Rising reserves causing sugar levels to fall in Champagne

7th April, 2014 by Patrick Schmitt

Falling sugar levels in Brut NV Champagne are a result of both warmer conditions in the region, but also the rising proportion of reserve wines used in today’s blends.

Barrells-Champagne

The proportion of reserve wine used in today’s NV blends is commonly up to a third

According to Bruno Paillard, who uses a minimum of 33% reserve wine in his Bruno Paillard Brut Premier, “everyone has a lower dosage” in Champagne, and one major reason for this change is the “influence of reserve wines”.

Comparing today’s sugar levels to the early 80s, when Paillard launched his own label, he said it was common to have a dosage for Brut NV Champagne of 15 g/l – the highest level allowed under the “brut” classification at that time.

“In 1981, when I started, I had a dosage of 10 g/l, while most houses were at 15 g/l, and demi-sec Champagne was 30% of sales – globally people had a sweeter tooth than they do today,” he said, speaking to db last month at the annual Champagne tasting in London.

Speaking generally of the region, he cited a growing demand for drier Champagnes as an incentive to lower the dosage – but added that such a development had been made possible by both global warming and the rising use of reserve wine.

“Global warming is a fact,” he said, “but a further factor [for the drop in average dosages in Brut NV Champagne] is the influence of reserve wines.”

With the use of past vintages to bring greater richness in more acidic years, and freshness in hotter harvests, Champagne houses are able to produce a more consistent Brut NV style, which in turn reduces their reliance on a high dosage to smooth out differences from variable vintage conditions.

Bruno Paillard

Bruno Paillard

Paillard picked out the impact of the famously hot 2003 vintage as an example. Rather than relying on this somewhat anomalous harvest for his Brut NV Champagne, which Paillard described as an “unbalanced base”, he increased the proportion of reserve wine to 50% for his Champagne release that was based on that harvest.

Furthermore, he said that temperature control and stainless steel were together allowing producers to increase the use of reserve wines to bring richness and consistency to their Champagnes.

“Keeping reserve wines is more popular and it is easier to do because of temperature control and stainless steel – the greatest progress made in oenology in the last 50 years is due to temperature control, it’s nothing to do with some miracle powder or sophisticated tool.”

But he also said that storing wine for use at a later date was also “easier” because of current low interest rates, which reduced the cost of borrowing money to buy grapes to make wine and Champagne for extended storage.

“The other factor [for the rising use of reserve wines] is the keeping of interest rates at 2-3% – this makes it much easier than when there were 15% interest rates in 1991 and 1992,” he commented.

But, as highlighted in this year’s Champagne Report by the drinks business – which will be distributed with the April edition of the magazine – the greater use of reserve wine has also been triggered by changes in the way that the CIVC regulates Champagne production.

Alterations in 2007 and again in 2011 actively encourage producers to build their reserves, and they are now allowed in certain circumstances to hold stocks of up to 10,000kgs/ha for a limited period.

As a result, the proportion of reserve wine used in today’s NV blends is commonly up to a third, while as recently as the early 90s, only a few major houses boasted using even 15% reserve in their blends.

Finally, the widespread use of a high proportion of reserve wines is one element certain houses believe the Champagne industry should more strongly promote to differentiate the region’s produce from sparkling wines made in other parts of the world.

For a six-page article on the role of reserve wines in Champagne see this month’s Champagne report, out with the April edition of the drinks business.

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