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Dosage, behind the scenes

How do producers of Champagne and traditional-method sparkling wines decide on a dosage level? Amy Wislocki visits Rathfinny Wine Estate in the English South Downs to find out.

When it comes to house style and bubbly, few wine lovers give much thought to dosage – after all, the amount of sugar added to the wine after disgorgement and just before bottling is tiny in the scheme of things, less than 12g/L in a Brut Champagne or sparkling wine (see box below).

But the winemakers behind these cuvées understand just how much difference a gram – even half a gram – can make to the taste and overall balance of what’s in the bottle. Some producers, after arriving at a preferred level of dosage, will stick to the same (or as near as) dosage for each vintage, and / or across their range, in a bid to create a house style. Others are more open to varying the dosage according to the style of the vintage, tasting varied permutations every year before deciding on the best recipe for the year.

Vintage variation

At Rathfinny Wine Estate in East Sussex, owner Mark Driver is such a strong believer that vintage should be key to the style of the wines that he has chosen not to include a non-vintage cuvée in the line-up. So it follows that he would be open to varying the dosage to best fit the style of wine that weather conditions have produced in a given year. 

With the 2019 vintage about to be bottled, Decanter was invited to join the winemaking team at the tasting to decide the dosage for the Blanc de Blancs and Blanc de Noirs cuvées for that year. Driver explains why Rathfinny takes dosage so seriously: ‘It’s like seasoning,’ he says, ‘and we use it to enhance the existing profile of the wine without adding new flavours and textures. Sugar is a transport mechanism, and it helps to balance all the elements.’

Happy medium

Driver doesn’t want the wines to be jarringly dry – though jokes that the sommelier community would like all their sparkling wines at 0g/L or 1g/L. ‘When they’re bone-dry, wines can have little spikes,’ he says, ‘and even adding just 1g or 2g/L can help bring things to life.’ Also, he points out, sugar is a preservative and so wines with zero dosage don’t develop as well in bottle, in his view. That said, he doesn’t favour a high dosage either. ‘Too sweet, and the dosage will shorten the length and flatten the fruit flavours.’ The vineyard site – on a south-facing slope just 5km from the English Channel, and sheltered by a ridge from severe frosts and the worst southwesterly winds – allows a longer hang-time for the grapes, and this means that a fairly low dosage can generally be used. 

Reflecting on 2019

Sat around the table from Rathfinny were Driver, Tony (his winery manager), Miguel (the winemaker), Alex (who takes over logistics post-bottling), Andy, the sales manager, and Richard (brand ambassador). The wines had been disgorged in November, so the samples had spent a few months under cork, giving the sugar a chance to integrate with the wine. 

Asked to summarise how the 2019 vintage played out, Driver explained that the summer was long, dry and hot, just as 2018 had been the year before. Then it started raining towards harvest time, and didn’t seem to want to stop. Several weeks of rain on and off led to worries about dilution, but although some berries did swell, the primary effect of the rain was to bring down the acidity. The long ripening season meant that the flavours were still there, and sugar levels were still high because of the hot weather. Quantity wise it was quite a small vintage, especially for the Pinots.

Winery manager Tony managed the tasting, which commenced with the Blanc de Blanc, then moved on to the Blanc de Noirs. For each wine, we started with 0g/L and 6g/L (typically the upper end for Rathfinny) and worked our way in, tasting pairs of samples, 1g/L and 5g/L, 2g/L and 4g/L and then 3g/L. Samples with half-gram variations could be called on as needed. 

A fine balance

Once we’d all tasted from 0g/L to 6g/L, Driver asked everyone in turn for their preference, and the reason behind it. In general there was consensus:  Miguel, Tony and Mark all went for 3g/L, Richard and Andy said 2g/L to 3g/L, and Alex 3g/L to 4g/L. We then all re-tasted 3g/L, comparing it with 3.5g/L and then 2.5g/L. The team settled on 3g/L. The same process carried out with the Blanc de Noirs (a blend of 81% Pinot Noir and 19% Pinot Meunier) arrived at a dosage of 3.5g/L.

It was an illuminating process, the biggest revelation being the clear differences that just 0.5g/L either way made to the overall balance of the wine. The descriptors ‘complete’, ‘complex’, ‘rounded’, ‘harmonious’ and ‘elegant’ cropped up often, with the less favoured samples generating observations such as: ‘fruit slightly dulled’, ‘sugar too noticeable’, and ‘finishes too sweet’. As Driver says, it’s the equivalent of seasoning and, successfully done, should enhance the flavours and textures that are already there. For an often overlooked element of the final wine, dosage really does play a significant role. 

The 2019 vintage Rathfinny wines will go on general release later this summer.

What is dosage?

When traditional-method sparkling wines undergo their secondary fermenation in bottle, they end up with no sugar (or only a tiny amount) in the wine, as this has been converted into alcohol and carbon dioxide – the latter providing the fizz. Dosage is the term given to the small amount of sugar added to the wine after disgorgement (a process to remove the yeast from the bottle), before the cork is inserted. It is added in the form of liqueur de dosage – also known as liqueur d’expedition (a mix of sugar and wine). This not only tops up the wine, it also helps balance the acidity and add sweetness.

Some wines are labelled as zéro dosage or brut nature (the official term), which means that no sugar was added to the liqueur d’expedition. Note that the sweetness categories denote dosage added only, and not any residual sugar that may already remain in the bottle before disgorgement. Hence a wine classified as brut nature may contain a little natural residual sugar (up to 3g/L). For this reason some houses prefer to use the term zéro dosage, as it references the fact that there is no dosage added, but there may be some natural sugar.

The styles and corresponding sweetness levels are shown below. Brut is the most common level of sweetness for Champagne and English sparkling wines – so containing less than 12g/L residual sugar. 

Brut Nature: no added sugar and less than 3 grams/litre of residual sugars

Extra-Brut: between 0g/l and 6g/l of residual sugars

Brut: less than 12g/l of residual sugars

Extra Sec/Extra Dry: between 12g/l and 17g/l of residual sugars

Sec/Dry: between 17g/l and 32g/l of residual sugars

Demi-Sec: between 32g/l and 50g/l of residual sugars

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