Champagne Diary part 1: Brut versus Zero Dosage. Visits to Laurent-Perrier, Ayala, and Philipponnat

“A zero dosage Champagne is like a woman without makeup,” they are fond of saying at Champagne houses that have chosen not to produce this style. “You need a little sugar to bring out full flavor variety.” You could not say that the trend to zero dosage is sweeping through Champagne, as nonvintage Brut remains the vast majority of production at all houses, but there is definitely a trend to reduce dosage in Brut and (sometimes) to go to the extreme of using no dosage. The big question is what does this do to the style: is zero dosage simply the same wine but without the touch of sweetness, or is it something different?

Zero dosage (or Brut Nature) or Extra Brut or Brut is not entirely reliable as a description any more. A general reduction in dosage in Champagne means that some houses are now making a Brut with dosage below 6 g, so it could in fact be labeled Extra Brut (the regulation is simply that Brut must be less than12 g, and extra Brut must be less than 6 g), but they usually stick to the Brut description out of concern that people might think there had been a change in style. “We don’t use Extra Brut,” says Bruno Paillard, “because the category has been ruined by poor wines coming from producers who want to say ‘my wines are purer than pure’.” Zero dosage is a direct statement, however, but the style isn’t as different from the Brut (or Extra Brut) as the name might indicate, because the usual practice is to give the zero dosage longer (as much as an extra year) on the lees: the extra time brings a richness that compensates for the lower dosage. Or put the other way round, a zero dosage champagne does not allow sugar to influence the taste: it’s a wine in which the quality of the fruits is directly exposed.

“The trend for zero dosage is nothing new to us,” says Ann-Laure Domenichini at Laurent-Perrier. “Veuve Laurent Perrier created the first non dosage champagne – Grand Vin Sans Sucre – around 1881, at the request of British customers. It was withdrawn around the first world war as it wasn’t to the taste of the French. Bernard de Nonancourt reintroduced it in 1988 when nouvelle cuisine started the trend for sauces without cream. He called it the naked Champagne.” Today the Ultra Brut comes from an equal blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay chosen for high ripeness and low acidity; in fact, it’s not made in years that aren’t ripe enough (such as 1996). Indeed, I am not sure I would peg this as zero dosage in a blind tasting, because the fruits are so ripe. “This is not the nonvintage with no dosage, but is its own wine,” Ann-Laure emphasizes. The style shows great purity of fruits, poised between Blanc de Blancs and Blanc de Noirs in style, with more precision than the Brut. The Brut is quite deceptive because dosage feels extremely moderate although in fact it is quite high at 11 g now that it has 50% Chardonnay (it used to be 12 g when Chardonnay was 45%). These are two different wines, both in the light, elegant Laurent-Perrier style, but personally I’m inclined to regard the Ultra Brut as a step up from the Brut in refinement.

Ayala is another house that has a history of lower dosage Champagnes. In 1865 it was only 21 g, about a third of the standard for the time. Old posters for Ayala from the early twentieth century emphasize its dry character. Since Bollinger bought Ayala in 2005, the brand has been repositioned – or perhaps you might say has returned to its roots of the early twentieth century – by focusing on a Chardonnay-driven, crisp, pure style. The flagship Brut Majeur (a blend of 40% Chardonnay, 40% Pinot Noir, 20% Pinot Meunier), which accounts for about 80% of production, has a crisp, elegant style, emphasized by low dosage (7 g). The Brut Nature is exactly the same blend but has zero dosage; the only difference with Brut Majeur is that the lack of dosage is compensated by an additional year on the lees before disgorgement. So when I tasted the two side by side at Ayala, the current Brut Nature had a base wine from 2009, whereas the Brut Majeur had a base wine from 2010. The house style is recognizable in both wines, fresh and elegant, with a similar balance and without an enormous difference in perceptible sweetness; the difference for me is more that I find the Brut Nature to show more precision and purity of fruits. Another bottle of Brut Nature, disgorged somewhat earlier with base wine 2008, provided a fascinating contrast: extra time in the bottle has brought some development to a broader, less overtly mineral character: so zero dosage can evolve. Another demonstration of this capacity was the prestige Perle d’Ayala Brut Nature from 2002, which added savory brioche to the usual salinity, but, it has to be admitted, was not as complex as the Perle d’Ayala Brut of 2005.

Direct pairwise comparisons of Brut with Zero Dosage show that much more than sweetness is involved. The closest exact parallel was at Philipponnat, where the Royale Réserve Brut and Non Dosé both had base vintage 2010, and are exactly the same blend. The only difference was that Brut has 8 g/l dosage and was disgorged a bit earlier (December 2013) compared with the Non Dosé, which was disgorged later (April 2014). The non dosé has a more citric impression to nose than the Brut. It’s certainly drier, but more to the point, shows more minerality with suggestions of salinity at the end. But the Brut feels more like a full year older, with more sense of flavors broadening out with development. This seems to support the idea that zero dosage Champagnes mature more slowly (some people argue that they don’t mature at all), because the normal development of Champagne depends on the reaction of sugar with nitrogenous components in the wine. A fair summary is that the non dosage is less generous, less broad, but more precise. The main point is that the difference is not just a matter of the sweetness level, but the whole flavor spectrum is shifted from stone to citrus.

Everywhere I was able to perform a direct comparison of Zero Dosage with Brut, I preferred the former, not because it was drier, but because the fruits were more precise and more elegant, but I would be more inclined to have zero dosage with a meal and Brut as an aperitif. It is a fascinating comparison because so much more than mere sweetness is involved: it offers a whole new insight into Champagne.

Should you Decant Champagne?

“It all depends on what you want from your Champagne,” said the Anima Figure, my dinner companion, as we watched the Vintage 2004 being decanted at a tasting of Billecart-Salmon Champagne, held at The Modern in New York to celebrate François Roland Billecart’s first visit to the United States in 25 years. It was a lovely golden color, with a mousse on the surface of the decanter that dissipated fairly quickly. I know that some producers have recently been talking about decanting Champagne, but I confess that I have not myself seen Champagne decanted previously, so I was more than curious about the rationale on this particular occasion.

François Billecart had recommended that this vintage should be decanted around 45 minutes before serving, because it is still quite tight. As poured from the decanter, it was full of flavor, round and nutty with notes of brioche, and a deep texture. What about the bubbles? Well it was definitely a sparkling wine, but the fizz was not very aggressive. As served, it was a perfect match for the lobster in smoked vegetable broth.

The 2004 was the initial year of the new “Vintage” range. It’s two thirds Pinot Noir from Mareuil, with 20% vinified in barrique. When I first tasted it, at Billecart Salmon last summer, winemaker François Domi said, “This has brought ampleur. We changed the philosophy a bit. ” My recollection from that tasting was that the wine was rounded, but not oaky, with the effect of wood showing more in the creamier textured impression on the palate. The richness belies its Extra Brut status.

Based on my memory, this Champagne seemed pretty flavorful on opening, so I prevailed on the sommelier to pour me a fresh sample the next time a bottle was opened for decanting. The comparison was like night and day. Against the food, the bubbles seemed quite aggressive, hiding the flavors that were such a good match in the decanted sample. But at this point, more than hour after the initial decantation, the decanted sample was beginning to become a bit flat.

Later I had the opportunity to ask François Roland Billecart directly about the recommendation to decant. We agreed that you lose freshness but gain flavor by decanting, and the question is the best compromise. “It depends on the occasion,” François says. “If it’s for an aperitif, you should open the bottle and serve, but if it’s with dinner, decant before.” I continued to compare the two samples as they sat in the glass—they were served incidentally in wine glasses as opposed to flutes, another statement of purpose—and I felt that the ideal compromise between sparkle and flavor was reached somewhere between 30-45 minutes after opening.

Older wines at the tasting were also served in wine glasses. My favorite was the 1997 Blanc de Blancs, showing a lovely balance between developing fruits and nuts and truffles. With great depth on the finish, it outshone the Nicolas François Billecart 1997. The Elisabeth Salmon Rosé 1990 was most impressive, actually seeming less developed than the 1997 vintage Champagnes. Here is the full delicacy of rosé for which Billecart-Salmon is famous, with the subtle development of age.

I’m not sure I would go to the full extreme of decanting, but there is certainly a case to be made for opening a young vintage half an hour or so in advance to allow flavors to emerge that you would scarcely suspect if you guzzled it all immediately on opening.

The High Life: Wine at 37,000 feet

Flying transatlantic isn’t a great opportunity for fine wine and dining, but there really isn’t much else to do on the flight besides eat, drink, and sleep, so I thought I’d make an assessment of the present state of the high life. Flying American Airlines from New York to London, en route to start research in Bordeaux for my book on Cabernet Sauvignon, my assessment got off to a poor start in the lounge before takeoff, when the sparkling wine was Gloria Ferrer Brut from Sonoma. Judged by the taste, Brut is clearly a misnomer. Sweet to the point of being sickly, the monotonic palate had a strong taste of green apples (although without the matching acidity you might expect), and if you had told me it was a sparkling apple cider, I would have been hard put to argue. There are some fine sparkling wines made in northern California, but this is not one of them, and proved to be a sad harbinger for what was to follow.

Things improved briefly after takeoff when the Champagne was Pommery. Now this has never been one of my favorites – it always used to strike me as too thin and lacking in fruit – but it has definitely improved since Vranken acquired the brand name in 1990. I don’t know whether taste is affected by the low pressure at altitude, but this now seems to be a respectable, if rather ordinary sparkling wine. There’s not much character to it, and the dosage is just a touch too high for my taste – I wonder whether my impression that dosage has been increasing is right or whether my palate has changed – giving an impression that sugar is being used to compensate for lack of flavor interest. The wine seems essentially uninteresting and its flat flavor profile gave me some trouble in trying to find descriptors for a tasting note. You don’t expect originality from Grand Marque Champagnes, but I still think Pommery could do a better job to disguise its mass produced origins.

The white wines offered a choice between L’Ecole No. 41 Chardonnay from Washington State and Thilion Torbato Sauvignon Blanc from Sardinia. I had some trouble distinguishing them. If I were to be unkind I would say that the Chardonnay was a forlorn attempt to achieve the New World style. The palate has been loaded with oak to disguise the lack of ripeness in the fruit. The oak flavors stand aside from the fruits, and if I didn’t know that the wine had been aged in barriques I would have wondered about the use of oak chips The oak gives a hard, disjointed, phenolic note to the finish. This is one of those rare wines that would have been improved by a shorter finish, as what mostly lingers on are those disjointed oak phenolics.

Despairing of the Chardonnay, I turned to my wife’s Sauvignon Blanc (actually a blend of Sauvignon Blanc with the indigenous grape Torbata), although its relatively deep golden color made me feel suspicious even before I tasted it. A sniff made things worse. Instead of the expected grassiness or herbaceousness came a sort of slightly astringent citrus note. Maybe this is due to the Torbata, which is supposed to have a smoky aroma. Again the palate was loaded with harsh phenolics. I would have placed this as an aromatic variety in a blind tasting, but I think I would have had some trouble recognizing Sauvignon Blanc in it. I wonder whether I would have been able to identify the wines, if I’d been given them blind and told that one was Chardonnay and one was a Sauvignon blend. It wouldn’t be easy to find varietal typicity in this pair, but perhaps the greater acidity and aromaticity would identify the Sauvignon.

On to the reds, where we tried the Villa Mount Eden Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa and the Tres Picos Garnacha. Now I remember a period in the late 1970s when Villa Mt. Eden had a great reputation. In fact, based on Robert Parker’s recommendation, I bought a case of the 1978 vintage and drank it for several years. It never achieved greatness, but was still holding up quite well in 1993 when I had the last bottle. Sic transit gloria mundi. I do not think the old style is remotely recognizable in the current wine. When I swirled and smelled the wine, I wondered if there had been a mistake as the aromas of black cherry fruits with some piquancy came up at me. No, I decided on smelling my wife’s wine, which was even more aromatic and piquant. Following to the palate, the Cabernet showed no more typicity of Cabernet than the Chardonnay had of Chardonnay. The only note of relief was an oaky vanillin that seemed artificial. I’ve never really thought of Cabernet Sauvignon as an intensely aromatic variety, but after this wine I might have to change my opinion. (To be fair, you can find some high-end Napa or Barossa Cabernets with fairly distinct aromatics, but although I don’t usually like the wines, at least I can recognize a matching concentration and fruit intensity that hangs together.)

After this, I approached the Grenache with trepidation. The only information American Airlines provided about its origins is that it is produced in Spain. It turns out to come from the Campo de Borja DO, just to the south of Navarra, where Grenache is the principal grape. I have to disagree with Robert Parker’s high ratings for this wine. Aromatic and piquant on the nose, it followed through to the palate with bright red cherry fruits and a piquancy that made me wonder about acidification, with a slightly sickly nutty end to the finish.  But I have an idea. Add a little sugar and the profile would be perfect for a dessert wine. (After this, I decided not to sample the dessert wine, which however seemed to be a perfectly respectable vintage port.)

I can’t completely exclude the possibility that my palate was out of whack at 35,000 feet, but at all events the common feature of these wines seemed to be excessive striving for intensity. Subtle they ain’t. Even at the crunched price point – I calculate that if every passenger had a glass of wine American would be spending about $2.00 per passenger – there could at least be more variety of choice.

The food was better than the wine but not by a large margin. In all the years I have been on American Airlines, the food has never been up to much. Ranging from barely edible to inedible, sometimes it strikes me as unfit for human consumption (well, consumption by this human, anyway). In the past year or two there’s been some slight improvement. There was always a tendency on American to make the food highly spiced – just what you want at 35,000 feet where you tend to get dehydrated anyway – I assume to disguise the poor quality of the ingredients, but fortunately that phase seems to have passed. Of course, the days of  Krug and caviar on transatlantic flights are long since gone, but surely they could do better than to serve dried out hot meals. I’d settle for cold salads made from better ingredients any time (but I guess the bean counters won’t wear it). In any case, I’ll leave the last word to an American flight attendant, who some years ago said to me, “We’re not fine dining, we’re transportation.”