Skip to comments.'Brut zero': a new trend in Champagne bubbles to the surface
Posted on 10/06/2006 7:45:32 AM PDT by 1rudeboy
EPERNAY, France (AFP) - Life is sweet in Champagne country, the one region untouched by the deepening crisis besetting France's wine industry, but the bubbly these days tends to be on the dry side, even bone dry.
Many Champagne lovers don't realize that all but a minuscule fraction of their favorite sparkling wine is dosed -- sometimes heavily -- with sugar shortly before it goes to market, ideally to create a balanced wine but all too often to mask insufficient ageing and an unpleasant acidity borne of immature grapes.
Even the "Brut" category, which accounts for nearly 95 percent of Champagne sales worldwide, is allowed to contain the equivalent of three level teaspoons per bottle.
The arguably misnamed "demi-sec" can have three times more, about as much as one would put in a tumbler of lemonade.
But today a growing number of producers -- some driven by a quest for purity, others by a promising niche market -- are working at the outer edge of the carefully-regulated sweetness spectrum to make sugar-free Champagnes variously known as "brut zero," "non dosed," or "brut nature."
"It is my permanent motivation," said 30-year-old Benoit Tarlant, an exuberant 5th generation Champagne maker in the Marne Valley town of Oeuilly, whose eponymous company produces 110,000 bottles per year, more than half of them "brut zero."
Because of the region's notoriously fickle weather, making Champagne without additional sugar "is like walking on a tightrope without a safety net," said a grinning Tarlant, whose family was almost alone in coming out with "brut zero" label more than 20 years ago.
"The market is still very small, but it's growing rapidly," said Dominique Moncomble, technical director for the trade organization that groups the region's grape growers and wine makers.
Exports of "zero brut" have shot up in a decade from a couple thousand bottles to 15,000 last year, and sales abroad of "extra brut" -- containing less than five grams of sugar -- have increased five-fold to nearly 150,000 bottles in the same period, he said.
That is a drop in the vast sea of 129 million bottles of bubbly shipped overseas in 2005, much of it to Britain, the United States, Germany and Japan.
And yet zero brut -- which can be hard to find in even good wine shops -- exerts an outsized influence on connoisseurs and wine critics, and also points to a general trend towards drier and more natural Champagnes.
"I am a fanatic of non-dosed Champagnes," gushed Olivier Poussier, a wine consultant and winner of the Best Sommelier in the World competition in 2000, rattling off the names of his favorites. "But it is hard to make. That's why there are so few of them."
Moncomble counts no more than 40 producers, though several of the region's most prestigious houses are among them, including Bollinger, Piper Heidsieck, Jacquesson and Jacques Sellose.
Zero brut Champagne can be something of a cultivated taste, Poussier conceded, noting that what emerges on the palate is less the wine's fruitiness than its mineral qualities, highly prized among wine aficionados.
But he said the taste of progressively more sophisticated wine drinkers is moving in the same direction, and has prompted many of the major Champagne makers to gradually reduce the sugar content in their most popular wines.
"It is part of the trend toward purity and greater transparency," said Poussier approvingly.
Case in point: Ayala, a once-great Champagne house that slipped into decline and then bankruptcy in 1990s before being bought in January last year by Bollinger, is by many experts' reckoning the best Champagne maker of them all.
"When we tasted all the wines in Ayala's vast cellars, we realized that they were of such outstanding quality that they could stand a lower (sugar) dosage," explained the company's new general manager, Herve Augustin, who moved over from the number two position at Bollinger to revitalize the company.
Last year thinking ahead to the all-important Vinexpo international wine fair in June 2005, Augustin asked Ayala's cellar master if he could produce a couple thousand bottle dosed with eight grams of sugar rather than the usual 10 to present to wine buyers and writers.
"Our cellar master said there was not enough time for the sugar solution to mix in," he said.
That's when Augustin struck upon what seemed a rather daring idea: to unveil the Champagne "without any makeup" -- that is, in its sugar-free form -- simply to demonstrate the excellence of the wine.
It was, Augustin admitted, a marketing stunt, and he had no intention at that point of producing a brut zero wine. "But the result, and the reaction, was fantastic. I didn't imagine that without dosage it would be that good."
So Ayala, which produces more than 500,000 bottles per year, not only went ahead and made its first-ever zero brut Champagne, it took things a step further and bottled a sugar-free rose.
Indeed, Augustin is hoping that non- or low-dosed Champagnes will follow in the path of pink Champagne, which has become a money-making juggernaut for the industry with sales increasing by at least 20 percent per year since 2000.
"And there's another benefit to non-dosed Champagne, especially for the ladies," he added. "It is sugar free."
for your list
One of the Crane boys?
I'd love to find those lyrics to "Hail To The Corkmaster" from the Frasier TV show.
Hail Corkmaster! The Master of the Cork,
he knows which wine goes with fish or pork.
I place your name in nomination to be Free Republic's Corkmaster.
No, thank you. Somewhere, I have a box full of champagne/sparkling wine corks (one for every vineyard/flavor I've tasted). Please don't think a wine-snob, though, I prefer to drink my champagne out of the bottle . . . and I don't share.
"Who's the Cork Master here at Free Republic?"
I believe that would be Quantim.
Gives me headaches. I gave it up back in the 70s.
Yeah, champagne headaches are the worst. Bourbon and tequila come close.
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