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Disgorgement & Dosage - and why they matter to your Champagne

Pippa Hayward

Posted on June 17 2021

The style and taste of every bottle of Champagne you buy will have been shaped by three distinct stages in its creation:

  1. What the base wine was composed of – the vintages, grapes, vineyard, whether it was fermented in steel or wood (or even Amphorae these days), the amount of Reserve Wines included in the final blend and what that blended wine was aged in.
  2. How long after the “prise de mousse” - the second fermentation in the bottle to create the bubbles, the wine is left “sur lattes”, to continue maturing in contact with the lees – the dead yeast cells.
  3. When it was disgorged, how much Dosage was added and how much time has elapsed since that date when you buy the bottle.

 

Champagne Gallimard Pere et Fils - Arnaud and his father in front of their barrels and amphorae in their cellars
Arnaud Gallimard and his father in their cellar in the Côte des Bar with the barrels used to age the base wines for their Quintessence Cuvée and the amphorae used for Amphoressence.

 

Disgorgement is the process that removes the sediment of dead yeast cells that has accumulated over the time “sur lattes” from the neck of the bottles – sludgy Champagne is not a good look.

Dosage is the replacement of the small amount of wine lost in the process of disgorgement.

You might be forgiven for thinking that since the process of Disgorgement and Dosage is the work of nanoseconds on a mechanised disgorgement line that it’s merely the end of journey. It isn’t.

 

Champagne disgorgement line at Pol Roger
Disgorgement line at Pol Roger

 

Manual Champagne disgorgement
  • The neck of the bottle is submerged in frozen brine
  • The sediment freezes pushing off the crown cap (same as a beer bottle cap) releasing the sediment as a plug
  • The bottle is up-righted and the Dosage added
  • Then the cork is inserted and the wire cage secured around it
The Champenois liken the process of “D&D” to a surgical intervention from which the wines need time to recover. In fact they are required by law to “rest” the wines for a minimum of 3 months before selling them. In practice most houses and certainly the growers we work with, all exceed this mandatory time.

 

 

This photograph below shows the same Non-Vintage Cuvée from Bruno Paillard at different stages after disgorgement. From left to right: 3 months, 1 year, 3 years and 12 years.  You can see how the colour deepens just as any white wine would with age – but the taste and texture of the wine also changes.

 

Champagne Bruno Paillard - disgorgement evolution tasting

 

In older Champagnes the bubbles “calm down” a bit, the wine itself feels a bit creamier – partly because the bubbles are less assertive, partly because the wine itself is continuing to develop. The combination of these two changes makes the naturally high acidity of Champagnes appear much softer.

Knowing when your Champagne was disgorged is important – if you like it really vibrant and fresh you’re more likely to enjoy one that’s been disgorged recently. If you prefer a calmer, more gentle and complex style with less obvious acidity, you’ll really appreciate drinking it even as much as several years after disgorgement.

 

Champagne Mouzon Leroux Atavique - Labels
Pressure to include disgorgement dates is rising – but few of the big brands are doing so yet. Good growers have always had a strong commitment to transparency and will often provide a back label like this one from Champagne Mouzon Leroux giving the consumer all the  relevant information.
 
  • Natural viticulture without pesticides
  • 100% Verzy Grand Cru
  • 70% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay
  • 75% - 2014 harvest, 25% - 2013 and 2012 harvests
  • 25% of the base wines aged in old barrels
  • Natural fermentation, indigenous yeasts, unfined, unfiltered
  • Disgorgement date: October 2018
  • Dosage: Extra Brut 2 g/L

  

So what’s happening with dosage these days?

There’s no doubt that sugar levels (all the different categories are covered by Charlie in his excellent recent blog post last week) are coming down. What’s not so obvious is why. Could climate change be a factor? There’s no doubt that years are getting warmer and the grapes a little riper. Is it a trend driven by consumers? Dosage does have an interesting history – its role as a tool to tweak the flavour profile of Champagne has always been exploited to satisfy different markets and different periods in history. There’s probably no other beverage so driven by consumer preference and what the global stock markets are looking like.

 

A bit of Champagne’s past in numbers

  • 1690s – the first sparkling wines
  • 1800 – the first use of sugar in dosage
  • 1844 – the automation of disgorgement and dosage
  • 1882 – early Champagne had a dosage of 22 to 66 grams
  • The “Goût Américain” was between 110 and 165 grams
  • 1998 Moët & Chandon dosage was 13 grams – in 2017 it was 9 grams

 

A bottle of Veuve Clicquot retrieved from a shipwreck that had happened in the 1830s was found to have a dosage of 300 grams – 3 times more than your average bottle of Coca Cola.

The newer “ice” style champagnes produced for nightclub customers are much sweeter than ‘Brut’.

Historically the Russians enjoyed a dosage of between 275 to 300 grams while the American market still prefers the ‘Sec’ category – significantly sweeter than the ‘Brut’ style favoured here in the UK.

We also like our Champagne more aged here – so bespoke cuvées for restaurants and merchants in the UK tend to get an additional year “sur lattes”.

 

One good reason for decreasing dosage is an increase in the percentage of Reserve wines in Non Vintage Champagne since 2008 and the market crash. Their role as enhancers of vinosity and complexity in the final blend reduces the need for a corrective dose of sugar at the end.

 

For the wonderful growers with whom we work, the wine is the point.

Frequently from organic (even biodynamic in some cases) vines, picked at full ripeness, fermented with   indigenous yeasts in barrels, tanks or cement, aged for much longer “sur lattes”, the wines emerge as fully-fledged fine wines in their own right with little or no need of the “make up” of dosage.

Several growers use a solera type “perpetual reserve” (a multi-vintage blend or reserve wines refreshed each year) as the base for their dosage – meaning it adds more flavour and complexity, reducing the need for actual sugar. Some growers use no sugar at all, many opt for Extra Brut.

 

“The older the Champagne the less obvious the acidity and the less sugar required to balance it.” Jancis Robinson

 

Champagne (and all the other delicious sparkling wines made the same way – not least our own exceptional English Sparkling Wines) can never be cheap when all the time, technical savvy and eye –wateringly expensive kit required to create them is taken into account – so better to choose wisely. Knowing when your bottle was disgorged and what the dosage is helps you make that informed decision.

 

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1 comment

  • Tony Trice: July 14, 2021

    A lovely & very informative article. Congratulations!

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