The world of Champagne has long been dominated by big houses, but in the last few decades, smaller makers known as grower-producers have increased in prominence. While many still supply grapes to the well-known brands whose hallmark is consistency across vintages, boutique growers have more leeway to experiment and have developed an audience for their quirkier bottles. But the newest generation of winemakers at the grower Champagnes is taking the experiment a step too far. They are sucking charm, grace and complexity from thousands of Champagnes because they have fervently decided that sugar in all contexts is evil.
This entire crop of passionate young growers, propelled by the pioneers who paved the way for them, is entering what is now a comfortable world. I don’t mean they’ll get rich, but they can be sure that a demand exists for Champagne made by boutique growers. I am thrilled at how vibrant the grower-Champagne culture is. And yet.
These young vintners are often … very young people. I used to be one myself. Wanna know how I was in my twenties? Often obnoxious and way too sure that every idea I had came right from the lips of the angels. That is to say, I was a person in his twenties: often wrong but never uncertain.
The new generation of Champagne growers emerged into a zeitgeist that looks upon sweetness, and the dosage (or amount of sugar that a winemaker adds) that delivers it in bottle, with great suspicion. Tasting many of their wines, I see talent, energy, derring-do, everything … but palate. Somewhere in all this sugar-is-bad-for-you campaigning, a lot of young growers have forgotten to consider what tastes good and creates balance in a wine.
Much of this anti-sugar philosophy is what’s driving the current fad for low- or no-dosage Champagnes. I respect (and love) the minority of these wines that work, but I lament the majority of them that don’t. The new catechism is to reduce dosage at all costs, to zero if possible.
This mischief is prompted by two conceptual errors. The first is to see dosage as a corrective device by which an inadequate wine is made viable. This view created the oft-repeated statement, “My wine is so good, it doesn’t need dosage.” Once in a while this is true.
But allowing that point, most zero-dosage Champagnes depart from sensual deliciousness in favour of a kind of “study-in-Champagne” that’s sometimes interesting—if you enjoy a dry pucker—but seldom fun.
The second error is to see sugar in isolation, ignoring its true purpose—like salt in food—as a flavour enhancer, as an element in complexity, balance and grace. Dosage can awaken flavours if it is used carefully.
Unfortunately, the anti-dosage militants have too often wrestled their luckless Champagnes to fit a dogma. Maybe that’s easier than bowing to the weight of experience. But clinging desperately to a fad without revision as you acquire experience is folly. Dosage—sugar, yes sugar—is a tool by which Champagne is made more beautiful, not a bit of flimflam by which its inadequacies are “corrected”.