Kosher Zero Dosage, Brut Nature, Non-Dose Champagnes are all the rage but they are short on life
I have spoken about Champagne wines in the past, whether they are made in the AOC of Champagne or elsewhere in the world, with different names, like Cava from Sapin, or Sparkling wine in the USA and Israel.
A quick aside please do not use Champagne unless you mean it! Champagne is wine made in the AOC of Champagne, which is a region of France. It is kind of like asking for the Kleenex when actually they are passing you generic tissues. Or asking someone to Xerox that article, when you mean, copy or photocopy it.
Now, of course, people from Champagne would blanch at that comparison, but sorry, trademark laws are what France is using to mandate the term Champagne be used ONLY for wines from Champagne, so it is LITERALLY the examples I gave.
Impressively France has been waging this war for centuries now. According to Wikipedia: Sparkling wines are produced worldwide, but many legal structures reserve the word Champagne exclusively for sparkling wines from the Champagne region, made in accordance with Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne regulations. In the European Union and many other countries the name Champagne is legally protected by the Madrid system under an 1891 treaty, which reserved it for the sparkling wine produced in the eponymous region and adhering to the standards defined for it as an appellation d’origine contrôlée; the protection was reaffirmed in the Treaty of Versailles after World War I. Similar legal protection has been adopted by over 70 countries. Most recently Australia, Chile, Brazil, Canada, and China passed laws or signed agreements with Europe that limit the use of the term “Champagne” to only those products produced in the Champagne region. The United States bans the use from all new U.S.-produced wines. Only those that had the approval to use the term on labels before 2006 may continue to use it and only when it is accompanied by the wine’s actual origin (e.g., “California”). The majority of US-produced sparkling wines do not use the term Champagne on their labels, and some states, such as Oregon, ban producers in their states from using the term.
Sadly, people use Champagne interchangeably with sparkling wine, much akin to Kleenex and Xerox, and no matter the efforts of France and the education around the name, folks like Korbel still use the label, Korbel Champagne of California.
So, what is Champagne and how do we get all those cool bubbles? Well, it all starts with a grape of some sort, in most cases, Chardonnay, but we will get back to the other varietals further down. For now, like all wine on planet earth, Champagne starts with a grape. It is picked (often early to lower alcohol and increase acidity), then crushed, pressed, and allowed/encouraged to go through primary fermentation, exactly like all white wines on planet earth. At this point, most houses ferment the base wine in metal tanks or barrels. Some still use wood, but they are the minority.
Of course, like much of France (Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne), especially in Champagne, the wine can be chaptalized after racking, until an 11% ABV. Now before the heat waves that have covered much of this earth (call it what you wish), Bordeaux and Champagne prayed to hit their desired mark of ABV, and therefore they used to add sugar to bring up the ripeness on their fruit. Nowadays, Champagne is picking earlier and earlier, and Chaptalization is not a common thing anymore, as mother nature is taking care of the fruit’s ripeness all on her own!
Once the wine has been fermented the next question arises, should they let the base wine go through a wine’s second natural fermentation called Malolactic Fermentation? Most allow the fermentation to take place and require it, a fact that is easy nowadays with controlled winery environments, though some do not like it at all. Finally, the barrels/tanks are blended or in the rare case, kept aside as a Vintage Champagne, meaning the base wine used in it, is sourced from one vintage and not a blend of a few vintages.
So, at this point what we have is base wine, and while it may be an OK wine, it is far from what the final product will be like. Most base wines are nice enough, but it would be like licking on a lemon, these wines are highly acidic, and not normally well balanced at that point.
The next step is to bottle the wine, with yeast and basic rock sugar, which causes a second fermentation. The actual amount of the two added ingredients is a house secret. The wines are closed with a simple beer bottle cap. You will notice that ALL wines made in this manner have a lip around the top of the bottle, where the cap is attached to. Again, if the year is exceptional than the wine becomes vintage champagne and is aged for at least three years. If the vintage is normal than the bottle’s content is a blend of a few vintages and is aged for at least one and a half years.
All the while during this second fermentation process, the wine is aged and the wine becomes more complex from the yeast. The yeast breaks down as it eats the rock sugar, adding the effervescence, and while the yeast breaks down, it adds a lovely mouthfeel and rich complexity. This process is known as autolysis, releasing molecules that are slowly transformed as they interact with those in the wine.
The process is a dual transformational process. First, the yeasts are broken down, but if that occurred in a 100% hermetically sealed environment, we would have SERIOUS issues, like HS (Hydrogen Sulfide) and mercaptan (think nasty rotten eggs). Oxygen is a two-edged sword, with too much a wine oxidizes, and with too little, you get HS and nasty foul egg smell. So, the cap that covers the Champagne bottles as they rest for 18 months to 3 years in these cool racks, actually allow for a certain amount of oxygen to flow through, the caps are not hermetic seals. The special stoppers, AKA caps, allow the wine to mature on the lees, with a very slow feed of oxygen coming through, thereby allowing the wine to mature at a rate that is best for it. You can mature them quicker, with a different cap, but you would lose the value of a wine sitting long on the lees.
According to Wikipedia, the effects of autolysis on wine contribute to a creamy mouthfeel that may make a wine seem to have a fuller body. The release of enzymes inhibits oxidation which improves some of the aging potentials of the wine. The mannoproteins improve the overall stability of the proteins in the wine by reducing the number of tartrates that are precipitated out. They may also bind with the tannins in the wine to reduce the perception of bitterness or astringency in the wine. The increased production of amino acids leads to the developing of several flavors associated with premium Champagne including aromas of biscuits or bread dough, nuttiness, and acacia. As the wine ages further, more complex notes may develop from the effects of autolysis.
Finally, it is at this stage, after the bottles have matured their proper time, based upon their label (blend or Vintage), we get to the final stage of Champagne, remuage (or “riddling” in English) and Dosage. To get rid of the lees (the dead yeast cells and other particulates), the bottles are hand or machine manipulated to convince the lees to move towards the cap. Then the neck of the bottle is frozen, and the cap is removed, the lees come flying out in a frozen format, and then the bottle is recapped with the famous champagne cork, but not before it is dosed with more sugar. This very last step is the reason for this post, but let’s leave that till further down in the post, for now, let’s talk varietals and color/style.
Color/style and Varietals
So, we have covered the how part of Champagne (well almost more on Dosage below), and now we need to talk color and grapes. The base grapes for Champagne are Pinot Meunier, and Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay. There are a very few houses who also use Arbane, Petit Meslier, Pinot blanc, Pinot Gris. Champagne, like the rest of France’s wine industry, is controlled by the AOC (appellation d’origine contrôlée).
So, for Blanc de Blancs Chardonnay, which is white from white, Chardonnay is the only grape allowed. Meaning, that the juice from Chardonnay is 100% of a BdB Champagne, or in rare occasions from Pinot blanc (such as La Bolorée from Cedric Bouchard).
For Blanc de Noirs, the Champagne is made from either Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier, or a blend of the two. Finally, for Rose Champagne, it can be a blend of the three grapes.
This has been all the rave recently, LD or Late Disgorgement. All this means is that the house or winery (outside of Champagne) kept the bottles capped for a longer time. So the 2007 Yarden Blanc de Blancs was sold in 2014 or so. It is a lovely wine and recently Yarden released a 2007 LD Yarden Blanc de Blancs. It is the same EXACT wine, just held longer in capped format (another 4 years or so), and then recently they disgorged the wine, more on that below, and put in the dosage and the Champagne style cork and released it now. Essentially, for all intent and purpose, Yarden aged the Sparkling wine 4 more years and released it later on. The interesting thing will be to taste the two wines (the LD and normal 2007 Yarden BdB and see how 4 extra years of lying on lees helped/hindered/or did nothing). I will be doing that soon enough.
We have finally arrived at the point of this blog point, and that would be Champagne’s sweetness. PLEASE, do not jump, wine is about balance, so no, Champagne is not date juice, most bad Champagne is just underripe and poorly made stuff. In the old days, think 19th and 20th century, Champagne was VERY sweet, like horribly so. The Russians were the worst, desiring Champagne to be somewhere in the zip code of 200/300 grams per liter! Today, the average Brut Champagne is more like 12 or so grams of sugar per liter.
So, now on to the issue at hand – the dosage. I always wondered why this dosage was ever required. If the bubbly is good enough as it is, then leave it as it is, and move on with life. Not to bury the lead but how foolish I was.
Once again according to Wikipedia, the ripeness of the grapes and the amount of sugar added after the second fermentation—dosage—varies and will affect the amount of sugar remaining in the Champagne when bottled for sale, and hence the sweetness of the finished wine. Wines labeled Brut Zero, more common among smaller producers, have no added sugar and will usually be very dry, with less than 3 grams of residual sugar per liter in the finished wine. The following terms are used to describe the sweetness of the bottled wine:
- Extra Brut (less than 6 grams of residual sugar per liter)
- Brut (less than 12 grams)
- Extra Dry (between 12 and 17 grams)
- Sec (between 17 and 32 grams)
- Demi-sec (between 32 and 50 grams)
- Doux (50 grams)
None Dose, Zero Dosage and Brut Nature
These names are all a moniker for a very squishy idea, which is, to put in little to no liquor in the Champagne. The official term for this style of wine (0 to 3g per liter) is Brut Nature. So again, the last step calls for popping the cap, removing the lees, adding in some sort of wine or liquor (to take the place of the missing lees and wine that was around the lees). The empty space cannot be left, as that much oxygen would kill the wine quickly. Rather it is either filled with more of the same wine or liquor depending on the sugar level desired.
Now, I always wanted to know what this liquor added to the story. Why is it needed? I like wine bright and tart, and normally that is achieved for Brut Champagne by picking the fruit early. It means the wine made by the fruit is tart and bright and it can use the added sugar to balance it all out. I always wondered what would happen if they just did not add the extra liquor, AKA sugar. Well, I found out and it is not fun.
Can you age Zero Dosage Wines
So, we have finally arrived at the point of my post. Can you age Zero Dosage wines? From the VERY limited wines we have in the kosher wine world, the answer is no. Now, before all the hate mail comes my way, READ this – READ ALL of the two links here. Yes, the first one is long, get over it, you are not in the 2nd grade anymore. The second link is simple and short and is a repeat of much of what Tom says in the first post at the very end.
I also asked other kosher winemakers about this subject. One said this, to the question of are Zero-dosage wines built to last?
Usually true, but for other reasons. Yeast needs oxygen and the bottles are sealed. And since you cannot air out fermentation in a sealed bottle, the wines are saturated with oxygen prior to second fermentation. This leads to wines that ages fast, and the main shield is the reductive sugar of the dosage. Without it, the oxygen will age it fast.
If you read what Tom Stevenson says, there is no official scientific proof to why this is happening, but he has felt like many of us, that lowering the sugar content in a dosage, can lead to unintended consequences. Yes, sugar can cover up lots of flaws. Also, there is normally, no addition of SO2 (Sulfur Dioxide – AKA Sulfites) during the 2nd fermentation step when the wine is covered in oxygen, just like the winemaker above stated. This comes down to the issue at hand, without more SO2, how can wine survive?
Many houses add SO2 at the point of the 2nd fermentation when the wine is bathed in oxygen, but houses like Drappier are very proud of not adding more than 30 mg/L of SO2.
I asked another kosher winemaker (Ernie Weir of Hagafen Winery) about this very subject – and this was his reply:
The 6g/L sweet spot seems to be a real thing for many of us. In fact, our, as yet to be released, 2015 Prix Reserve Cuvée Sparkling wine was finished with a 6g/L dosage. I have long believed that too dry is not for everyone since the acidity in fine sparkling wine is always much higher than we are accustomed to drinking in still white wines. Somewhere between 4-6 g/L is the taste threshold for most people at which they can discern sweetness. This sweetness or near sweetness serves well to balance the high acidity of sparkling wines.
Tom Stevenson is a wonderful maven of sparkling wine and his observations and comments are much appreciated by most of us in the industry. His discussion on this topic is very appropriate and observant of the methodology and potential flaws. I concur that the lack of sufficient SO2 is critical towards the ability to age. The opportunity to sulfite as needed at dosage time is ideal since each fermented bottle is opened and available for analysis and adjustment as needed. Of course, we do not really alter the sulfite addition for each bottle but when done correctly the chemistry variation from bottle to bottle is minimal.
Tom Stevenson’s take besides the SO2 discussion and the magical 6g+/L addition is quite poignant and important, and that would be that there are wines he has tasted, with zero dosage that are still quite lovely. Few, but they exist. How? Mr. Stevenson says it best in the longer post above in the 4th paragraph of his response to the thread:
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.
Oxidation in Sparkling Wines
Now before this whole piece goes to the dogs, I must stress that I like Sparkling wines. I am a fan of the 2005 Yarden Blanc de Blancs, and I have a few of them still. The issue I am finding with the Brut Nature is the fleeting nature of this natural quality if you wish to call it that. The joy of this kind of wine is it’s crisp, insanely tart, dare I say “Puissant”, and focused style of sparkling wine. When that fades, and you get a less balanced wine than a beautiful 6g/L+ dosage wine, you have to ask, are the houses do themselves a favor?
To me, every house MUST put their dosage date on every bottle they make, much like Drappier, and many others do! Next, they should educate the public on what they are buying. They are buying a wine that may well not age well and may not be what you normally are looking for from a classic Champagne. The first time I had the Drappier Brut Nature when it was showing well, I called it a Sparkling wine with big boy pants. Yes, it was insanely crisp, refined, and focused. Sadly, when it goes, it goes hard, and that is my concern. These wines need to warn their public. They need to make sure that the buying public knows what they are getting themselves into.
The 6g+/L sparkling wines are what the public expects and they age incredibly well. However, there seems to be, in the non-kosher world, Brut Nature Sparkling wines that do age well, I hope one day we get to taste those. Until then, PLEASE follow the steps I state clearly below and enjoy!
Soon to be released results
What I found fascinating was that Mr. Steveneson convinced 13 houses to commit to a test (described at the end of the shorter link)! They are Deutz, Drappier, Duval-Leroy, Alfred Gratien, Lanson, Moët & Chandon, Mumm, Pol Roger, Pommery, Roederer, Ruinart, Taittinger, and Veuve Clicquot. They disgorged 16 magnums of 2004 and 16 magnums of 2002 and dosage four of each vintage with 0, 3, 6 and 9 grams of residual sugar. A total of 416 magnums.
The decision to age in magnum in the producers’ own cellars should guarantee the most graceful longevity possible, thus place the severest test on the role of sugar. A long-term study, it will involve two tastings, the first in 2015, when the findings after three years on cork will be published, and the second in 2018, after six years.
By the way, I hope you noticed that Drappier was one of them. I have reached out to Mr. Stevenson and others to get the results of the tests. I tweeted Mr. Stevenson, regarding these results and this was his reply: Being published by @worldoffinewine later this year! @CSWWC19 @EssiAvellan. I look forward to that article!
How to enjoy kosher Brut Nature/Non-Dose/Non-Dosage Sparkling wines
If you look at my notes of the Drappier I had in November of last year, you will see I commented on how this tasted superior to the Non-Dose Bonnet Ponson notes I had posted earlier. Also, not I had the drinking window on the Drappier Brut Nature WAAAY off. Keep it to one year, lesson learned.
For now, I would stick with one year! So, check the bottle of the Drappier Brut Nature. On the very bottom, there is a laser etching of the bottling date! Make sure it is less than a year from when u want to enjoy it.
Royal just shipped a new run of the Brut Nature, along with a new run of the Drappier Cote d’Or, so go find the latest bottling date. Sadly, the Bonnet Ponson Non-Dose had one bottling and so I would get drinking on those ASAP. I hear there are new kosher Bonnet Ponson wines coming soon, so look for those!
The wine notes follow below – the explanation of my “scores” can be found here:
Drappier Brut Nature, Zero Dosage – Score: 92 (Mevushal) (QPR)
This is the second wine being released with what is called Zero or Nature dosage. Meaning that at the time of bottling most Champagne adds a bit of sweetness to the wines to balance out the extreme tartness of Champagne’s base wine. However, recently the market has clamored for more acid, more tart fruit, and with that demand comes Zero Dosage Sparkling wines. This wine has 2G of RS (Residual Sugar), and it makes for a truly enjoyable experience. Think of this as the Big Boy’s pants of kosher Champagnes out there right now! Also, Drappier has dropped their Brut Blanche, so to me, this is the GO TO Champagne on the market right now! WOW! This wine is made from 100% Pinot Noir Blanc de Noir (meaning the juice of the Pinot Noir crushed and pressed like white wine and the wine that come from it is white/clear-ish)
One last comment on these Zero Dosage wines, there is a large amount of history around Non-kosher non-dosage wines, and they do not last long, like 2 years or less. There have been non-kosher non-dosage wines that have lived long, but so far, this wine is showing beautifully for a year and then it is starting to show age. That is exactly what happened to the Bonnet Ponson Zero Dosage as well. So, before you buy the bottle, check the bottling date! Yous ay what? Yes! The bottom of the bottle has a printed/engraved combination of letters and numbers. The last 4 digits are the month and year of bottling. Stick to 1 year and you should be good! enjoy!
This wine shows so much better, in comparison to the Bonet Ponson Zero (the other Zero dosage on the market), which while nice, tastes old already.
The nose is very much like the normal Drappier, with rich dry quince, rich mineral, with dried grapefruit, intense yeast, with brioche, and green Apple. The mouth on this wine is different, very different, and crazy, with a very effervescent mousse, showing a crazy attack of small mousse bubbles, with rich tart fruit, slate and lovely pith, with layers upon layers of Apple, citrus, gooseberry, with rich tart summer fruit that gives way to the mousse attack, followed by lovely notes with rich brioche and almost key-lime pie. The wine is so fresh, young, tart, and super refreshing, WOW! The finish is long and green, with more mineral, yeast, and tart notes, making for a super refreshing finish. Bravo!! Drink for one year after Dosage date, which is etched into the bottom of the bottle.
NV Bonnet-Ponson Non-Dose – Score: 90
I have now tasted this wine 4 times, three times in the USA and once in France and sadly, it is not great. It is there, but it tastes old and tired, and this is a non-dosage wine that was meant to give it that really acidic focus. Sadly, it is far too reminiscent of the older Bonnet Ponson that is also on its way down. Drink up!! Also, there was one run of this, so whatever you have the non-dose is the only run, so far anyway. I hope future runs will have the dosage date etched on them like Drappier does.
The nose is nice, but this does not smell or taste like a non-dosage wine. So sad, I really wanted a bone-dry bubbly, instead, it was a nice bubbly with yeast galore, and oxidation that was not what I was expecting from its label. The nose is filled with yeast, rich quince, with oxidation, and lots of earth, and dried fruit. The mouth is nice, with a lovely small-bubble mousse, with great acid and focus, that gives way to green apple, pear, and lovely spice, that is filled with mineral and great focus. The finish is long with tart fruit, green fruit, and lovely oxidized notes, that give way to almonds, and fruit pith. Drink UP!!!