Did you know that sugar and brandy can be added to sparkling wine? Were you aware that champagne was originally a sweet fizz? And that it regularly had things like port, cognac, elderberry, kirsch and raspberry brandy added to it?
Now there’s a plucky English wine producer adding all sorts of fun things to his fizz – from Sauternes to Sherry, Madeira and Tokaji – to see what’s possible. His aim? To potentially help create, ‘a new category in wine’.
Welcome to the world of dosage. That small addition that’s commonly popped into to the world’s very finest sparkling wines – but which people don’t talk about very much.
Think of it as a ‘good’ wine additive. Yet producers don’t tend to be particularly adventurous in terms of trying new things to add in their dosage.
Our story starts with us trying these bold, experimental new English sparkling wines before launching into fascinating conversations with their maker, English Master of Wine Justin Howard-Sneyd MW, as well as sparkling guru Ed Carr of Accolade and Champagne Louis Roederer chef de cave Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon.
Along the way we explain what dosage actually is, why it’s used and delve excitedly into its history and future. We look into why people describe dosage as, ‘seasoning’ for fine fizz, and what role oaked wine, brandy and various types of sugar play in its make-up.
Some wine pros use the term dosage as shorthand for the level of residual sugar in a sparkling wine. But, as we discuss, that’s an over-simplification that misses the bigger picture and purpose of dosage.
We consider the trend for zero dosage wines and explain why we’re not fans of this category – despite Susie having written her Master of Wine dissertation on the topic.
‘‘When it’s done well, dosage can help a wine taste sublime,’ says Susie. ‘The art of dosage needs more respect and awareness…and more winemakers need to do it properly.’
Peter Richards MW: Why on earth did you do these dosage experiments in the first place?
Justin Howard-Sneyd MW: Well Peter, you know me: I get easily bored! And I have a curious mind. And I remember back in the day, my dad used to have these parties at Christmas time. And he always used to serve champagne cocktails. So we would get fifty/sixty champagne glasses, put a little sugar cube in the bottom, soaked in Angostura Bitters, and then cover the sugar cube in brandy and then pour champagne in on top of that.
I used to rather like these and as someone who’s helping serve aged 15 or 16 I would frequently put my own glass down and lose it, and have to start a fresh one. Normally you just keep topping people up with champagne and gradually the sugar dissolves and eventually you’re just drinking champagne at the end. But I had at least four or five champagne cocktails aged 15 which definitely made the party go with a swing!
So I have fond memories of that and the fact that you could take a champagne and make it richer and more exciting tasting with some brandy in it. And then fast forward till about four/five years ago now when I was at one of the gatherings of Masters of Wine which periodically happen for no reason, we just have a get together, the new masters of wine can gather and just have a chat with each other. And because one of the sponsors, as you know, of the institute has for a very long time been champagne house Bollinger, frequently Bollinger is served at these occasions.
But these are also occasions people want to bring along bottles of their own wines so we had a line-up of some quite interesting wines that people brought along, and quite a lot of Bollinger, and we were chatting and as the evening wore on we decided it would be quite a good idea to adjust the dosage of the Bollinger with some of the wonderful sweet wines and fortified wines that were in the room. So we had a little play and thought it was fantastic fun and really worthwhile! And the thought continued so I started having a play with base wine for my sparkling wine Hart of Gold, and my drinks cupboard, and decided that this was something we really should do.
So it took a phone call to Simon Roberts at Ridgeview, which is the winery we work with to produce Hart of Gold. And he was up for it. So I went there with a set of bottles and we did some trials and we came up with these levels of dosage that we actually put into practise.
Peter Richards MW: So what were your expectations? What were you hoping to achieve beyond having a bit of fun?
Justin Howard-Sneyd MW: I think there’s a genuinely interesting historical fact that in Champagne they used to put all sorts of things in the dosage – brandy being one but molasses, and who knows what they put in?! The rules around what can go in the dosage are very un-specific. You could put a lot of things in the dosage and it doesn’t have to even come from the Champagne region – the brandy certainly didn’t.
So that gave us the idea that the precedent was there to do something interesting. And I’m quite interested in the way that drinks categories are bleeding into each other these days. So you can get whisky in a port barrel or in a sherry barrel. I’m a big fan of Gosnell’s mead and you can get hopped mead which has got hops in it – tastes a little bit like beer. The cider producers are fermenting their ciders with Pinot Noir skin nowadays.
So there’s all sorts of ways in which one category is bleeding into another and I think it’s to be encouraged, all in the creation of interesting drinks. So yes, I think if the flavours are valid and combine well and create something new and something interesting and different and exciting in flavour then I’m all for it. So that’s I guess, that’s all I was hoping to achieve.
Peter Richards MW: And following on from that then, how do you think that these experiments have gone? What’s your favourite? Do you think something here in these trials has worked to the extent that you’re prepared to maybe put it on a larger-scale commercial release?
Justin Howard-Sneyd MW: Well that is a very good question and the answer is that we made 18 sets of each of these. I sold 12 to various of my customers, and have kept back a few and tasted a few (by now I think we’ve got 2 sets left).
But we recently did a tasting that Richard Bampfield put on at 67 Pall Mall. He was one of the 12 customers of mine who bought a set, but he then very generously said that he wanted to open them and assemble a group of tasters. So we had the chance to get the view of quite a large group, there were ten of us in the end, and there was a consensus that one was distinctly the most popular.
I personally like all of them, and some of the ones that the group liked the least I liked the most. So I really like the port finish but the rest of the group weren’t so convinced. So I think there’s something, there’s some merit in all of the ones we tried, but the one that was felt to be the most popular was the Tokaji finish. Now possibly because Tokaji’s got quite nice high acidity combined with that sweetness. I think the wine had a bit more energy and a bit more lift, and that was what it was praised for, and the Tokaji flavours were quite subtle but you could pick them.
So I’m actually doing a tasting next week with one of the Tokaji producers and a range of their wines to see if we can produce something that we think works for both of us. And maybe we’ll produce a bigger volume.
Peter Richards MW: So this could be something we see more of?
Justin Howard-Sneyd MW: It could be, I mean this is early days, I shouldn’t be talking about this until we’ve decided, it may not happen. But yes I think we will definitely be doing another set of special-dosage wines this year. And the likelihood is that they will be certainly featuring a Tokaji, and possibly we might go for some bigger volume and produce quite a few bottles of a Tokaji-dosage wine.
Peter Richards MW: You heard it here first – how fantastic! A question for you would be, you know you mention drinks bleeding into each other, wine has heroically resisted this, especially in fine wine, let’s put it in fine wine territory, which these wines certainly are. Do you think wine should be doing more of this kind of experimentation?
Justin Howard-Sneyd MW: Well, wine does have some quite strict rules which set what can go into wine and what can’t. I’ve never been a great fan of rules, so it’s quite fun trying to see what could be done if you didn’t have such strict rules. But the fact is we do have rules around what you’re allowed to use in wine and therefore it’s not really likely to be commercially successful to produce something that bends those rules and be able to call it wine.
I think this is an interesting experiment. I think the rules in this case do allow for quite a wide interpretation of what you can add during dosage and therefore this is a perfectly legal product that other people could emulate. It could become a new category in wine – sparkling wine with a dosage. In fact, it is category that exists aready because in Canada you can buy wine dosed with ice wine, in Spain you can buy Cava that is dosed with sherry. So it’s definitely not unknown – I wouldn’t be surprised if in Hungary already you could find Tokaji-dosed sparkling wine from Hungary. So I think we might well see more on this in the future.
Peter Richards MW: And on that note: people using local products to dose their wine, what about using an English sweet wine or another kind of wine?
Justin Howard-Sneyd MW: Totally open to that, great idea, there are not very many English sweet wines. I know Hattingley make one called Entice which I suspect they might be having a play with themselves. If I was them I would be, why on earth not?
Peter Richards MW: Justin Howard-Sneyd, thank you very much indeed.
Justin Howard-Sneyd MW: It’s a great pleasure – very nice to talk to you.
Susie Barrie MW: What’s your approach to dosage?
Ed Carr: We really aim to tailor the dosage to the specific wine at that point in time. We don’t have preconceived ideas of what the actual dosage sugar level will be. We look all at balance. One thing we’ve really looked at over time is the effect of tannin in that balance. And we try to triangulate tannin, sugar and acid, to achieve the best balance for that wine. So we can manipulate tannin with the wine that we’re using to carry the sugar. Whether that be an oaked or non-oaked wine. They give you that ability to fine-tune that tannin particular with the acid-sugar balance. We’re looking for a very dry style in general. We’ve found that our premium wines under Arras brand, and our sparkling wine in general, have considerably dropped in dosage over the last five years. And it’s with that that we think, if we manipulate the dosage to that level, we expose more of the wine to the consumer. You’re not getting sugar masking things. You can see the individual bones of the wine. And that’s a much more interesting style and flavour profile.
Susie Barrie MW: So when you’re selecting a base wine, you talk about tannin. What have you found? Are you looking for a low tannin wine? It’s unusual talking about tannin in this sense, we’re not talking red wines, but still white base wine, so what is the tannin element within that?
Ed Carr: House of Arras wines contain up to 10% of the actual vintage base from that year, fermented in first-use French oak casks. They can be small format barriques or fudres up to 2,500 litres. But we’re looking for a very fine-grained tannin. And by fermenting in that oak we carry a very high percentage of that tannin and oak character with it. But then we can metre that into the individual base wine for that year to get the best balance from that individual vintage. So our range is quite wide, it ranges between 3.5% to highest been about 11%, but it’s just purely based on taste to get that tannin balance. We’re not looking to make an oaked style so we don’t want the oak to be predominant. But having that tannin in the base really builds some structure and maybe some precursors to happen later with time on lees. That give us the perfect launch to get the wine to that final stage.
Susie Barrie MW: Just explain the relationship between lees ageing and dosage as you’ve found it.
Ed Carr: in general, the rule of thumb is the longer the wine’s spent on lees the lower the dosage you’ll need. You’ve built up that complexity and richness that you don’t need sugar to cover any gaps. But with time on lees, everyone talks about autolysis and yeast. But to me there’s two things happening: yeast breakdown after secondary fermentation, but you’ve also got the wine ageing as well. Those two are happening in parallel and in combination, so we look to get that to a point with the time on lees for a wine where it’s hit a nice balance for us. There’s no formula for that, it’s all done on palate taste really. But for each one of our labels we have what we consider to be the standard age or target age to release that wine. And we make those wines with that idea in mind.
Susie Barrie MW: You also work with a range of brandies and spirits. We’ve just tasted a selection of experimental wines with Tokaji, Sauternes, Port, Madeira and Sherry in the dosage. Of course, historically people have used cognac, port, elderberry, kirsch, as dosage. Is there anything you’ve experimented with that’s worked better than you expected in terms of dosage?
Ed Carr: In terms of spirits, we’re certainly staying away from heavily oaked spirits – because we find them too extractive and dominant. It but does take away some of the elegance of the palate. So we’ve looked at generally white grape spirit. But more the tail’s end, the heavy end of the spectrum. We look at where we can get the most effect. For us been in that broader spirit, slightly candle wax or lanolin, and absolutely tiny amounts of that can really influence the palate. Again, it’s all done by trial, and a lot of wines don’t receive that. But particularly some of the younger wines, that can help just smooth over some of the cracks that might be there and put a general palate sweetness,
Susie Barrie MW: So what are your feelings on zero dosage and trends for lower dosage in the world of traditional method sparkling wine?
Ed Carr: We’ve got a pretty open mind on that. We haven’t made a zero dosage as yet. But we’re getting very close to it. We’re releasing a museum Blanc de Blancs this year from 2005 and we ended up adding 1.5 g/l of actual suga to that. So that’s the closest we have so far. But we tried to vary and as an example of the lowest possible numbers we’ve used and we still couldn’t force it much lower without losing something out of the balance. I have no issues at all with zero dosage wines if they’re refreshing and drinkable rather than just a novelty.
Susie Barrie MW: How does sugar impact the flavour and the quality of these wines?
Ed Carr: In younger wines, the sugar does actually impart more approachability. Some of the acids might be a little bit raw because the wine hasn’t had opportunity to grow around that acid. In the older wines, the sugar has less of an effect. I can’t think of another word than sweet spot – there’s a sweet spot between sugar-tannin-acid where the wine is totally seamless, you’re looking for the point where you can’t find the gap in that final wine.
Susie Barrie MW: Looking to future, is there anything you’d love to try with dosage right now that maybe commercial concerns prevent you from doing?
Ed Carr: Not really. I guess as long as we stay within the Australian winemaking rules and regulations that we have, we’re open to try those different sugars and spirits or whatever. But it’s not something that we’re putting a lot of active focus on right now. Because we’re very comfortable with the results we’re getting at the moment.
We’ve really looked at the bigger picture in terms of oak coopers and forests and toast/char levels. That’s where our major focus has been at the moment.
Also with rosé styles, looking at a red-based liqueur to influence colour and tannin at final stage of rosé, trying to introduce some young fresh fruit into that wine that’s been on lees for a long time. You’re trying with rosé to get two wines in wine: that rush of bright red fruit and a bit of crimson colour with all those secondary age characters to back it up. We go through the same process with our rosés. And one of the options that comes in with our rosé is using a dry red wine made specifically for that purpose: low tannin, high colour, and bright fresh fruit as the vehicle to carry the dosage for that wine.
Susie Barrie MW: It works well?
Ed Carr: Yes, it’s just the opportunity to fine-tune some of the bright fruit characters and the actual colour of the rosé at that last stage. That’s the manipulation you’ve got. You can do the liqueur, put your cork in it and it does what it wants to after that…
Susie Barrie MW: And is that Pinot Noir or Meunier or a blend?
Ed Carr: That would be Pinot Noir. Oh, that’s something we could do – we haven’t tried Pinot Meunier!
But we really have some lovely vineyard patches of Pinot Noir in Tasmania that have, we’ve selected them over time, we’ve found quite intense flavour and fruit-driven style with a lot of colour but not a lot of tannin. The way we’re making them is to minimise the tannin, still enough to keep colour stable, but to have that last opportunity to fine-tune a rosé style.
Susie Barrie MW: Sounds delicious. Time for a glass of rosé! Ed Carr, thank you so much for joining us.
Ed Carr: Thanks Susie, it’s been great. Very thought-stimulating really, I’ll have to go back to the desk again, yep!
Susie Barrie MW: Tell us about your approach to dosage at Roederer, because you do things a little differently, don’t you?
Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon: Yes, we do. Dosage is the final touch of the wine. It’s very important. Because you open a wine that has been kept in a very closed atmosphere for so many years, very reductive, and then you create the first contact with oxygen. And you remove the lees. So it’s another development for the wine.
So it’s a very important moment in the life of champagne. What we do at Roederer is that we prepare each disgorgement a long time before. Doing many many trials with different sugar levels for sure but not only the sugar, different liqueur, different base wines to prepare the sugar, different jetting or not jetting, adding some oxygen or not, different sulphur regime, lots of different things. Different kinds of sugar, by the way, which can have a very strong effect. If you use organic cane sugar from South America, or an organic sugar from Philippines, or beetroot sugar from Champagne or MCR [rectified concentrated grape must], it’s a completely different wine.
Susie Barrie MW: And do you find there’s something you prefer?
Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon: Yes, we challenge ourselves every year. But now we find we use a lot of organic cane organic for sure, for us it’s the best product. But we challenge our producers to make sure we get the right one, that is has the effect we want.
People often say: dosage ah it’s 2, 4, 7g/l. But that’s not the issue of dosage. It’s what you use, the way you do it, what wine you add, when you do it. If you use jetting or not. What sulphur do you add. So many many parameters that you have to prepare meticulously to be sure of your results.
Susie Barrie MW: You use your top wines in dosage, don’t you?
Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon: Yeah, this is Cristal. Cristal that I keep in oak, and that I keep from different vintages. So for example now, I’m disgorging my Collection 243, I’m disgorging with some Cristal 2013.
Susie Barrie: There’s been a trend for low dosage recently. Any other trends going on for dosage, is it still for lower dosage or different?
Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon: For me, the dosage is not a question of trend. It’s a question of what a wine needs. The wines are getting riper, more vintage-like, richer in texture, so they need less sugar at the end. This is why we drop the sugar slowly – not because we want to drop the sugar. It’s because we don’t need it. So I think you can see the trend to lower dosage is still on. Now maybe not to brut nature, to zero dosage. But the trend to lower dosage is on. People prefer the wines with less dosage.
Susie Barrie MW: Jean-Baptiste, thank you so much, it’s been a real pleasure talking to you.
Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon: Thank you Susie, it was a pleasure.