Making champagne with little to no added sugar is tricky. The champagne house Billecart-Salmon is taking a new approach, changing the recipe to show that sugar can be dispensed with in the dosage.
FRANCE (Mareuil-Sur-Ay) – In these days of the Corona pandemic, news from the beverage industry has a hard time making it into the ranks of top news. With all that has happened in the past year, the news that Billecart-Salmon has released its first Brut-Nature cuvée has not become a top story, even in the wine scene. But this way of making Champagne should still attract attention from wine lovers of this fine sparkler. It could be that Billecart-Salmon’s recipe could lead the way in how we will enjoy a different kind of sparkling wine in the future. And so let’s take a closer look.
In our minds, Champagne is firmly entrenched as the wine of luxury and frivolity. As far back as the Belle Époque at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, touted on posters in the Seine metropolis, the bubbly was the favorite drink of Les Belles Femmes de Paris, who lifted their bubbly coupes to the beat with swinging bare ankles to symbolize the good life. This image persists because Champagne has embraced it and the high prices support it. And so Champagne has hardly evolved over time, why should it? There was no reason for change.
But when Champagne changes, it does so at a slow-motion pace and also under external control. The wine region has only ever changed its recipe in response to the markets. And these changes usually take place merely on the sidelines. One such market-driven change is a niche called “Brut Nature,” or more precisely, non-batched wines. It is remarkable that a traditional house like Billecart-Salmon is embracing this method, which is elaborate throughout the process.
From the base wine to the bubbles
Let’s take a look at the production process. Probably the oldest, most sophisticated and noblest method of making sparkling wine is the classic Champagne method (Méthode Champenoise, Méthode Classique). Sparkling wines like Champagne get their bubbles through a second fermentation in the bottle. The base wine, which has already undergone its alcoholic fermentation, is bottled and stored upside down on lees. The yeast ferments in the bottle and is ultimately responsible for the bubbles in the glass. The longer a wine ages on its lees, the more complex it becomes. Champagne typically ages two to three years or longer. “Time is precious, time is money,” is the credo in Champagne.
In the next process, the lees are slowly moved upward to the neck of the bottle by constant riddling. Then comes the time of disgorgement, the lees are discarded and the missing volume is made up with a dosage of aged reserve wine with some added sugar. The amount of sugar determines whether the wine is designated Ultra Brut: extremely dry, 0 to 3g/liter of residual sugar, Extra Brut: extra dry, up to 6g/liter of residual sugar, Brut: dry, up to 15g/liter of residual sugar and Extra Sec or Extra Dry: semi-dry, 12 to 20g/liter of residual sugar, Demi Sec: semi-dry, 35 to 50g/liter of residual sugar or Doux: sweet, more than 50g/liter of residual sugar (very rare). In all cases, dosage is carefully calibrated by Champagne producers to create a consistent house style and balance the wine’s raw character.
The market trend toward natural wines has increased dramatically this century. Spontaneously fermented wines are already old hat, experiments with orange wines are hyped by part of the scene, the Spätlese in Germany has lost much of its reputation in the market, and the VDP’s site classification is swinging over and being adopted by more and more producers. These changes, including others around the world, add up to pressure on Champagne. The Champagne houses, as well as the sparkling wine producers of Cava or Franciacorta, are left with only one option to optimize winemaking and that is dosage. Reducing the amount of added sugar can turn a Brut into an Extra Brut or even Brut Nature. These sparkling wines are often called “non-dosage” or “zero dosage”. If we take into account our society’s general fear of and desire to avoid sugar in food and beverages, these types of sparkling wines are communicated far too timidly in the wine scene.
The “Billecart-Salmon Method”
So now we know that sugar in dosage influences the particular flavor. Regardless of the taste of the individual wine drinker, i.e. regardless of whether the consumer outed himself as an Extra Brut, Brut or Extra Sec lover, the general fear of sugar in our society remains. But if you simply omit the sugar in the dosage, the result is an unbalanced, lean and acidic sparkling wine. So there is more to it than simply omitting sugar in the dosage.
So producing a Brut Natur without dosage does not mean taking a base wine that undergoes a second fermentation on its lees and omitting sugar during disgorgement. Nevertheless, if you leave out the sugar in the dosage and for it to work, you have to start in the vineyard and not intervene during disgorgement. And that’s the path Billecart-Salmon has taken in developing its new Cuvée Brut Nature. “It’s easy to launch a wine with little or no dosage if you’re just going for a marketing stunt,” explains Mathieu Roland-Billecart, managing director of the seventh-generation Champagne house. “We expect more from ourselves, so we took our time to get it right.”
Billecart-Salmon Brut Nature
Billecart-Salmon Brut Nature is a blend of ten vintages. All base wines were allowed to age on their lees for 48 months. The blend and aging for Brut Nature give the sparkling wine additional depth and character, allowing it to stand on its own without added sugar in the dosage. “The result is a Brut Nature that retains the purity of the fruit and stays fresh without having too much of an overbearing acidity that often young wines without dosage exhibit,” Roland-Billecart explains. “If you want to achieve the best, you can’t cheat with time, you have to take it consistently.”
Billecart-Salmon Brut Nature is rich in aromas, tasting creamy, not screaming with acidity, but inviting with flavors of white peach and lime. Very well balanced, it is delicious on its own, but is also a nice companion to fine, minimalist dishes of Asia.