Champagne Brut Zero: Please don’t call it skinny

Champagne has certainly come a long way: from sweet drink made to quench the thirst of monarchs and sovereigns to dry and refreshing sparkling acclaimed by a multitude of people. If the Brut classification (8-12 gr sugar/litre) has been accepted as the “norm”, a new trend for a drier style has recently emerged, not without scepticism and confusion.



 

We firmly believe that Champagne is the trickiest wine to sell or to recommend: When it comes to reds or whites, people might have a clear idea of what they like but sparkling wines are a world on their own, and rightly so. Indeed, there are many elements to take into account: grape varieties, blend, vintage, ageing, and ultimately SUGAR.


The sugar conundrum

As weird as it might sound, sugar does not necessarily make the wine sweeter: indeed, sugar is also used to counterbalance the high acidity therefore influencing the overall balance and soften a wine that might be a bit “rough around the edges”. Interestingly, a higher sugar content is also related to a higher ageing potential, it should come as no surprise that the longest-lived wines are sweet like Sauternes and Riesling.


Among other things (see above ^), champagne can be also classified according to the sugar content: It can be classed as Sweet (> 50 g/l), Demi-Sec (32-50 g/l), Dry (12-17 g/l), Brut ( 0-12 g/l), Extra Brut (0-6 g/l), Brut Nature (0-3 g/l) and Brut Zero or Zero Dosage (no added sugar).


These classifications are not as rigid as they might appear: For example, a wine containing 6 grams of sugar is technically an Extra-Brut but it can still be labelled Brut in the same way a champagne with 3 grams of sugar can be either referred to as Brut Nature or Extra Brut (to an extreme It could be potentially labelled as Brut).

Brut Nature and Brut Zero are (too) often used as synonyms or used interchangeably, when in fact they are not the same: The main difference here is not just the amount of sugar but also the source.

While Brut Nature covers anything below 3 grams of sugar per litre, a Brut Zero means that NO sugar was ADDED to the wine, hence its (real) synonym Zero Dosage: What is left in the wine is not the sugar in the liqueur d’expedition, but the natural residual sugar found in the grapes. In spite of the name, technically there will always be a tiny amount of sugar - around 1 gr. - mostly due to the indigenous yeast and they will never ferment completely dry.



Is it a “skinny champagne” then?

Surely, the calorie-conscious would be tempted to call it this way, however, an important distinction has to be made: While “light” or “low- fat” food is essentially an alternative with a reduced amount of fat per serving, a Brut Nature champagne is not a “ unsweetened” version of a Brut, but a wine on its own right.

Also, while skinny products were exclusively made to appeal an ever-increase share of the market, drier champagne are a choice entirely dependant on the house style: interestingly enough, many producers have progressively decreased the sugar content whilst maintaining the Brut denomination.

Anne-Laure Domenichini from Laurent-Perrier hits the nails on the head while talking about her Ultra Brut cuvee:


“ 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 sufficiently ripe. […] This is not the nonvintage with no dosage, but is its own wine”.


Dominique Garreta at Taittinger seems to agree and said:


“I believe zero dosage champagne is a global project, meaning that it starts in the vineyard when you select your grapes with the idea that there won’t be any dosage. There are in fact very few champagne houses that respect this concern. There are few really great zero dosage champagnes.”


Moreover, while some producers – Laurent Perrier - make zero dosage wine specifically from parcels that achieve greater ripeness, others – like Ayala- allow the zero dosage cuvees to age longer on the lees to pick up some richness to compensate for the lack of dosage.


An “old” new trend?

This bone-dry style is increasingly becoming more and more popular, however it could be hardly considered a modern trend: the very first champagne without dosage is thought to have been made by Laurent Perrier around 1881 for the English market but it was not fully entirely appreciated until 1988 when Bernard de Nonancourt decided to reintroduce it to the market.

Other than a shift in consumers’ taste, this move towards dryness might have been dictated by other factors, such as global warming: Indeed, according to the Champagne Comitee (CIVC), the average temperature in the Champagne region has risen 1.1 degree.

If you think that it might not be a big deal, picture the scenario: when Dom Perignon was at the helm of the cellar of Abbey of Hautvillers Europe was going through one of the coldest periods (known as little Ice Age when the Thames and the canals in Venice froze) and in 2019 Champagne recorded the highest temperature ever, 42.9 degrees.

A increase in average temperatures has allowed Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes to reach higher ripeness levels, therefore a less amount of sugar is not required to contribute to the overall balance of the grapes.

However, blaming global warming is too simplistic and it would be unfair not to take into account the main catalyst of this change: the winemakers. Frédéric Panaiotis, winemaker for Ruinart, had his say about it:


“Yes, there is global warming, but we have adjusted our farming to it. The vineyard management, in association with the change in weather, has led to grapes that are balanced differently, not just riper. Plus, the way we’ve made wine has changed across the region. We are better winemakers now, so the final balance needs less sugar.”


An increasing number of producers have started, more or less reluctantly, to slightly decrease the sugar content in their cuvees, however a few of them are likely to go all the way, like Rodolphe Peters, winemaker at the homonym champagne house, who describes a Brut nature “ […] a bit like a chair with three legs—it’s missing something” and he suggests that “An Extra Brut is always more interesting than a Nature—it brings out the fruits better”.


Conclusion

As you might have gathered by this point, Brut Zero can be both confusing and divisive, something that you love or you hate. Personally, we believe that a good Brut Nature perfectly represents the real essence of Champagne: Freshness, vibrancy and sense of purity.

As we always stress, wine is all about personal preference and we encourage people to drink what they like, or what we think they might like, therefore it is completely understandable if this “extreme” style if not for you: Feel free to call it sharp, austere, acidic but, please, do not call it skinny.


Fancy putting this new style to the (taste) test? Here what we have to offer:


EXTRA-BRUT

Andre Tixier Blanc de Blanc Ier Cru £34.99

Assailly Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru Cuvee Reservee £36.99

Arnould Blanc de Noirs Grand Cru £38.99

Paul Berthelot Extra-Brut £45.99


BRUT NATURE

Assailly Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru Brut Nature £39.99

Moutard Rose Non Dose £42.99

Paul Berthelot La Marquise Brut Nature £45.99

Laurent-Perrier “Ultra Brut” £49.99


References


[Guides to Wines and Top Vineyards 3] Benjamin, Lewin M W - Champagne (2015)


https://daily.sevenfifty.com/understanding-the-role-of-sugar-in-wine/


Liger-Belair, Gérard - Uncorked - The science of champagne (2013, Princeton University Press)


Robert Walters - Champagne_ A Secret History (2017, Allen & Unwin)

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