As with clothing and hair, wine knuckles under to fashion. Different styles, regions and grapes all have their moments in the marketing spotlight, although the rationales for these sudden blasts of commercial heat can vary wildly.
Sometimes it comes unexpectedly. A pop song shouts out Moscato d’Asti, and before you can say, “Sweet, fizzy, pleasant and forgettable,” people are buying it and flaunting it around the world. More often, critical efforts to promote a particular wine intersect with rising audience receptivity, and voilà, rosé is dominating summer, as it has now for much of a decade.
Rosé is a mass-market fashion, a Britney Spears sort of wine. But fashion operates in wine’s geekier spheres as well. Certainly, the passion for Jura wines in certain circles is heartfelt, but no doubt some have adopted the wines for what they connote as much as for what is in the bottle.
Dryer styles preferred
For a perfect and oh-so-seasonally appropriate example of geeky wine fashion, look no further than extra-brut Champagnes.
What are extra-brut Champagnes? As you may know, fermenting grapes into still wine is only the first step in producing Champagne. The producer then selects a blend of still wines and bottles it with a dollop of sugar and yeast. The yeast goes to work, beginning a second fermentation that produces carbon dioxide as a byproduct, which, trapped in the bottle, turns into bubbles. The winemaker then opens the bottle to disgorge the yeast sediment and, finally, adds a sweet solution, or dosage, before corking and shipping the bottle.
The dosage (doh-SAHJ, if you want to be French about it) is usually a blend of wine and sugar syrup or concentrated grape juice, intended to balance out the Champagne, which may otherwise be highly acidic and severely dry. This dosage accounts for the final level of sweetness in the bottle, which is designated by terms such as “brut” (the vast majority of Champagnes), the paradoxically sweeter “extra dry,” the sweeter yet “sec” and the dessert-level “demi-sec” and “doux.”
Technically speaking, brut Champagnes can range up to 12 grams of residual sugar per liter. Thirty years ago, most brut Champagnes sold in the United States were at the higher end of this range. Whatever lip service Americans paid to dry wine, they preferred a sweet roundness in their Champagnes. For years, in fact, one of the most popular Champagnes sold in the U.S., Moët White Star, was not even a brut but a sweeter extra dry.
But as Americans became more accustomed to drinking wine, they began to prefer dryer styles, as did many people around the world. For years now, mass-market Champagne producers have been reducing the sweetness levels of their wines. In 2012, Moët stopped selling White Star in the U.S., replacing it as its flagship Champagne with Impérial, a brut.
Most fascinating of all has been the rise of low-dosage Champagnes, those made with less than 6 grams of residual sugar. These can be labeled extra brut, and if the dosage is 3 grams or less, they can also be labeled “brut nature,” “brut zéro” or “non-dosé.” What even 10 years ago was barely a fringe style is now the height of Champagne fashion.
For a deeper understanding of these Champagnes, The New York Times wine panel recently tasted 20 nonvintage, low-dosage or no-dosage bottles. I was joined by Jordan Salcito, beverage director of the Momofuku restaurants, and Laura Maniec, proprietor of Corkbuzz Wine Studio in Greenwich Village. (Florence Fabricant was away.)
The reasons for the growing popularity of these styles seem clear. Aside from a more knowledgeable audience, the biggest trend in Champagne since 2000 has been the rise of the grower-producers. These small farmers, who produce their own Champagnes, offered a welcome contrast and counterbalance to the biggest houses, whose mass-market wines dominated sales.
They still do. But where some of the biggest houses had become more focused on marketing than on quality, the grower-producers reminded the world that Champagne was a wine, an agricultural product rather than an urban luxury good.
The grower-producer Champagnes emphasized authenticity and purity. In the best of these, dosages were often markedly lower than in the mass-market bottles so as not to distract from the wine itself. In the popular perception, a higher dosage came to be equated with undue manipulation, as if it were only masking flaws rather than serving to balance the wine.
I applaud the general movement to lower dosages, but our tasting demonstrated not only the beauty that can be accomplished working in this style, but also the dangers of plunging headlong into fashion. Our top 10 included quite a few gorgeous wines. But many that did not make the cut were punishingly austere, offering little charm and even less pleasure. In some ways, they reminded me of the dry German rieslings of 20 years ago, which so often were shrill and mouth-puckering.
The key, of course, is balance. Our favorites – the tangy, taut Bérèche & Fils Extra Brut Réserve; the lively, pure Georges Laval Brut Nature; and the rich, energetic Benoît Lahaye Brut Nature – were impeccably balanced, detailed and delineated. Bone dry? Yes, but pleasingly so.
Appreciation of technique
All the wines in our top 10 were made by superb grower-producers who are largely able to control every element in the vineyard and cellar. The larger producers in our tasting – who are generally buying grapes and, in some cases, finished wines – did not fare as well.
Tasting the 20 bottles, it became clear that these are naked wines, showing every flaw. The grapes must be ripened perfectly because overly tart, underripe wines cannot be corrected by a high dosage.
Yet, at the same time, is anything so wrong with a winemaker using dosage to round off hard, pointy edges? Not at all. I came away from this tasting with both a greater appreciation for the skill required to work in this style, and for the proper use of dosages in most good Champagnes.
If you are going to make a wine like this, you cannot simply withhold that final step of adding a dosage. The preparation must begin in the vineyard, and making a low-or no-dosage Champagne probably requires years of subtle alterations in technique to achieve the goal.
With clothing, if a man wants that casual, untucked look, he can’t just pull his business shirt out of his pants to look fashionable. He’ll look baggy and odd. He must put on a shirt tailored to appear unkempt. Just so with wine. It takes a lot of careful work to follow fashion without falling flat.