This way to Champagne Tarlant (signpost)

A few months ago, a discussion about “zero dosage” Champagne erupted onto my twitter feed. Robert Joseph typically voiced it with brevity and force:

“There’s NOTHING hedonistic about zero dosage wine. At least not to non-masochists.”

What was this all about? Well, most Champagne, and notably all of the big non-vintage brands (The “Grand Marques” as the French call them) have a little sweetness added after their second fermentation. This “liqueur d’expedition”, usually a white wine sweetened with grape juice, is designed to take the edge off what can sometimes be a rather brutal and acerbic wine.

Melanie Tarlant next to the family vineyards
Melanie Tarlant next to the family vineyards

The problem is that the Champenois have become used to picking their grapes a bit carelessly – never mind if they are bitterly unripe and overly acidic. It doesn’t matter, the liqueur d’expedition will sort it out. So, well known brands like Moët et Chandon (don’t forget the “t” is pronounced, by the way), Bollinger and Tattinger usually have around 8-12gr of “dosage” added. The exact amounts are not stated on the bottle.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. The solution is to take more care with the ripeness and quality of the grapes – then it’s possible to make a true “terroir” wine, and one with very little, or even no dosage. There are those, such as Robert, who believe that this style can never rise above some kind of academic pleasure. I disagree.

As young adults (or children, if you’re French), we “acquire” the taste for alcohol. Most of us don’t immediately like the bitter, strong flavours, but we get used to it, and for many of us, this leads to lifelong pleasure. Why shouldn’t we also acquire a taste for zero dosage Champagnes? After all, our palates become accustomed to more or less sweetness through childhood and later life – and less sweetness, for me, paves the way to greater elegance and greater expression of the terroir.

Tarlant vineyards and Oeuilly in the snow
Tarlant vineyards and Oeuilly in the snow

Benoit and Melanie are the 12th generation of Champagne Tarlant, a small estate that grows and produces Champagne (unlike most small holdings, which just grow grapes and sell them to the big houses). They are so passionate about their Brut Nature (“pas dosé”) style that they have made it their “house” Champagne, not a higher priced speciality cuvée. Indeed the Tarlant zero dosage represents some 60% of their total production (around 100,000 bottles a year – a drop in the ocean for the big Champagne houses). Benoit stressed “It’s not a champagne for elitists – we want to make this (Brut nature) for everyone”.

I might not describe this wine as “hedonistic”, but neither is it austere. There is generous baked apple fruit and an almost creamy texture, terrific elegance and complex, almost oxidative hints – resulting from oak ageing the base wines. Overall, it reminds me of a fabulous, steely Chablis Premier Cru, with added bubbles. And who would suggest that people should add sugar to Chablis?

The Tarlants are not fanatics. They do not wear open-toed sandals, beads or hair-shirts. But Benoit and Melanie are passionate about their vines, and preserving them for the future – so that means that responsible viticulture (no synthetic sprays) and low-intervention is the order of the day. Furthermore, in the winery, wild yeasts are preferred, and great care is taken with the pressing, to preserve the delicate character of the grapes.

tarlant back label
The all important back label

Innovation is also important. Since Benoit took over as chief winemaker in 1999, there has been a keenness to deconstruct the mystery that the Champenois have historically erected around their product. This means experimenting with single varietal and single vineyard “terroir” Champagnes – confounding the notion that Champagne has to be a blend. Benoit: “I prefer to focus on what nature can give me in one place, rather than focusing on the brand”.

The Tarlants are also admirably transparent on the back label. It is (literally) refreshing to see that all of Tarlant’s bottles carry a disgorgement date on the rear – so no more chancing a purchase from a retail outlet with dubious stock controls or rotation.

The Tarlants are astute business people who live in the 21st Century. Melanie is much reknowned for her considerable social media presence, and the estate boasts an enviable online experience via web, video, facebook, twitter and so forth. Their genius is to match a genuine, artisanal love of land and heritage with such commercial awareness.