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.
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.
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.
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.
Nicely done…and a lovely expression of why wine intoxicates us when you mix up taste, personality of the makers, place and belief. As you know well, that is what I think is truly on the ‘metaphorical’ label of a memorable great and enjoyable bottle of wine. It’s what I taste in the glass. I’ve come to Champagne late in my wine life and honestly, it is only in the last year where under the guidance of my fried Sophie McLean, buyer at Chambers Street Wines, I’ve learned to drink Champagne (and bubbly generally) as wine. As something that is made mostly in the vineyard and where perfect against a preconceived mold is not of interest nor a value. I’ve drunk a lot of Tarlant, all non dosage, and they are on the top of my list of so lovely, yet replete with personality. Re: Robert’s quote. I like Robert a… Read more »
Thank you Arnold. People create all sorts of friendships across all sorts of philosophical, political, religious divides. All that matters is the maintenance of respect for the sincerity with which the other person holds their views. And a readiness to acknowledge when one’s own understanding of the facts is at odds with reality. I can’t claim to achieve either of these objectives consistently – especially because I enjoy teasing and tweaking tails and occasionally (?) overstating my case – but I try.
Nice to see you two having a “love in” on this post! Robert, I will respond to your detailed comments in a bit, was hoping I could get you to reproduce them here, as facebook is such a lousy place for serious discussion. But if not then maybe I’ll quote them and respond!
I think Robert and I could go on tour as lively counterparts about marketing wine and do quite well doing it. Nope…not going to happen!
‘Tweaking tails’ you are good at for certain.
I’ve never been interested in the mass market honestly although once I actually did have a company of mine become so popular to the market that it ended up being a question on Jeopardy 😉
I’d like to respond to some interesting comments that Robert Joseph left about this post on facebook: “A good piece Simon and actually I don’t disagree with much of it. I have actually enjoyed a number of zero-dosage Champagnes, including Tarlant and Pol Roger. These examples – which, like the – to my mind – best “natural” wines do not taste radically different from my favourite “mainstream” wines. They make up for the lack of dosage with the ripeness of the grapes and the natural richness that comes with significant amounts of Pinot Nor and possibly Meunier (as in the Tarlant example). I have, however, had far too many Chardonnay-driven Zero-Dosage Champagnes that come with high praise from French sommeliers but leave my palate feeling as though it has been scoured with lemon juice. The first zero-dosage offering from one of my long-standing favourite Champagne houses, Billecart-Salmon, was a very… Read more »
@facebook-671108823:disqus Robert, I’m still fairly new to the zero dosage style. I think I first formally encountered it in Brescia in 2011 (EWBC Franciacorta tasting), and found many examples that were very enjoyable – to me, at least! Perhaps I’ve been lucky, as I haven’t tasted any real horrors in this style. I have however tasted cheap mass-produced Champagne put up for sale on the UK retail market, which was little better than battery acid – and I’m sure had plenty of dosage added, in a feeble attempt to smooth out the creases. I don’t recall the producers – probably a good thing! I think it comes back to the same old point: A well-made wine is a well-made wine is a well-made wine. If a producer decides to jump on the “zero dosage” bandwagon (does such a thing exist?) without properly thinking through how their offering is going to… Read more »
Need to nudge you a bit. And intellectual appreciation of wine is not the same necessarily as an ‘intellectual type’ of wine of course. Actually don’t really know what either means. If I bring a story of my favorite Beaujolais producer Ducroux to a tasting and use this as a means to explain how it is made, what he doesn’t do and why he can make amazing wine that lasts with no SO2. And why he refuses to charge more than he needs to live on. All this on a really easy to love, quaffable glass of natural Gamay costing less than $15. Is that intellectual? Maybe or maybe just having a good time and sharing my passion. Not certain what an intellectual wine would be but maybe something unique and not for everyone like a Skerk Vitovska? I just reject the ideas that there are is only a tiny… Read more »
If I understand Robert correctly, he means a wine for geeks – one that might seem strange or surprising in its taste profile, and that may not be easy to stick on the table and quaff.
Of course it’s never black and white, so much depends on context. Last night I took a qvevri wine along to a dinner party. It was a fairly mild-mannered example, but still complex, unusual and with a story behind it.
But the occasion ended up not warranting a long discussion about the wine, and it was enjoyably supped without ceremony or intellect coming anywhere near it.
I’m starting to think that the word geek should be focused on the obsession with detail and understanding not on breadth (or weirdness) of the palate.
I’m more tolerant of what I don’t know as it’s an obsession to broaden myself. That initial tolerance is what sets me aside from someone who is looking to find something that just tastes right.
Simon, I like Tarlant too. And I share your dislike of cheap, acidic, sweetened up supermarket fizz. However, I’m less of a Bartok fan. And classical music sales suggest that – to recall my comments about free jazz during our discussion of “natural” wines – it is more of a minority enthusiasm than Beethoven. You may find the 9th – and Krug – both a bit “heavy”. I’ll very happily enjoy both. Hedonistically. And yes of course it’s chacun a son gout, but one has to accept that some “gouts” suit a lot more “chacuns” than others. My experience tasting with consumers (including ones who spend real money on Champagne) is that, in general, they prefer Pinot-dominant wines with dosage, while French sommeliers favour Chardonnay-dominant, zero-dosage efforts. They say these go well with food – which is terrific for all those people who drink their fizz with meals. I do… Read more »
Well, Bartok is pretty accepted into the canon I think! Rather more so than “zero dosage” sparkling wine, perhaps.
Interesting discussion on twitter – about sugar enhancing aroma and also about Pinots Noir & Meunier being more successful in this style. My anecdotal evidence bears out the latter – to a point. But then I like austere Chardonnay-based Franciacorta – although even better if it has a sprinkling of Pinot Blanc.
Ultimately I just think it’s important to note that the style is valid, when properly executed.
I am also fundamentally opposed to the view that just because something is more popular, that makes it more “right” or “acceptable”. Were that to be the case, we would never have innovation in any walk of life.
I rather like Krug actually (well, when someone else is paying). Love the way the autolytic influence is cranked up to the max!
Cava is at it’s best always Zero Dosage. And at the high end where most people outside of Catalunya never wander, the wines are stunning.
The debate about Zero Dosage is one about learning how to make wine better.
It’s funny to see “zero dosage” as a trend/bandwagon, when a region like Cava has had it as the cornerstone of their wine making. Names to try: Recaredo, Mestres, Reventos, among many more.
One nice look at one of the best(relatively young wine history wise, but a great example) http://www.decanter.com/news/blogs/expert/530573/jefford-on-monday-xarel-lo-with-sosa
Fascinating @ryanopaz:disqus – this had not occurred to me (I’m no expert when it comes to Cava).
I completely agree about learning to make wine better. That was most definitely the point that Benoit and Melanie made to me, during my visit.
Would you agree that it’s somewhat easier to work with the riper fruit from the Cava region (and for that matter, Franciacorta), than the more marginal climate in Champagne?
And rather serendipitiously @ryanopaz:disqus, that link also affirms my point about different tastes (again in music). Nice!
Yes it’s much easier to get ripe fruit and the main challenge each year is trying to pick early enough to retain acidity, but develop the phenolics. That said, Brut Nature, as they call it here, often would benefit from a bit of dosage. The problem is, that the locals think only good wine is done without dosage, where as I believe I rather have something drinkable! 🙂
It turns out even with the riper fruit, it’s not easy to make good bubbles without a bit of balancer.
I luuuurve Recaredo wine! In Fact Simon you had the Recaredo Brut Nature at the tasting Onne and I organised in London last fall.
Lovely post about one of my favourite Champagne producers, and i am really happy I nudged you to visit them Simon!! I met Melanie a while ago and fell in love with their wine. It was the Zero which is still one of my favourite Champagnes today. I have included it in many tastings, have subjected my non Champagne drinking family to it and brought many visitors to Tarlant and everybody has enjoyed this wine so it has to be a little hedonistic I guess. I believe the secret is in the making of the wine. A point you missed is that Tarlant started to produce Brut Nature in the 80’s so they have a long experience and know how to make a great wine without dosage. I am a fan of Brut Zero Sparkling Wine (and Champagne) but I have tasted many examples that are more than hedonistic –… Read more »