Friday, 23 March 2012

Zero Dosage Redux

A new concept? A marketing driven idea to appeal to drinkers who prefer dryer wines? Or a the only sensible response to the climatic changes that have taken place over the last century?

Champagne is a cool climate region. The sparkling wine that we know and love arose in part as a response to the fact that the growers couldn’t get their grapes ripe enough to make successful dry wines. A secondary fermentation boosted the alcohol content and gave the wines the bubbles they needed to succeed.

Champagne has traditionally always been given a liquor de dosage after the disgorgement. This tailored the flavour profile for which ever market was being delivered to.

That was a long time ago.

Markets have changed, the world has changed, for a start it’s got warmer.

To quote the CIVC:

The harvest begins 14 day earlier
The potential  degree of alcohol of grapes is 0.8 % vol higher
The total acidity of grapes is 2 gH²SO4/l lower

So obviously the Champagnes being made are going to be slightly different, or at the very least the process is going to change in order to keep their flavour profle the same?

Average dates of flower set and harvest since 1951 in Champagne

Now breaking those figures down a little bit we can look at the change in both average % abv and g/l total acidity of Champagnes still wines for the three main grape varieties over the last 40 years. Figures from

Average Chardonnay vin clair % abc and g/l Total Acidity 

Average Pinot Noir vin clair % abc and g/l Total Acidity 
Average Pinot Meunier vin clair % abc and g/l Total Acidity

What we see here is a very clear trend towards riper grapes with a lower acidity.

Maturity Index for Champagne grapes (sugar/acidity)

Further more, this isn’t the only change that’s occurred in the region in the last 30 years. Better understanding of wine microbiology has meant that winemakers are better able to deal with malolactic fermentation.

Below a pH of about 3, a wine is unlikely to undergo malolactic fermentation without a sizeable degree of help, be that inoculation with a malolactic ferment starter culture or heating of the barrel.

One should note that far and away the worst situation is for malo to occur in bottle, a sure fire way for a winemaker to lose their job. So it’s safer to put all the wines through malo, thus further reducing acidities.

Benoit Tarlant of Champagne Tarlant estimates that about 90% of wines in the region are now put through malo, this as opposed to the about 40% that was the case 40 years ago. Clearly we have a significant change in style.

This is where zero dosage comes in. Riper vin clair wines, better phenolic ripeness, more intensity of fruit, there ceases to be any need for dosage. The wines are quite capable of being balanced on their own.

Yes growers will need to age the wines sur lees for a bit longer (usually about a year), yes more reserve wines will be needed. Yes it requires a bit more effort, but Champagne is a premium product for a reason.

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