I Form a New View of Champagne at the Fête de Champagne: Savory not Sweet

Tasting through the wines of thirty producers at the Fête de Champagne in New York, my notes often read “savory” or even “umami,” sometimes “austere” or “mineral,” but rarely mentioned sweetness or sugar. Of course, this could be because I focused on small grower-producers rather than large houses, because producers chose to bring a particular selection of Champagnes biased away from the more traditional style, or because the organizers took a specific view of what cuvées would be suitable to present in New York.

Several producers showed only Extra Brut or Zero Dosage (Brut Nature), where the trend was clearest.  It’s certainly true that dosage has been decreasing in Champagne over the past decade, although this is more to maintain continuity of style in the face of riper grapes resulting from global warming than to change the style, and there is also something of a trend to introduce zero dosage cuvées, but almost a quarter of the cuvées at the Fête de Champagne were Extra Brut, and as many again were Zero Dosage, which seems quite extreme against the general statistical trend. (Actually the classification as stated on the label probably underestimates the trend to Extra Brut, because many cuvées where dosage has been reduced below 4 g/l continue to be labeled as Brut although they could be Extra Brut.)

Although acidity has been decreasing with the warmer vintages, there was no shortage of it at the tasting (even though most producers are performing malolactic fermentation). Subjectively it does not seem that the crispness of Champagne is at all threatened at present, in fact producers have scope to display acidity by moving to Extra Brut or Zero Dosage, or to suppress it by moving into the realm of Brut with higher dosage. Objectively, it’s probably the fact that acidity is lower than it used to be that allows the Extra Brut and Zero Dosage styles to be produced; indeed, some producers use only their ripest grapes for Zero Dosage as otherwise the wines really can be too austere. I would say that in almost half of the Zero Dosage I tasted at the Fête, acidity was higher than I was really comfortable with on the palate, and some of the Extra Brut cuvées were a bit too austere for my palate, showing a touch too much bitterness on the finish: in these classes, there is no escaping from the need for absolutely top quality grapes.

But aside from the whole question of the acid to sweetness balance, savory impressions in Champagne are something relatively new to me (talking here about newly released Champagnes rather than the tertiary qualities that develop much later). The trend to Extra Brut and Zero Dosage is no doubt a prerequisite, since at Brut levels of dosage, any savory notes are likely to be hidden by the sweetness from the residual sugar. One of the most overtly savory Champagnes I have had was De Sousa’s Umami, so named because Erik de Sousa wanted to capture impressions of umami in a wine after he returned from a visit to Japan, but conditions have been right to produce this cuvée only once, he says (in 2009).

Jacquesson’s numbered releases (each representing a base year augmented by small amounts of other recent vintages) have low dosage to bring out the savory side, and it was fascinating to see that a late disgorgement of #735 (base year 2007) really enhanced the savory style. Perhaps the most savory Champagne of the day was Jacquesson’s vintage 2007 from Dizy.

Benoit Tarlant is one of my favorite small growers for his focus on Zero Dosage, and this time I found that his rosé took the edge of the austerity of the style to give a flavorful balance. And there on the Cuvée Louis 2000 Brut Nature is a lovely savory tang at the end: who says that Brut Nature can’t age (some critics argue that it can’t, because sugar is needed for the Maillard reaction with nitrogenous compounds that is the basis for the development of toast and brioche).

I was impressed with the wines of Chartogne-Taillet for their fresh precision and savory aftertaste. Maison Bérêche’s cuvées seemed a little on the acid side, more herbal than savory, but a million miles from that sensation of saccharine on the over dosed Champagnes of the past. Villmart’s cuvées seem to be moving in a savory direction as they age.

I draw a distinction between savory and minerality (even allowing for the fact that minerality means all things to all people, as I discussed in the previous blog: There Is No Such Thing as Minerality). For me, minerality is stony, smoky, flinty, the quintessential marker would be gunflint; whereas for savory, I’m looking for an impression of umami, maybe a touch of fenugrek (Scarborough Fair Wines in the Jura). I got impressions of minerality in the tight, precise style of Larmandier-Bernier and René Geoffroy, with more savory impressions in the wines of Pascal Doquet and Michel Gonet, as well as those already mentioned. What I like about this is the feeling that Champagne is no longer a wine sweetened to hide the problems of ripening grapes in a marginal climate, but is now offering interesting representations of terroir (and sometimes cépage)

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