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How Dry Is Dry?

December 08, 1999|ROD SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The methode champenoise is a lot like baseball. Its basic techniques are long established, as are the simple throwing, catching and hitting of which the World Series is made.

But doing any of those things really well is tough, and combining them at a consistently high level of excellence is nearly impossible, which is why a home run and a superb Champagne both seem miraculous.

One of the most important, yet least understood, elements of the Champagne methode is dosage, the addition of sugar to the wine just before the final corking.

The quantity of sugar varies widely, but every producer adds some. A Champagne without dosage is, for most consumers, like a hard line drive that doesn't quite clear the outfield wall. It's got all the elements of a homer, but it's too hard, fast, lean and mean to actually score. What it needs is loft and length, so that it soars through the finish, and that's what it gets from dosage.

Simply put, sparkling wines are too acidic for most palates, and a finishing touch of sugar makes them palatable.

The general character of Champagne has changed radically over the last century, particularly in the apparent sweetness on the palate. It has gone from dramatically sweet to near-dry. Today, most Champagnes and other sparkling wines taken seriously by wine mavens are in the brut category.

The change is partly a function of the product's steady improvement. In the old days a hefty dollop of sugar served to mask such faults as unripe or unsound fruit and spotty winemaking. At the same time, the sugar was part of Champagne's original appeal.

In the 19th century, when sugar was a luxury, Champagne served as a sexy vehicle for sugar. That was true during lean wartime years as well.

"When I was young," notes Roederer Estate wine master Michel Salgues, who was born in France during WWII, "Champagne was almost only for dessert, and in the last century, sugar was truly a luxury item almost reserved for rich families. An expensive dessert was almost all sugar. Americans don't realize that, because your consumption of sugar is at least double or triple more than the next country."

Today, of course, there are many more accessible sugar-delivery devices, such as candy and soft drinks.

The shift toward dryness began in the late 19th century and was less than precipitous. It took about 30 years for the new concept to take hold.

As the story is recounted by Patrick Forbes in "Champagne: The Wine, the Land and the People" (Reynal, 1967), an enterprising London wine merchant named Mr. Burnes tasted an unsweetened Perrier-Jouet 1846 and liked it. Perrier-Jouet agreed to his request for a small shipment of '46 for the London market. Unfortunately, records Forbes, "the experiment was a complete flop, and Mr. Burnes suffered the embarrassment of having to take back his dry Champagne and replace it with a sweet one."

The resilient Mr. Burnes then asked Louis Roederer for some dry Champagne but was rejected out of hand. The seeds of change had been sown, however. In 1860, several firms had success with dry wines from the ripe 1857 vintage, and most of the 1874s were shipped to London "very dry."

As Forbes recounts, the shift brought social ramifications. "Whether he was in the sweet camp or the dry one rapidly became a matter of considerable interest to a man's friends. Supporters of dry Champagne dubbed the sweet variety 'gooseberry juice' or 'chorus girl's mixture.' "

Of course the French, who have always appreciated their Champagne slightly sweet, deplored the English taste. They considered it, well, brutal--hence the term brut, which is politely translated as rough or unrefined.

Champagnes for the United States market also gradually became drier during this century, until in the 1980s there was a mania for natural Champagnes. That didn't last long. Sparkling wine, it seems, proves the wine marketer's adage that people talk dry and drink sweet. The pendulum seems to be swinging back toward slightly sweeter Champagnes.

Recent conversations with several top Champagne and sparkling wine producers revealed a range of current attitudes toward dosage. Its role is not always obvious. For example, Pommery and Bollinger are on opposite ends of the Champagne style spectrum--Pommery Brut is among the freshest and lightest, while Bollinger is one of the richest and deepest--yet both use dosage sparingly, to balance the wine and perhaps lift it through the mid-palate and finish.

"Basically the aim of the dosage is to soften the acidity," says Bollinger proprietor Guy Bizot. "That's the first and only aim of the dosage for us. We do not want to add too much, because if you add too much, you hide the flavors of the wine."

The Bollinger dosage, he says, is typically 7 to 9 grams per liter, blended with still wine. He noted that Bollinger's fabled richness comes from the high proportion of Pinot Noir from top-rated vineyards, from fermentation in oak casks, from older reserve wines and from gentle oxidation during aging.

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