The sweet secrets of champagne sugar levels
How can you tell the sweetness of a champagne from the label and what’s happening with the latest trend for ‘zero dosage’? What does dosage even mean? From ‘brut zero’, to ‘doux’, here is your Clos19 guide to the various sweetness levels of champagne, when they are best served and why sweeter champagnes can make some stunning cocktails.
Extra brut or doux? How does a champagne become sweet or dry?
Right at the very end of the champagne-making process, two important adjustments are made. Firstly, the ‘lees’ (dead yeast cells) are removed from the bottle neck during the ‘disgorgement’ process, taking a bit of the wine with them. Secondly, the wine used to top up the bottle can have sugar added to it and it is the amount of sugar used here that will determine the final sweetness level of the wine. You can tell how sweet a champagne is by looking for certain expressions on the label that each correspond to specific sugar levels. Here they are, from driest to sweetest:
Brut Nature (or zero dosage, brut zero): The driest style with no sugar added. A maximum of 3 grams per litre of residual sugar is detected.
Extra Brut: 0-6 g/L. If under 3g/L, could also be called Brut Nature.
Brut: 0-12g/L. If under 6g/L, could also be called Extra Brut.
Extra Dry: 12-17g/L
Doux: A fully sweet style, with 50+g/L
A sweet history of ‘dosage’ (adding sugar)
It was Madame Clicquot in her famous cellars in Champagne who invented the technique of allowing a bottle to collect sediment in the neck before ejecting it. This ‘riddling’ meant that some wine was lost as the sediment was disposed of, so the bottles needed to be topped up with wine. At the time, the fashion amongst some of Champagne’s wealthiest buyers from Russia was for sweeter wines, so the house of Veuve Clicquot began tailoring the sweetness levels of their champagnes to taste by adding sugar to the wine that topped up the bottles et voila! ‘Dosage’ became an official winemaking technique in Champagne.
Different countries preferred different levels of sweetness at the time. The English favoured the driest style of all, which back then, was still 22-66 grams per litre of sugar. Next, it was The USA, then Germany who preferred sweeter styles still, then Scandinavia, who loved bottles with 200 grams per litre or so. It was Russia who opted for the sweetest styles of all however, favouring wines with up to 330 grams per litre of sugar. Now that’s sweet! It’s no wonder that when some palates began to favour drier styles of champagne in the mid-18th century, that some critics would describe them as harsh or ‘brutish’ – hence the term ‘brut’ that we still see on labels. Sugar does, after all, cover a multitude of sins.
Eventually, ‘brut’ became the preferred style of champagne globally and is still very much in favour today. However, there is now a burgeoning trend for an even drier style than that…
What’s on trend? Less sugar please.
With ‘sugar’ becoming a naughty word of late, there has been a trend towards ‘zero dosage’ champagnes, i.e. with no sugar added. These wines are appreciated for their crispness and freshness but also, for showing their terroir more clearly than sweeter versions. Try the complex and vinous Veuve Clicquot Extra Brut Extra Old, for example.
Champagnes with sugar added don’t necessarily taste sweet though; up to ‘extra brut’, this sweetness may simply be detected as fruitiness and richness, so, if you want a champagne that definitely tastes sweet, make sure you stick to ‘demi-sec’ or ‘doux’ style. These champagnes with higher dosages are fantastic matches for lighter puddings, but that’s not all; they make spectacular cocktails too. Try the Life in Venice cocktail featuring Moët & Chandon Ice Impérial or the Veuve Clicquot Rich in the Clicquology Cucumber. By using a higher dosage champagne, you create a more balanced, elegant cocktail without any extra, sickly sweet additions from syrups or similar. Experimentation is key and remember; a sweeter style of champagne can still be perfectly balanced.