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dosage and cellaring potential

I recently read that for champagne to have cellaring potential there must be a certain  sugar level in the dosage (6g/L according to Stevens).  Why is this so?

The passage from Stevens reads:  "...but it should have at least 6 grams if it is likely to be cellared, unless the producer intends for it to develop oxidatively."

  • I’ve tasted plenty of 10 year old non-dosage champagnes that taste wonderfully. Isn’t it the high acid that protects against oxidation and promotes the wine to age??? I'm confused by this sugar level statement.

  • Anonymous
    Anonymous over 8 years ago in reply to Patrick Miner

    Patrick - did you mean Tom Stevenson of Sotheby's? Perhaps you could reference a page #. I like the question because it has jump-started my review on Champagne. Thanks --AP

  • Yes, Stevenson of Sotheby's.  Check out what he says about Gossett on page 229 of the latest edition.  My quote above, again from the 5th edition is the last sentence on page 37.

    The pertinent quote from the guildsomm site that I posted a link to above reads:

    2. Dosage is important in achieving balance, and drier is not always better.

    The dosage plays a critical role in a finished champagne. In the traditional style of champagne it not only balances acidity, but also helps the fruit flavors to be more fully expressive. Contrary to what many people think, its function is not only to make a wine sweeter or drier. Every champagne has a particular point of balance, an optimal level of dosage at which the wine feels at its most harmonious and complete. That point is different for all champagnes, depending on the character of the base material: some wines will achieve a balance at ten grams per liter, others at six, a few at three. There are even some champagnes that are sufficiently balanced and complete without any dosage at all, although this is much more rare than many people would like to believe."

  • Sugars can act as reducing agents against aldehydic compounds. Also, they mask some of the unpleasant aromas associated with oxidation.

  • You could ask him directly- he's a member of the Guild!

  • Okay, I asked him.  After thinking about everything I have read, I think the dosage level is not just to "adjust" the acidity to sweetness ratio.  I think it plays an important role in the development of champagne as it ages, particularly the fruit characteristics, and so a fine champagne with inadequate dosage just does not reach its full potential.

  • Patrick asked me to “wade in”, so here I am. First, I’ll comment on Pamela’s post: “I’ve tasted plenty of 10 year old non-dosage champagnes that taste wonderfully.” Good point, but I’m assuming that your 10 year old non-dosage Champagnes were literally that and not Champagnes that had undergone 10 years post-disgorgement ageing because I have never tasted a Champagne with 10 years post-disgorgement ageing that hasn’t been chock-a-block with aldehydes. If you have some, then I’m getting on a plane for Oregon straight away! On the other hand, you might like highly oxidative Champagnes and who’s to say you shouldn’t? Pamela also wrote “Isn’t it the high acid that protects against oxidation and promotes the wine to age?” Yes, indirectly acidity protects against oxidation because it affects the pH and at lower pH (higher acid) levels SO2 works more efficiently, but the difference between a totally dry high acid Riesling ageing gracefully for 40 years and a 40 year old Champagne is that the Riesling is not opened up towards the end of its life, exposed to the ai, and resealed.

    The following is an enhanced version of my answer published in the current edition of Decanter magazine to a similar question about Champagnes with less than 6 grams of residual sugar:

    Having tasted tens of thousands of Champagnes over more than 30 years, I am convinced that a dosage of 6 g/l is the minimum required for producers who seek graceful ageing (i.e., smoothly and with finesse) and that the lower the dosage is below this level, the more coarse and aldehydic a Champagne’s evolution will be after the oxidative impact of disgorgement. I doubt that six is a magical number; depending on the manner of production (oxidative or reductive), the style of the Champagne, grape varieties used, provenance of the grapes, the year of vintage or blend of years and numerous other variables), I’m sure there must be a certain leeway below and above 6g/l exists for specific Champagnes, but let’s keep to six as a generalisation.

    This is not to say that I think all Champagnes should receive a dosage of at least 6g/l. As Patrick has correctly quoted me “Every champagne has a particular point of balance, an optimal level of dosage at which the wine feels at its most harmonious and complete. That point is different for all champagnes, depending on the character of the base material: some wines will achieve a balance at ten grams per litre, others at six, a few at three. There are even some champagnes that are sufficiently balanced and complete without any dosage at all, although this is much more rare than many people would like to believe.” But even the best of these low/no dosage are Champagnes that should be consumed, not cellared.

    This view of mine is based on an overwhelming amount of empirical evidence, but while this might be good enough for the person at the centre of that experience, I accept, of course, that this is not pure science and others have every right to question it. Indeed, I want to know scientifically whether I am right and, if I am, I want to know what the mechanism is that protects a Champagne with a certain minimum residual-sugar to age without a build-up of aldehydic aromas in its post-disgorgement phase. When I try to think about it rationally, I immediately dismiss the widely held misbelief that sugar has any preservative quality because, at concentrations found in Champagne, it really has none at all. Sugars have several alcohol or hydroxyl groups that could, I suppose, react with the carbonyl group of acetaldehyde, and sugars can react with amino acids, potentially forming heterocycle compounds, which could also bind acetaldehyde, but do these things happen in champagne? I tried searching for papers published about the effect of dosage on the ageing potential of Champagne, but came up empty-handed, which is why, in 2008, after witnessing an alarming increase in the number of low/no dosage Champagnes, I asked Bertrand Robillard, the world’s foremost expert on the chemistry of Champagne, whether sugar could mask aldehydic aromas. He told me: “A lot of people who make a low-dosage or no-dosage Champagne do not add SO2 at the time of disgorgement, and these wines show a high oxydability level. [And yes,] sugar is a good compound for screening some aromas.” When I asked him to elaborate on his last sentence, he confessed, “I’ve never read of any experiments on the influence of sugar on aromas [in Champagne], but I have noticed this effect. I know that some people consider this to be a fact, and we can imagine that some aldehydes could be sensitive to this phenomenon.” It was reassuring to know that Robillard’s lifetime experience had led him to a similar conclusion, but although it is amusing to hear a scientist rely on empirical evidence, it also illustrates a huge gap in Champagne’ scientific knowledge.

    Some Champagne producers have gone the low-no dosage route for stylistic reasons and some would prefer to describe this strategy as more natural. However, with lower acidity and disproportionately higher pH levels due to warmer, shorter growing seasons (it is the first time in history that Champagne has experienced three August harvests within the same decade), there has been a large influx of such Champagnes onto the market from producers whose knee-jerk reaction was simply to reduce the dosage. There are other remedies, such as acidification or a combination of acidification with a more subtle lowering of the dosage, but if Champagne is to remain the world’s greatest sparkling wine, the only satisfactory solution will be found in the vineyards, primarily through different clonal selections and, maybe, a shift of emphasis from south-facing to east and west for what slopes should be considered superior. In the meantime, however, Champagne producers are merrily lowering dosage levels based on no scientific research whatsoever and if the empirical evidence is correct they risk damaging Champagne’s reputation for longevity.

    Since discussing this matter with Robillard, I have come across a paper called “Volatile Flavoring Substances in Foodstuffs” (Hans Gerhard Maier, 1970), which supports the theory that sugar suppresses acetaldehyde. While this is a useful starting point, later researches in this area have all involved sugar and viscosity levels that are not appropriate for the aroma matrix of a wine. One thing is clear, however: the Champagne industry should not be embarking on ever-lower levels of dosage without conducting its own research into the processes involved.

  • Wow, Awesome! Thank you so much for getting so involved and providing such a detailed response. If anyone ever asks you why the guild membership is so valuable, point them right at this thread!

  • This has been a great discussion, thanks Tom! Don’t get on a plane to Oregon just yet :) A few months ago I had some discussions on this matter with Bruno Paillard, Charles Philipponnat, and Pierre Gimonnet who all make some Champagnes with low dosage. I posed similar questions to all of them regarding disgorgement, acidity, oxidation, ageing potential ect. I’d say the best lesson received was when I sat down with Bruno to taste the same wine that had undergone 6 months to 10 years post-disgorgement ageing to understand the effect of dosage on the ageing potential of the Champagne.  Per Bruno, “many people think champagne does not age simply because that has been the dominant message for decades. But when a consumer gets a chance to discover the effects of post-disgorgement maturation, it changes their opinions.”  Bruno produces brut champagnes, which all have particularly low residual sugar levels – I can’t recall the exact sugar of the specific wine we used for the experiment, but it was around 4g/L.  We tasted through five wines and it was interesting to taste the differences of each. What I learned was that the wine goes through 5 or 6 different styles, more or less complementary, leading to a gain in complexity: 6-8 mo: fruit dominated; 2-4 years: flowers, spices, toasted aromas, buttered popcorn; 5-8 years: honey, fruit conserve, candied fruit; 10 years: no aldehyde flavors, but rather toasted bread, orange marmalade, ginger bread, bees wax. I asked him if I could buy a bottle of the 10-year but he didn’t have any for sale :)

    Bruno went on to say, “According to the conditions of conservation, this maturity – fruit-floral-spice-toast-candied-roasted can be short or long. It will still take a minimum of four to five years after disgorging to obtain the first spiced notes and even decades to attain full maturity. Only the greatest champagnes can offer this path of evolution”.  I asked him what protected the wine from oxidation, and he responded, the high acidity protects itself, and the wines are 22% barrel fermented.

    I talked with Charles Philipponnat who also makes many champagnes with low dosage and is an advocate for declaring the disgorgement date on bottles stating, “all houses should do it unless they are too ashamed of their short ageing time” and went on to say that dosages have reduced considerably over the last ten years. His ‘1522’ and Clos des Goisses are around 4-5g/L, and a portion of the wine is fermented in barrels. I tasted an older disgorged ’1522′ and Clos des Goisses—wonderful wines with no aldehyde flavors. I also tasted a seven year disgorged 2002 Fils Cuvée Millésime de Collection (5g/L) with Pierre Gimonnet and this stuff was simply magical - Creamy with a full-mouth feel you would not believe. We also tried a late disgorged Extra Brut Oenophile 1er Cru, Non dose, which Pierre likes to describe as “A wine without dosage is like a woman without makeup” – simply delicious, lively, vibrant and inviting.

    Bruno and Charles both commented that understanding disgorgement is new to the Champagne region and more exploration is needed. But when it is all said and done, the wines I tasted could be the exception rather than the rule! Once again, thanks for the great conversation Tom!

  • Wow, thanks for the spirited and enthusiastic discussion everyone!  What a great community we have here.

  • This is really fantastic.

    Through conversations with Fred Paniotis during the Ruinart Challenge trip this summer, I learned that he basically has the same conclusion as Tom, but again, no scientific proof beyond his thoughts that some sugar helps keep the wine fresh in its older age.

    Although, full disclosure, for his personal taste, and for Ruinart, he is generally against oxydative-style champagnes i.e. Selosse (certainly the Initial and Substance), Ulysse Colin, Prevost, etc.

    For me it just makes sense. Consider the glacial pace at which most off-dry German Rieslings age, as well as the relative immortality of pedigreed Sauternes - it would seem that high levels of acid and sugar work in tandem as a preservative.

  • Thank you to everyone. I learned a lot reading this thread

  • I recently worked at a dinner honoring Jean-Claude Fourmon of Joseph Perrier, and so I asked him his opinion on this subject.  He said, decidedly, that no, lower or no dosage wines will not last as long and will evolve faster and should be consumed sooner.  He didn't seem to be eager to discuss the quality of fruit or how the wine would evolve, even though we were pouring the 1985 Cuvee Josephine that night (fantastic!).  He talked only about the level of SO2 in low dosage wines.  I didn't quite follow exactly what he was saying, and unfortunately I didn't have a chance to ask any more questions.  But the gist of it seemed to be that lower dosage wines had, in general, less SO2 also, and that was the significant part of the equation.  This seems to correspond with what Bertrand Robillard said to Mr. Stevens in his post above.