Wine Word of the Month: Dosage
A spoonful of sugar makes the bubbles go down…
Even if you’re only a sometime-drinker of Champagne, you’ve likely encountered the term dosage (doh-SAHJ), either in printed or spoken form. It refers to a finishing touch of sweetness added to a finished sparkling wine, measured in grams of sugar per liter. Among the keenest Champagne enthusiasts, it is a subject of endless fascination.
My first lesson on the effects of dosage was when I worked for a national importer based in California. The task at hand: choose which level of dosage best complemented our entry-level, by-the-glass, non-vintage Champagne bottling. So, on a quiet Friday afternoon, gathered around the tasting table, we lined up nine unlabeled bottles distinguished by gold scribble, starting with “5 g/l,” then “5.5 g/l,” then “6 g/l”… all the way to “9 g/l.” So, what did we decide? First, a few more words about the meaning, intent, and effect of dosage.
Dose it Up!
Whether you pronounce it the French or the English way, look at the word “dosage” and it connotes something added—as in, giving the wine a “dose” of sugar to balance it out. But in a new wine world where anything added feels wrong, there’s been a noticeable movement towards sparkling wines, particularly Champagne, with very little, or no, dosage. You’ve probably seen the terms Pas Dosé, Dosage Zéro, Brut Sauvage, or Brut Nature on the labels of Champagne-method sparklers. These terms represent the lowest end of dosing, indicating that the amount of added sugar is less than three grams per liter, or sometimes, nothing at all! As young sommeliers, we’re force-fed the dosage scale (see below). We’re cool if we can recite all the minimums, maximums, the terms in French, in German, why not Spanish, and all the frivolous synonyms! But one thing sticks out—the scale reflects grams per liter, not grams per 750ML, the common bottle size. Here are the numbers:
- Extra-Brut: 0-6 grams of sugar per liter
- Brut Nature: less than 3 grams per liter
- Brut: less than 12 grams per liter
- Extra-Dry: 12-17 grams of sugar per liter
- Sec: 17-32 grams of sugar per liter
- Demi-Sec: 32-50 grams of sugar per liter
- Doux: more than 50 grams of sugar per liter
Most of us recognize the term Brut, referring to a wine which contains less than 12 grams of sugar per liter. A typical range for Brut, in practice, is between 6 and 9 grams. Let’s look at Moët et Chandon, who, about 10 years ago, lowered the dosage in their flagship “Impérial Brut” from 12 grams to nine grams. This was a multi-faceted decision influenced by: climate change, the access to riper fruit & better terroir, an overall shift in the global palate towards less-sweet beverages, and the evolution of Champagne, over the centuries, from dessert wine to apéritif.
So, how much is nine grams of sugar per liter in a standard 750ML bottle? It’s 6.75 grams. Within that bottle of Impérial lives 6.75 grams, or 1.62 teaspoons, of sugar. If we break that down further, that’s barely 1/3rd of a teaspoon of sugar in every 5oz glass. Now, if I wanted to cut my sugar intake in half and squeeze into my new pair of skinny jeans, I’d request 1/6th of a teaspoon of sugar in my glass of Champagne, which would put me in the prestigious Extra Brut category (4.5 grams of sugar per liter). For those of us that like a shy teaspoon of sugar in our coffee, are we this diligent and concerned with our Champagne sugar measurements? Or, more importantly, should we be?
Champagne, the world’s most elite and fine-tuned sparkling beverage, is formed by a disciplined chain of events in the cellar. It’s not like rustic pét-nat, where the motto is more like, “Let’s shove it all in the bottle, now, and hope for the best!” In the Champagne process, dosage occurs at the end of a long chain and is like “a touch of make-up,” says Chantal Gonet, of Philippe
Gonet Champagne in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger. But in order to wrap our brains around dosage, we must backtrack, one step, to disgorgement. The greatest hallmark of the “Champagne Method” of producing sparkling wine is that the secondary fermentation of the wine occurs inside the bottle. This process, though, is messy, and as the “base wine” goes through its second fermentation, the spent yeasts (along with other molecules) precipitate out of the solution, forming a deposit. This sediment eventually settles into the neck of the bottle and must be removed via disgorgement to produce a clear, pristine wine. This involves un-capping the bottle and letting that little “plug” of spent yeasts fly out, creating a small window of opportunity for the winemaker (or machine) to “top off” the wine with a “dose” of sugar—in the form of a sweetened liquid called liqueur d’expédition.
Historically, dosage was used to counterattack Champagne’s cold weather, the grapes that failed to ripen, and the aggressive, high-wire acidity that was the result. Sugar was the friend, not the enemy. It was an economical way of taming acidity, preventing oxidation, enhancing aromas, and above all, making Champagne tasty! The fancy term liqueur d’expédition, ironically, describes a bare-bones combination of cane sugar and wine (or beet sugar and wine). Depending on the producer’s preference, the base wines can be youthful or aged. Billecart-Salmon’s US Regional Manager, Clément Calleja, highlights the fact that Billecart has a special “nursery,” a collection of reserve wines and micro-cuvées, solely dedicated to the production of their liqueur d’expédition. When I asked Clément what he would rename dosage, if he could, he responded with “seasoning or final touch!” Nevertheless, he stressed that it’s a “very, very, crucial step” in the Champagne process.
MCR Is Not a Rapper
To make matters more confusing, there’s an alternative liqueur d’expédition called the moût concentré rectifié (or MCR), which is pure, concentrated grape must. Some winemakers view this tool as a “more natural” approach, like the Gonet family, who have been using MCR for 20 years. In a warmer climate, though, Michael Cruse of Cruse Wine Co. in Sonoma, CA, diverges. After multiple trials with MCRs, he decided on a traditional cane sugar/wine recipe because it had a more “neutral influence” on the final product; by contrast, his MCR-dosed wines created a profile that was “very fruity and very sweet.” Cruse says he spends much more time thinking about his vineyards and achieving optimal ripness of his fruit. “I think about dosage, like, three percent of the time,” he says. So, what’s his definition of dosage? “Polisher-upper!”
A touch of make-up, a seasoning agent, a polisher-upper, a final touch—these are all positive things. I like an extra dash of salt on my salad, and I like to dab my cheeks with shimmery bronzer in my car. If we eliminate the word sugar, put away the scale and grams, and think of dosage as something beyond an additive, then we can view Champagne and Champagne Method wines for what they really are: extraordinary expressions of a vineyard, its grapes, and the magical touch and style of the maker. Like Cruse says, “Dosage just points to a style, but it’s not the style.” So, back in the warehouse, on that quiet Friday afternoon, what dosage did we end-up choosing for our by-the-glass Grower Champagne? It was somewhere between six and eight grams, but really, I can’t remember.
Allegra Angelo is an Advanced Sommelier and a longtime contributor to SommSelect.