Sugar key to Champagne quality

31st January, 2013 by Patrick Schmitt

Sugar is vital for the balance and lifespan of Champagne according to Veuve Clicquot cellar master Dominique Demarville.

Adding the dosage

Adding the dosage

Following a tasting of Veuve Clicquot 1990 with different dosages and disgorgement dates, organised exclusively for the drinks business, it was clear that a Champagne with no added sugar was the least impressive, with bruised apple characters from oxidation, even though it had been disgorged the same day.

Speaking of the wine, Demarville explained why, despite extended ageing on its lees, it would show the most oxidation compared to Champagnes from the same vintage with added sugar.

“If you don’t take care, and don’t add any dosage, in a few hours the wine can be oxidized,” he said.

The Champagne also showed a tart acid edge without the balancing influence of added sugar.

Hence, having considered a range of wines with different dosages, Demarville concluded, “The exercise shows that the dosage is important in Champagne, but many think that zero dosage is the perfect wine.”

Unwilling to damn those who produce Champagnes with no added sugar, he did add that it is possible to create good Champagne with no dosage, but it requires a specific blend.

He also said that the dosage, apart from its anti-oxidant properties, “increases the intensity, complexity and minerality of the wines,” and he compared the effect to adding “salt to a dish”.

Of the three wines tasted, one, a Veuve Clicquot Cave Privée 1990, showed the best balance and complexity.

Disgorged in October 2008 with a dosage of 4 g/l, Demarville stressed that the wine had benefitted from 17 years ageing on its lees under crown cap, and five in Veuve Clicquot’s cellars post disgorgment.

Nevertheless, one of the other wines sampled, an original bottle of the 1990 vintage which was disgorged in 1997 and given a 9 g/l dosage, showed remarkable freshness and vitality.

“There is this wonderful possibility with the wines of Champagne to age the wines on the lees and after disgorgement, and both ways are good,” he said.

Dominique Demarville

Veuve Clicquot cellar master Dominique Demarville. Photo taken by Colin Hampden-White for his Greatest Winemakers series

However, he warned that the dosage needs a minimum of three months to integrate into the wine, otherwise there is a danger the sugar will dominate the taste.

Turning the topic to disgorgement dates and the need to incorporate them on the label, he said that such information was printed on the bottle for the Cave Privée releases, but not for the rest of the Veuve Clicquot range.

But, he admitted, “We hope to put the disgorgement date on our vintage Champagne and La Grand Dame [prestige cuvée] this year.”

“I think that on La Grand Dame and vintage, it [printing disgorgement dates on the bottle] is a good thing, but on non-vintage it could be dangerous for two reasons – those drinking for pleasure and enjoyment don’t pay attention to the disgorgement, and putting a disgorgement date on the label might disturb our clients.”

In other words, such a date might be confused with “sell by” or “use by” dates among those consumers who have no knowledge of the Champagne making process – which, after all, is the majority.

Demarville did add though that he admired Krug’s approach, which is to print an ID code on the label that can be used to find out winemaking details online, such as the base vintages and disgorgement dates for each release.

Indeed, looking ahead, he said, “Technology will change this,” referring to the debate on printing information such as the disgorgement date, the components of the blend or the level of dosage.

In particular, Demarville believes that smartphones and quick recognition codes will allow for detailed information on Champagne to be easily accessed online, reducing the need to place it on the label.

In terms of developments at Veuve Clicquot, Demarville said he was working on reducing the level of sulphur dioxide, which is used as an antioxidant and antiseptic in the wines.

Currently he said that the house produces Champagne with about 50-60 mg/l total SO2, with 10 g/l of that “free” at bottling.

The low pH and presence of Carbon Dioxide in Champagne allows for such relatively low levels compared to EU limits – total SO2 at bottling in white wines must not exceed 210mg/l – but Demarville told db, “I am sure we will reduce the level of sulphur by 20 to 30%.”

Key to reducing the level of SO2, which is added three times – once to the juice, again after the malo-lactic fermentation and finally with the dosage – is a gentle pressing and good settling, according to Demarville.

For pure qualitative improvements however, he said the focus was in the vineyard, and above all on soil health.

As a result of this, Demarville said that Veuve Clicquot was aiming to “eliminate the use of herbicides in the next 2-3 years.”

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