Sugar is one of the most misunderstood topics in wine, and Champagne finds itself in the crosshairs more often than most thanks to the role of ‘dosage’. When, then, is sugar added to Champagne, when does it disappear and how much can you really expect to find in a bottle?
There is no Champagne without sugar. In fact, there is no wine without sugar, as it is the sugars that arrive in the grape as the sun shines, which yeast then convert into alcohol during fermentation. More sugar? More alcohol. Not enough sugar? Not enough alcohol... and that’s a problem, as under around 10% ABV, wines can lack balance and stability. This is where one of the oldest practices in winemaking comes into play: Chaptalisation.
The process is named after the French scientist Jean-Antoine-Claude Chaptal who, in the early 19th Century, uncovered the preservative properties of slightly higher alcohol levels. This process in Champagne involves adding sugar to the grape juice prior to fermentation to raise the potential alcohol by a maximum of 2%. One of the effects of climate change in Champagne has been a general reduction in the need to add sugar at this stage, as hotter, sunnier vintages mean that sugar levels are more often creeping in the other direction. Colder vintages and less-favoured sites may still need Chaptalisation though, as will grapes that have been picked early if there has been a risk of disease developing.
This early picking can be a source of some disagreement, with some larger houses and growers that simply sell their grapes on wanting to pick as early as possible to avoid any losses to disease. Champagne actually sets the minimum sugar levels required to pick on a year-by-year basis; generally the lower-quality producers will push for lower sugar requirements, whereas the best will push for higher levels, confident that their vineyards have been well-managed and will stay disease-free. Virtually none of the sugar from Chaptalisation remains in the wine we actually drink, though.
At tirage – the second fermentation
In the Traditional Method or Méthode Champenoise, the first wine (the base wine) is fermented entirely dry before being bottled (this is different to say a Pétillant Naturel or Ancestral Method sparkling wine that uses a portion of the original grape sugar to fuel the second fermentation). Cue the sugar again, but not only the sugar – an especially tough strain of yeast is also needed to take on the task of fermenting it under growing pressure, cold temperatures and rising (toxic) alcohol levels inside the bottle. This is no easy-going, natural fermentation; it’s the yeast Olympics! Even though a couple of producers do make experimental Champagnes without the addition of refined sugar (such as Pascal Agrapart’s Experience)’, it is not technically authorised in Champagne to do so.
The amount of sugar added here corresponds to the final pressure of the sparkling wine; full pressure of six atmospheres requires 24g/ltr whereas a gentler mousse can be coaxed out at between four and five atmospheres. If you’ve ever had a Crémant sparkling wine from outside Champagne, such as Crémant d’Alsace or Crémant de Loire, then you’ve tasted a wine made with a lower sugar addition at tirage. Even in Champagne, though, this technique is fairly common – especially with Blanc de Blancs which can benefit from a slightly less aggressive, bubbly texture. The term Crémant actually used to be used in Champagne, although now there is no way of knowing whether a wine is lower-than-normal pressure other than by digging out the information from the producer.
Once again, though, the sugar used at this stage is – or should be – almost entirely used up by the yeast.
This is where things get interesting, and where most discussions about sugar in Champagne are focused. When the second fermentation is finished, and the period of ageing on the lees complete, the dead yeast are removed in a process called disgorgement. This leaves the wine producer with an opportunity to tweak the wine. At the very least the bottle needs to be topped up to the correct level with the same wine; in most cases, though, it’s an opportunity to add a liqueur d'expedition, a mixture of sugar and wine that can act like a final dash of spice and seasoning.
Back in the 19th and early 20th Century, Champagne was almost universally sweet thanks to quite prodigious amounts of sugar added at this stage. Today, though, even the most commercially-minded Champagnes stick well under the limit for what is known as the ‘Brut’ style – 12 grams per litre. At 6 grams per litre or less the wine can be labelled ‘Extra-Brut’. A wine without any dosage can be labelled’ Zero Dosage’, or ‘Brut Nature' but, equally, can still be labelled Extra-Brut.
A lot of focus lies here on the sugar itself, but the wine it is dissolved in is equally important. Some might choose a young still wine, or the same base wine or blend, so as to avoid colouring the flavour profile. Others put tremendous amounts of work into their wines used at dosage – at Billecart-Salmon they even have a separate mini-winery dedicated to ageing and isolating specific wines for specific cuvées. Wines can even be aged in oak for long periods with the sugar mixed in, creating intriguing flavour reactions that can heighten toasty and spicy aromas.
Getting the dosage right is a task many winemakers put an extraordinary amount of effort into, running trials that may take months to complete, adjusting by as little at 0.1g/ltr until they find the perfect balance. It’s a strange, non-linear universe where what we imagine to be a simple relationship – add more sugar, the wine tastes sweeter – is not always the case. Sometimes too little sugar will taste too sweet or, conversely, more sugar can taste too dry; it’s all about the unpredictable interplays of flavour and texture that even tiny amounts of sugar can bring.
The type of sugar added is a source of some controversy too. Some producers add beet sugar, others cane sugar, and others, unwilling to add anything not from a grape to their wine, use a product called ‘MCR’ – rectified and concentrated grape must. A recent study at Brock University showed that these different sugars do influence the flavour of the wine.
A storm in a spoonful
It’s worth putting Champagne’s sugar additions in context; a bottle dosed at 4g/ltr (fairly common or even at the top end for some grower champagnes) will contain 3 grams of sugar (based on a standard 75cl bottle). Split between two over dinner that’s 1.5 grams each, or one sixth of an apple. Hardly an amount worth turning down the dessert for.
The health claims, then, of ‘skinny’ Champagne or zero dosage are largely spurious. Even zero dosage wines will actually contain residual sugars that escaped the yeast’s attention during the first or second fermentations, so it is possible for a zero dosage wine to actually contain more sugar in than a bottle labelled Extra Brut!
These leftovers actually have a crucial role in the ageing of Champagne too, taking part in what are called ‘Maillard’ reactions, responsible for a great deal of the unique character of aged Champagne. If you’ve tasted an older Champagne that has seemed dark and rich with flavours of candied nuts, caramel and marmalade then you’re tasting something that wouldn’t have been possible without sugars, either the added during the winemaking process or traced back to the grapes on the vine.
All in all, Champagne certainly wouldn’t exist without sugar. Is it something to be wary of, though? In the tiny amounts found in most Champagnes today, probably not; it’s part of the history, identity and style of this most unique wine, part of its ageability and balance.
Author of this article, Tom Hewson, writes about Champagne and Sparkling Wine for Tim Atkin MW and at https://sixatmospheres.
INTERESTED IN TOM'S ARTICLE? EXPLORE MORE WITH SIP'S SUGGESTIONS…
Pierre Legras Monographie 2012 – Three wines from the same grape, vintage and vinified in the same way. The only difference is the dosage. Compare Brut Nature, Brut and Extra Dry to get a real sense of how sugar can alter the profile of a Champagne.