Is Brut Champagne Dying?
Over the last few years, one of the biggest trends that I have witnessed in Champagne has been the drive toward extra brut by the Champenois. This is because of three main factors: climate change, the French fine dining scene, and a strange perception of diet. Before I jump into this trend, it is worth noting that the entire history of Champagne as a beverage has been a journey to ever-drier wines. The original Champagnes from 200 years ago were fantastically sweet—they were what we would call doux now, often dosed at over 80 grams of sugar per liter. As the market called for drier wines, sec was introduced, but this category runs from 32–17 grams per liter, still very sweet. When the market called for even drier, they invented the term extra-dry, which is a super confusing name for an off-dry wine at 17–12 grams per liter of dosage. When Perrier-Jouët launched a new, drier style in 1854, they called it brut—because extra, extra dry would have sounded funny. Brut is now the category for 0–12 grams per liter of dosage. Now we are at the dawn of the extra-brut era—which runs from 0–6 grams per liter of dosage. Note the overlap—a lot of producers wisely call wine in the extra-brut range brut, because of the subjective taste of the wine, but the trend is heading the other direction.
Climate change is the number one factor driving the move towards the production of more extra bruts. The 2003 vintage was the hottest since 1852, but 2015 was the hottest ever, until 2018 replaced it at the top of the list. Higher natural ripeness in the wines and lower total acidity makes them come into balance with less sugar. These days, they simply do not need to add as much as they used to achieve the same balance on the palate. The trend is clear, and they are ready to react with lower dosage.
Fine dining restaurants in France have also been asking for more of this style of Champagne. Extra brut Champagne is excellent for food pairings, especially with France’s excellent seafood. The domestic market for Champagne is shrinking within France, but requests for extra brut from restaurants are up. This is a trend that I believe will continue as well—the potential with food is great. I especially like extra brut styles with shellfish. Next time you are having oysters it is a must-try.
The final factor is by far the strangest. Ever since my first trip to Champagne, I have heard from producers that extra brut, especially cuvées with no dosage at all, are great for people who are on a diet. I still hear this on every trip. Considering that a gram of sugar has four calories, this is a silly point. If you were to have a brut Champagne that was dosed as high as legally allowed, it would have 12 grams of sugar per liter in it. That translates into 9 grams of sugar in the bottle, yielding 36 calories from sugar if you drank the whole thing yourself. I suppose the perception of it being a “skinny” option is enough to move the needle on sales, so they are going to keep promoting that way. I think it might be better to eat fewer hamburgers and not worry too much about dosage.
The big resistance to extra brut for the U.S. market is the memory of too many harsh, raw wines from a decade or so ago. This problem is disappearing. The best producers are selecting their ripest parcels and ageing the wine longer on the lees for their extra bruts. This is yielding some very interesting results, with wines that are in wonderful balance at lower levels of sugar. I recently poured a public tasting, and more than one person commented that the brut tasted drier than the extra brut. This phenomenon is very common during dosage trials.
To arrive at the right amount of sugar for a given disgorgement run of a given cuvée, all the producers will do a test, usually blind. They do six or eight different levels of dosage for each wine. Sitting in on one of these tastings is humbling. Often, a wine will taste sweeter at a lower level of dosage than at a higher one, as the sugar, like in any recipe, has a complex relationship with the rest of the flavors. It is certainly true that different wines can vary vastly in sweetness at different levels of sugar! I can promise you that an old-vine Bouzy Grand Cru from a ripe vintage at 6 grams will taste much sweeter than a Mesnil Chardonnay from a cold vintage at 12.
I hope that my Champagne-loving friends will keep an open mind about the extra brut style. They are evolving quickly and tasting good.
A toast to you!
- Gary Westby