumers. Some examples are Black Réserve by Lanson, and Essentiel by Piper-Heidsieck.
Note that lower dosage is not the only difference in these champagnes. The crus used in the blends are chosen with greater precision, the portion of reserve wines is higher, and they are aged longer, so they are in fact new champagnes.
Of crucial importance, these elements are consistently used to make up for the reduction in sugar, to bring extra complexity to champagnes, and round up their acidity. This should give you an idea about how powerful a gram of sugar can be.
And many famous growers now use even lower dosage for some of their champagnes, to better express their originating terroir. Since the assemblage capability of these smaller producers is limited, their champagnes usually express a cru rather than a style. And sugar can also mask that.
At Franck Bonville, a small producer of great blanc de blancs in the Côte des Blancs, all their mono cru champagnes are extra brut, some with a dosage as low as 2.5 g/l.
President Olivier Bonville explains why: “We make champagnes that we deem balanced to let the wine speak, evoke salinity, and sometimes nice bitterness which would be less clear with more sugar.”
But he also stresses that “dosage remains the final touch for ultimate balance and a champagne can be balanced at 0, 2, 5, 9 g/l and maybe in 15 years we will talk of complex and rich champagnes able to accommodate dosages of 25, 30, 40 g/l and that can also be very good.”
In fact, they also produce brut, and demi-sec champagnes “that are fabulous, especially if paired with seared foie gras and slightly more fatty and rich dishes or desserts where an extra brut would be hard to match. Each champagne, with its dosage, has its place.”
The iconic house Veuve Clicquot also entered the extra brut game, by using a unique approach with its Extra Brut Extra Old cuvée.
Its creator, former Chef de Cave Dominique Demarville, explains that this new champagne is an extraction of Yellow Label brut non-vintage because the fundamental principle of this blend is similar except that they did not use wines of the year but only reserve wines, aged on lees, in steel vats, for at least three years.
“We wanted the texture and power of these reserve wines while keeping their purity. The extra brut aspect is a consequence of being extra old. Through the aging on lees in vats, followed by the aging on lees in bottle, we obtain the characteristic Veuve Clicquot style but in a purer version, with a distinctive freshness linked to its low dosage.”
Dominique also claims that this champagne is excellent for food pairing.
So, it seems that extra brut champagnes are not superior per se, but they can be if they are crafted in a way that their optimum balance requires less dosage, which in turn allows the wine to express more details.
This because sugar has both pros and cons, depending on how much is used. It smoothens the acidity of champagne and adds to it, but it can cover something. So the right balance is where you have the first but not the latter.
But what happens if you get rid of dosage altogether to let the purest expression of the wine speak? And play with more mature grapes and winemaking to try crafting champagnes that are perfectly balanced and complex without the need for added sugar? Welcome to brut nature aka zero dosage champagne.
Zero Dosage, the Purest Champagnes?
Champagne and other sparkling wines made with the traditional method are the only wines to which sugar is added prior to their shipping. Once again, the main reason is champagne’s high acidity, and secondly, sugar also adds richness.
But is it possible to craft champagne in a way that it is naturally balanced and complex enough?
We have seen that no-dosage champagnes are nothing new as they first appeared towards the end of the 19th century. But it doesn’t mean they were as pleasant and successful as brut champagnes.
In fact, Laurent Perrier withdrew its Grand Vin Sans Sucre around WW1 as it wasn’t to the taste of the French market.
Zero Dosage champagnes have resurged in the 21st century. But very few houses have succeeded in releasing them without the feeling of austerity that seems unavoidable without adding sugar.
For those who did, brut nature champagnes are not just unsugared versions of their brut. Just like for extra brut champagnes, they play with other inputs like slightly different maturity of the grapes used, extra reserve wines and aging, to round up the acidity and add richness. But they do it even more carefully here.
Sometimes the blend of grapes and crus may be different altogether, for example using more meunier and “warmer” villages with richer and less acidic grapes.
Bruno Paillard took this exercise to the extreme. All his champagnes are already extra brut, with a dosage of 6 g/l or less “to respect the original purity of the wines and ensures energy, tension and length can be expressed.”
He experimented with no-dosage champagne already in the 1980s but abandoned the idea as he found these wines “a bit aggressive” (i.e. too acidic).
Eventually, in 2018 he released its brut nature champagne: Dosage Zéro (D : Z). With this new cuvée, he claims to have finally achieved his vision: to make champagne with absolutely no added sugar (after disgorgement), without compromising the power of seduction of champagne.
To achieve that, he went through serious champagne engineering, carefully playing with the tools that can naturally add roundness and richness to champagne. He went as far as including in the blend a tiny bit of N.P.U., his prestige cuvée, to add a je ne sais quoi to the wine. You can learn all the details here.
But probably the most accomplished zero dosage champagne on the market today is Drappier Brut Nature.
Michel Drappier explains the why of this champagne: “In the 21st century, champagne is associated with purity. This is why we produce champagnes with little dosage, and Brut Nature with absolutely no added sugar. Today the quality of the wines has dramatically increased, and we can afford to commercialize them with little or no dosage because of proper structure, finesse, elegance, and freshness. These champagnes are very clean, refreshing, and truer to the wine and bring out accurate flavors of vine stock, yeast, and Jurassic limestone (of the Aube) .”
The fact that most of Drappier’s vines are planted in the Aube also helps in the making of these champagnes, as this most southern region of Champagne enjoys warmer climates and riper grapes.
But Michel is not against the use of added sugar and most of his champagnes are actually extra brut because “if we want the wine to be more polished, that preserves better and add complexity, a bit of liqueur de dosage is very useful, in small quantities, possibly matured in oak casks. I believe both styles are possible.”
“It’s the result of a fortuitous encounter with architect Philippe Starck. When I met him, I discovered someone truly passionate about champagne, who drinks it daily and only zero dosage champagne. I was also exploring the possibility of making such champagne. Starck wanted to take part in this project, so during six years, he came to Reims to meet our teams and our chef de cave, Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon, for memorable days of exchanges and tastings, telling us his idea of champagne and his vision of the ideal champagne.”
But Rouzaud also stresses the limits in the making of this vintage champagne that does not benefit from the extra help of reserve wines: “We can only make Brut Nature from south-facing terroirs, in sunny and quite dry years. For this, we identified parcels in Cumières with shallow clay soils on which we could get these incredible grapes that allow us to not add dosage in certain years. But for wines coming from chalky soils, we still need to add some balance with a light dosage to smooth the acidity down a little.”
There are however other great champagne makers who are skeptic about no-dosage champagnes.
One of them is Cyril Brun, chef de cave of Charles Heidsieck. He explains why: “The only no dosage champagnes that I really appreciate are those that have just been disgorged in the cellar, with this sensation of purity, lightness, minerality of the terroir that no-dosage champagnes claim. But this magic sensation is ephemeral, disappears after half an hour, so I find it unrealistic to attempt bottling this emotion and sell it outside the cellar.”
As you have probably guessed, Charles Heidsieck does not produce brut nature champagnes, nor extra brut.
Another great house that is not into brut nature champagne is Krug. Former Chef de Cave and Deputy Director Eric Lebel explains why: “Henri Krug told me that If you don’t add dosage to your champagne you will feel it, and if you do it you must not feel it.”
At Krug dosage is an accompaniment to the richness of the assemblage and time and this is the only thought that guides them during the tastings to decide the dosage of their cuvées, which is usually between 5 and 6 g/l.
However, he agrees that the amount of sugar needed in champagne is less today: “dosages of more than 10 g/l are no longer adequate for our wines.” But he doesn’t consider that a low dosage makes good champagne and that with less sugar, it is more authentic.
You may be tempted to think that this “strategy” on dosage is due to the fact that Moët & Chandon produces each year millions of bottles of champagne, mostly for non-savvy consumers.
“Wines with no dosage are for technicians and wine is not made for technicians, but for people looking foremost for pleasure and for sharing moments.”
He goes further, by saying something that may irk the advocate of champagnes with no added sugar: “Dosage is part of champagne and without sugar, champagne wouldn’t exist.”
“We had considered making our Extra Brut with absolutely no dosage, but when we conducted tastings of this blend with no added sugar, or with very low incremental dosages of 0.5 g/l, we found that a dosage of 1.5 g/l brings a certain power and roundness to the wine that we deem necessary. We now offer this champagne in all our markets, but it remains a wine for experts.”
But he stresses that they could definitely make well-crafted champagnes with no dosage, but that would change the style completely. “We could go much further in the maturity of the grapes, which might induce a loss of freshness.”
The stance on zero dosage of Billecart-Salmon is a bit more flexible.
Billecart-Salmon Clos St Hilaire 1999 receives no dosage. But in the 2002, after many trials, they decided that the right balance was at 1 g/l.
And President Mathieu Roland-Billecart stresses that if the right dosage was 8 g/l, they would have done it. “What matters is the balance in the wine, not the grams of sugar. And sugar is just one of the components of balance. The use of certain crus and the vinification in barrels or vats also come into play.”
So zero dosage is not a purpose, but the result in the search of the optimum balance for this cuvée, with a dosage that may vary according to the vintage, in an exercise of great precision.
However, it is worth noticing that Billecart-Salmon has recently rebranded its Extra Brut which is now called Brut Nature.
Chef de Cave Florent Nys explains why: “We launched the Extra Brut 10 years ago. We gave us the option to add dosage up to 6 g/l. Gradually this figure fell to zero, also thanks to longer aging of five years of this cuvée.”
He also explains that given the lower dosage, this champagne is a bit more toasted and mineral. On the palate, the wine is more chiseled, delicate, and the citrus fruits are riper and sweeter, with a nice complexity and length in the mouth.
But Mathieu doesn’t agree that champagne with no dosage is better than champagne with dosage and that less dosage makes better champagne.
“I think people like the idea of no sugar more than they like the taste of no sugar. You have more sugar in a frozen pizza than in a bottle of champagne. The amount is extremely tiny yet the impact on the taste is dramatic. I’m trying to offer the best tasting experience, I’m not a doctor. And a doctor will probably ask you not to drink at all, with or without dosage.”
The stance on zero dosage of Florent Boizel, President of the eponymous house, is very similar to that of Billecart-Salmon.
Boizel range of champagnes includes a brut nature, which is actually branded Ultime Extra Brut, leaving them the option to add a very low dosage in years when it would be necessary to maintain the balance of the wine.
“But in 10 years, this champagne has never needed dosage, also thanks to the use of a specific blend which is not the same as Brut Réserve, with a strict upstream selection for its long aging, which is six years minimum before disgorgement,” Florent stresses.
From all these comments, it seems that champagne with no dosage is a demand-driven trend, to which some houses are responding with carefully engineered cuvées, while others stay away convinced it will inevitably compromise the pleasure champagne can give.
Who is right? Let’s look at a high-profile test made on the subject.
Dosage VS No Dosage: the Salon Test
Salon, the iconic Champagne house, conducted a very interesting and precise comparison of dosage vs no dosage of the same great champagne: Salon 2002.
Salon is an extremely focused champagne, with fewer inputs in the making.
It is always vintage (so no reserve wines), made only with chardonnay (a grape variety more acidic than pinot), only from Mesnil-sur-Oger (chalky and acidic wines). The wines do not undergo malolactic fermentation (crispier).
To account for all that, it is always aged for at least 10 years before release.
In 2014, they released a no-dosage version of Salon 2002, their latest vintage at the time, which normally included an extra brut dosage of 5 g/l.
When asked the reason for this new cuvée, Export Director Vianney Gravereaux said that they wanted to give discerning customers the opportunity to taste two different expressions of the same vintage.
Concerning the difference in taste, he claims that “the zero dosage is leaner, tighter, more focused, maybe more vibrant, while the one with dosage is more open, more in bloom, carries longer [on the palate].”
He concluded that dosage is still necessary to soften the acidity of Salon and “to carry, to enhance, to expand the taste of the wine”.
This high-profile exercise suggests that champagne with no dosage can be good or very good when carefully made to account for the lack of extra sugar.
But consensus remains on the fact that champagne with dosage is always more accomplished and more enjoyable.
Hervé Dantan, chef de cave of Lanson, is pretty outspoken on the subject and says that “there is a sort of fundamentalism around champagne without dosage. Some wine connoisseurs consider champagne good as long as the wine is sharp and there is no added sugar. It’s not always the case. There are only a few champagnes that don’t need dosage.”
In fact dosage doesn’t just bring balance and some richness with its sugar and wines. There is more to it. Read on.
The Extra Benefits of Dosage in Champagne
Dosage is not just made of sugar, but also some wine to dilute the sugar, and a bit of SO2 to protect champagne from oxidation.
As for SO2, remember that no wine other than champagne (and those made with the same method) gets opened before being sold. It would be crazy to do it, as the wine would be unnecessarily exposed to oxygen and premature oxidation.
But in champagne you have to, to remove the lees from the bottle. This is why liqueur de dosage also includes a bit of SO2. But you don’t want to put too much if it, especially in quality champagnes.
And sugar comes to the assistance because it also acts as a preservative. Benoît Gouez says that sugar helps champagne recover from the oxidative shock of disgorgement, and contributes to the wine’s aging potential.
And this is why in their vintage champagnes (aged longer), the dosage has only an antioxidant function and they limit the amount of sugar to 5 g/l to respect the nature of the wine while sufficiently protecting it during its aging.
Hervé Dantan explains that “when one compares aged champagne with no dosage to one with dosage, the first will always have more oxidative notes and less elegance.”
The above also indicates that no-dosage champagne has less post-disgorgement aging potential.
But that’s not all. During this extra aging, sugar plays its magic on champagne one last time, with the Maillard reaction.
This complex process occurs between amino acids and sugars resulting in their oxidation plus the creation of an array of new and captivating aromas and flavors.
It shouldn’t be confused with caramelization in which the oxidation of sugars doesn’t involve amino acids. The Maillard reaction is common in cooking as it is promoted by heat.
Each type of food has a very distinctive set of aroma and flavor compounds that are formed during the Maillard reaction. They are very common in baked products where the high temperatures provoke them in a matter of minutes, participating in the toasty, biscuit or cracker-like flavors of these foods.
In champagne, in which the temperature is much, much lower, the Maillard reaction manages to take place due to its acidic environment.
The new aromas released range from toasted, smoked, and baked bread to spicy vanilla, adding to the overall complexity.
Dosage represents a significant source of sugars and this is why in zero dosage champagne the Maillard reaction won’t happen unless enough residual sugars are present.
We can see how, all in all, sugar does many great things to champagne.
Dosage and Global Warming: Riper Grapes and Less Acidity
Virtually all champagnes receive dosage given its many benefits. But the amount of sugar in it has gone down: brut champagnes are drier and extra brut champagnes are increasingly common.
And it doesn’t have to do just with the trend for drier “purer” wines. The fact that Champagne enjoys more mature grapes at harvest means that champagne needs less sugar at dosage.
The Champagne wine region, like many others, is experiencing climate change. The average temperature in Champagne has risen by 1.1 °C (34 °F) over the last 30 years. And in 2019, the region experienced its highest temperatures on record with 42.9 °C (109 °F) on 25th July.
This situation is associated with a shorter vine cycle and anticipated blossoming, and frequent earlier harvesting, with grapes including fewer acids and higher sugars and PH than in the past.
The potential alcohol level in the grape juice (given by the amount of sugar) has increased by an average of 0.7% volume in the same three decades, while acidity has dropped by 1.3 g/l of H2SO4 (sulfuric acid). And to adapt to lower acidity in champagne wines, a lower dosage can be a solution.
Taking this approach to the extreme, if warmer weather becomes the new norm in Champagne, dosage might become unnecessary to counterbalance its falling acidity. Things are actually not that simple.
Alice Paillard, Bruno Paillard’s daughter and business partner, explains that the impact of global warming is not linear and stable, resulting in harvests increasingly varying.
This means that in actual terms, the maturity of the grapes remains very variable and producing champagne with no dosage is particularly complex, demanding, and expensive.
Frédéric Panaiotis finds the argument that higher temperatures are responsible for riper grapes with lower acidities, and champagne requires less dosage, too simplistic.
He argues that with global warming Champenois have adjusted their farming practices, and this better vineyard management, in association with climate change, leads to grapes that are balanced differently.
That’s because riper grapes don’t just lower the acidity of champagne but also influence its style, making it more intense.
And some houses have traditionally waited a few extra days to pick riper grapes at harvest, but this has nothing to do with the search for less acidity and dosage. In fact, acidity is much sought after in champagne and it’s part of its DNA as it participates in its distinctive and pleasant freshness and its aging capability that participates in its unique taste.
Philipponnat, which is known to produce intense yet fresh champagnes, is a good example. Charles Philipponnat explains how riper grapes are used just as an element to build their style. “The intensity of our champagnes comes from our resources; we pick our grapes a little later than usual, which means they have a richer sugar content and more aromas. This also means that you find a bit less acidity. The freshness comes from the winemaking (which often includes no malolactic fermentation that preserves the acidity) and the terroir, which is rich in minerals and chalk. Our winemaking methods maintain the purity of the terroir and the fresh perception of acidity.”
And at Ayala, they produce Brut Nature with absolutely no dosage, but for that, they don’t use riper grapes. In fact, they are careful in picking grapes not too late, the opposite of what one could think.
Caroline Latrive looks for maturity but not over-maturity. “The keyword for our suppliers is to pick the grapes as soon as they reach the right level of maturity and the right sugar concentration in the berries to preserve the expression of the grapes’ primary aromas.”
But then, they prolonge the aging of this champagne in the cellar where it will further take advantage of the autolysis and thus become smoother, rounder, richer, to the extent we can they release it without any dosage.
As you can see, riper grapes, whether they are due to global warming or to viticulture practices and particularly later picking, have nothing to do with dosage.
Champenois very much cherish and want both the acidity in their grapes and dosage in their champagne. And if the dosage has to take into consideration the acidity of the wine, they want to compromise it just to user lower dosage.
In fact, if the global warming and riper grapes trend continues, the issue will be how to preserve grapes’ acidity.
This is why Champenois are anxious about the future and looking for solutions, both in the vineyard and in the cellar, to ensure that champagne maintains its crucial freshness.
Who knows, blocking malolactic fermentations may become the norm one day? While dosage will remain the secret weapon to champagne’s “extra soul.”
Conclusion on Dosage of Champagne
You can now see how dosage is not a mere addition of sugar to lower the perceived high acidity of champagne, but a process that adds richness, complexity, and aging potential to it. It is not a mere corrective tool but a powerful taste enhancer.
But to get the best results, it should be applied with care and precision. The right amount of sugar in the dosage is a complex decision to make because it should take into consideration the organoleptic profile of the champagne at disgorgement, and the overall style of wines of a house, for the right overall balance and richness at the time of consumption.
And if the level of dosage is lowering, it will probably never disappear.
Jean-Pierre Cointreau, president of Gosset, sums up why: “We started in the past with very sweet champagnes to arrive today to brut champagnes or extra brut or even brut nature. As we have reached the end of the scale, perhaps we may want to go back to something else? The best is to have a range of champagnes with different dosages such as ours to best suit the taste of each consumer.”
And he closes the case on dosage brilliantly: “Dosage is an asset for the chef de cave in the elaboration of champagne, a small yet essential element in his work [and this is why] I do not think we will ever see it disappear.”