Crib Sheet: A Guide to the New Wave of Dry Champagne

Welcome to "Crib Sheet," your monthly shortcut to what's hot in wine right now, in four bottles, courtesy of Jon Bonné. This month: extra brut and brut nature Champagne.

Brut Nature Extra Brut Champagne

The temptation in Champagne is to portray this northern region of France as eternal and unchanging—guided by grand traditions and myths, whether true or not.

The truth is that Champagne is changing all the time, usually for the better. And in the past decade, the region has ushered in dramatic changes: not just a shift in power from big houses like Moët & Chandon and Veuve Clicquot to small grower-producers, but also an acceptance that the region’s future will depend on treating Champagne like any other wine: highlighting specific terroirs, choosing less chemically driven farming and improving the winemaking.

One of the biggest changes in the past several years is that Champagne has been getting drier. Today, we think of most Champagne as brut, or very dry. At least in Europe, “brut” has a specific legal meaning: 12 grams or less of sugar per liter (with a bit of leeway) in the wine. But Champagne wasn’t always this way. In the 1800s, it was fashionable to have far more sugar in the wines, from more than 20 grams (what today would be called sec) up to over 100 grams (at the level of many dessert wines), especially those exported to the Champagne-loving Russians.

This was controlled by dosage, the process in which a bit of sugar is mixed with wine and added to each bottle before the cork goes in. One purpose of dosage was to help equalize the flavor and texture of a wine typically made by blending different vintages of differing quality, seeking a result that was at least portrayed as being consistent. These “house styles” provided large Champagne houses with a great tool to market themselves.

Today, though, the move is in the other direction—to add less and less sugar. Many of today’s Champagne-makers, in particular the growers responsible for small-production Champagnes, believe lower dosage helps provide a purer expression of flavor and more distinction between their various vineyard parcels. Not everyone agrees on this point, but over the past 15 years many growers have been reducing their dosage levels, on the theory that using less makeup helps to better show a wine’s innate quality.

And they’re not alone anymore; the Champagne firm of Louis Roederer, arguably the most forward-thinking of large houses, has come down from 12 grams to around eight in most wines, and has even collaborated with designer Philippe Starck on an un-dosed Champagne, or brut nature, with a new release out this year. The old-school house of Gosset, never shy on dosage, now makes an extra-brut version of its Celebris, and even the giant Moët has dropped to around nine for its stalwart Brut Impérial (with the leftover sugar perhaps redirected to its nightclub-friendly Ice, which sports a healthy 45 grams).

There are other reasons, beyond transparency and a desire for balance, why sugar levels have dropped. For one thing, most conscientious growers today insist on dosage trials—tasting the same wine with varying levels of sugar to find a balance point, Goldilocks-style. Different Champagnes, even by the same producer, tend to find a certain harmony at a particular dosage. Now that the Champagne region is enjoying more ripeness—thanks to better farming and climate change—it’s easier to harvest grapes with higher levels of natural sugar, thus minimizing the need for dosage.

That ripeness has also helped the best producers today to make base wines balanced enough that they could be sold on their own. In other words, Champagne today is increasingly being made as good wine with bubbles, rather than wine that requires the Champagne-making process to achieve drinkability. Those changes track with similar changes on the plate. A lot of cooking has grown lighter and more delicate (and, yes, less sweet) than in the past, and drier Champagnes tend to better suit those modern flavors.

All of which has made it far easier to find both extra brut (six grams or less) and brut nature (no added sugar, with a total sugar of three grams or less) Champagnes on the shelves of most good shops. They’re often catering to a new generation of Champagne lovers, some influenced by the natural-wine movement, who seek out talented small producers, like Jérôme Prévost or Bertrand Gautherot of Vouette et Sorbée, that share their views about less sugar offering more transparency. Indeed, most of Champagne’s current stars make at least some of their wines with little or no added sugar.

A few years ago, the knock on these wines was that they were often too dry—that they sacrificed pleasure for purity. But our latest PUNCH tasting found little evidence of that. While a string of ripe vintages like 2012 and 2013 certainly helped, most of the Champagnes we tasted were fully formed, brisk but not severe, with ripe fruit to match. A couple of brut nature wines might have flirted with (but never reached) austerity, but we didn’t encounter a single extra brut that tasted under-dosed.

Perhaps extra brut is the new brut; certainly it is enough for some of these wines to no longer even bother to prominently note their extra-brutness. And while it might be too much to say that less sugar has led to the astonishing and unprecedented diversity of great Champagne on shelves today, it’s also not a coincidence. These wines have prompted ever more Champagne makers to focus on substance rather than style.

The Classic

J.L. Vergnon Eloquence Extra Brut Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru Champagne

It has been 14 years since Christophe Constant took over this longtime property in Le-Mesnil-sur-Oger, just down the street from Salon, and began applying those great modern Champagne principles: subtle use of oak and working to harvest riper grapes, which in turn allows less dosage. Vergnon holds great grand cru land not just in Mesnil but Oger and Avize, a sort of Côte des Blancs trifecta, and the Eloquence is Constant’s low-dosage version of his non-vintage wine. The current bottling (based on the 2012 vintage and disgorged in December 2015 with three grams of residual sugar) is a remarkable, deep expression of chardonnay, smelling of sea spray, ginger and lemon, with an elegant fleshy texture. Constant’s skills are also evident in his Murmure, from Vertus and Villeneuve—a bit more severe, but still remarkably full-textured for a brut nature.

See also: Geoffroy Pureté Brut Nature 1er Cru, 2008 Pouillon Les Valnons, Varnier Fannière Rosé Zéro Brut Nature, Lenoble Brut Nature Dosage Zero, Savart Expression Brut Nature

  • Price: $51
  • Vintage: NV
  • From: Daniel Johnnes/Skurnik Wines

The Star

Louis Roederer Brut Nature Champagne

When big Champagne houses collaborate with high-profile designers, the temptation is to shrug it off as a gimmick. (And you wouldn’t necessarily be wrong.) But Roederer chef de cave Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon suffers no fools, and when he decided to work with Philippe Starck on this wine—the initial release in 2014 was the first new Roederer wine since 1974—it was to add something meaningful to a renowned lineup of wines. The brut nature is made only in years with enough ripeness to support the wine, and 2009 was one of those years—a vintage so generous that many (wrongly) worried the wines would be too ripe. Sourced from parcels in Cumières, the heart of some of the Marne’s best slopes, partially made in wood and aged for five years, this is damn serious stuff. It’s frothy and pure in its flavors, full of mint and a very slight bit of toast, plus ripe orange and a dark mineral aspect. The precision reveals its lack of sugar, but it shows the same finesse that also makes Cristal a better wine than many people realize.

See also: Georges Laval Brut Nature Cumieres, Marc Hebrart Noces de Craie Extra Brut, Jérome Prévost La Closerie, Cédric Bouchard Roses de Jeanne Val Vilaine, Pierre Gimonnet Oenophile Extra Brut, Egly-Ouriet Extra Brut VP, Billecart-Salmon Extra Brut, 2002 Gosset Celebris Extra Brut.

  • Price: $86
  • Vintage: 2009
  • From: Maison Marques & Domaines

The Outsider

Laherte Frères Ultradition Extra Brut Champagne

Aurélien Laherte is making some of the most compelling wines in Champagne right now, much of it from his family’s biodynamically farmed vineyards. I suspect he would have gotten far more attention already if their land was somewhere fancier than the Côteaux Sud d’Épernay, which despite being just ten minutes south of Champagne’s unofficial capital, is essentially a no-man’s land. The Laherte wines are bringing their village of Chavot-Courcourt some overdue attention, including this drier version of their Ultradition non-vintage wine. Based on pinot meunier (disgorged in July 2015 with a dosage of four-and-a-half grams), it shows a savory, complex side, full of apricot, poppy seed and smoked tea and a texture opulent enough that it’s not obvious as an extra brut. You can see similar skill, and even more depth, in Laherte’s Blanc de Blancs Brut Nature, and also his Les 7 Extra Brut, made from a vineyard planted to all seven Champagne grape varieties.

See also: Étienne Calsac L'Echappée Belle Extra Brut, Thomas Perseval Extra Brut Tradition, Nathalie Falmet Brut Nature, Pierre Gerbais Grains de Celles

  • Price: $44
  • Vintage: NV
  • From: Polaner Selections

The Minimalist | Tie

Vouette et Sorbée Fidèle Brut Nature Champagne

Working in the southern Champagne region known as the Aube, Bertrand Gautherot farms biodynamically. Until recently, the flavors of his iconoclastic wines could be brilliant but also extreme. These days Gautherot has fine-tuned a balance that’s just extravagant enough. This latest Fidèle (disgorged in July 2016 and based on the 2013 vintage) might be his best yet—powerful in its pinot noir flavors and intensely red-fruited, with savory black olive and nutmeg accents. (“Tastes like Christmas,” said one of the group.) Its sheer intensity is so wonderful you forget that there was no dosage.

  • Price: $71
  • Vintage: NV
  • From: Avant-Garde Wine & Spirits

Olivier Horiot Métisse Brut Les Riceys Champagne

Horiot works in Riceys, the town in Champagne’s far south best known for exceptionally long-lived rosé. He makes that, too, but also a set of Champagnes that burst with character. This edition (based on the 2013 vintage and disgorged in October 2015 with a dosage of two grams) is surprisingly well-behaved—clean and more driven by a somber minerality, with pomegranate and floral accents. The addition of pinot blanc to the pinot noir helps give it a richer texture and softer edges.

See also: Val Frison Goustan Brut Nature, Francis Boulard Les Rachais Brut Nature 2009, Christophe Mignon Brut Nature Pur Meunier, Mouzon Leroux L'ineffable, Jacques Lassaigne Le Cotet

  • Price: $61
  • Vintage: NV
  • From: Louis/Dressner Selections

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