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Moët & Chandon Sets the Tone: Dryer Champagnes Are Now the Norm
By Ed McCarthy
Apr 26, 2011
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The trend towards dryer Champagnes has become official.  Moët & Chandon, Champagne’s largest house--selling an estimated 30 million bottles annually--has introduced the new version of its flagship non-vintage Brut Imperial, the world’s largest-selling Champagne, with 9 grams per liter of residual sugar.  That is down from the previous blend’s 12 g/l. 

And that’s just the beginning, according to Benoît Gouez, Moët’s Chef de Cave (chief winemaker).  “The change will be gradual,” said Gouez at a recent tasting of a lineup of Moët & Chandon Champagnes.  “We want to allow our Moët customers to adjust to the dryer style.  We eventually might want to lower the dosage in the Brut Imperial to 7 grams, and perhaps even 6.”

In fact, Moët & Chandon has just released its 2002 Rosé, which has been aging for seven years on its lees, with only 5.5 g/l dosage!  To my palate the 2002 Moët & Chandon Rosé is the best vintage Champagne this venerable house has produced in a long time; it is very dry, with great concentrated red fruit flavors; an outstanding Champagne.  They’re calling it “2002 by Moët.”  Gouez believes that many consumers don’t understand the concept of “Vintage” Champagne, and Moët wants to emphasize that this is its vision of the 2002 vintage.

The movement towards producing dryer Champagnes is the best thing that has happened in the Champagne region in a long time.  I rank it in importance with the region’s gradual adoption of Blanc de Blancs Champagnes about fifty years ago as a new style of bubbly.  Those readers who have read previous columns of mine on Champagne might recall that my chief complaint about many so-called “brut” Champagnes has been that most of them were too sweet.  The large Champagne houses normally made their bruts with 13 to 15 g/l dosage (15 grams per liter dosage was the legal limit for brut Champagnes until July, 2009, when it was changed to 12g/l.)

Historically, Champagne was always made as a sweet sparkling wine, in accordance with the prevailing tastes of people in the 18th and 19th centuries.  Even Louis Roederer’s “Cristal,” when introduced as the world’s first prestige cuvée to Russia’s Tsar Nicholas II in 1876, was a sweet Champagne.  It was Madame Louise Pommery--one of the great Champagne widows--who introduced the first commercially successful dry Champagne, the 1874 Brut Nature, to the world.  Mme. Pommery, a fine businesswoman, was responding to the desires of the British market for a dryer Champagne.  In 1889, Laurent-Perrier introduced its Grand Vin sans Sucre, the first commercial brut zero Champagne.  Actually, the term “brut” was first used for Champagne in 1891, but truly dry Champagnes really didn’t catch on until at least the 1920s.

Today, more than 95 percent of Champagne produced is labeled Brut.  The only other type you might encounter, Extra Dry, has also had its grams per liter dosage changed two years ago, from 12 to 20 g/l to 12 to 17 g/l.  The even sweeter Demi-Sec (32 to 50 g/l) Champagne still exists, but sales are negligible.

What brought about the movement towards dryer Champagnes, which has gradually been taking place in the last twenty years, especially the last decade?  As I see it, two major factors, occurring simultaneously, took place:

1) People’s tastes and eating habits changed; a more sophisticated population desired dryer beverages. Sweet wines, along with sweeter-styled Champagnes, were consumed less and less.

2) Warmer vintages occurred throughout the world, including Champagne, from 1989 on.  These riper vintages in Champagne, with harvests beginning two to three weeks earlier than in the past, produced grapes with more natural sugar, which allowed winemakers to use lower dosage.  The higher dosage was more necessary in the past to counter the effects of the highly acidic wine that makes Champagne.

The warmer climate in Champagne also accounts for more years in which producers can make Vintage Champage; in the past, 3 or 4 vintage years per decade were warm enough to produce Champagne (grapes were ripe enough for a Champagne to be made exclusively from that year, without blending in other years’ wines).  Lately, it’s more like 7 or 8 vintages per decade that Vintage Champagne is being produced.

You might have wondered why we are now seeing more Brut Zero Champagnes than ever.  This category, which is also known as Brut Nature and covers Champagnes made with 0 to up to 3 grams per liter dosage, was practically non-existent up until about ten years ago.  Extra Brut Champagnes, a very small category covering Champagnes with 0 to 6 g/l, has also become increasingly popular.  Of all the major Champagne houses, only Laurent-Perrier sold an actual Brut Zero in the past; it had introduced its Ultra Brut in 1980.  That Champagne, along with a few small Grower Champagnes, were for a while the only Brut Zero Champagnes available.

Now, more and more Champagne houses are jumping on the Brut Nature bandwagon.  Ayala, a small house with a long history of dryer-styled Champagnes that was purchased by Champagne Bollinger in 2005, is producing three brut zero Champagnes, including a rare Rosé Nature.  Champagne Pol Roger has debuted its Brut Zero, named “Pure,” to excellent reviews.  The exceptional house of Billecart-Salmon introduced two Brut Zero Champagnes last year, both called “Extra Brut”:  A non-vintage Extra Brut (along with its standard NV Brut) and a 2004 Extra Brut.  I tasted both of them, and they are stunning. 

Even Champagne Louis Roederer, which up until recently was against the concept of Brut Zero Champagnes, has planned to introduce a Brut Zero Champagne in the very near future (probably within the year).  Previously, Roederer’s outstanding Chef de Cave, Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon, always maintained that Champagnes made with below 6 to 8 g/l would “reach an oxidative stage that quickly changes the fruit and aromas of the wine.”  In other words, the dosage, in Lécaillon’s words, protected the Champagne against oxidation.  When I talked to Lécaillon about this last year, Jean-Baptiste, without revealing exactly how, maintained that he thinks he has solved the problem of premature oxidation.  I’m guessing selecting riper grapes with lower acidity from a particularly warmer vineyard might compensate for making a Champagne with no dosage.  This seems to be the formula that other Champagne producers have used.

Besides a handful of pioneer grower Champagne producers--such as Egly-Ouriet, Jean Lallement, Henri Billiot, Pierre Gimonnet, and Tarlant to name a few--many smaller Champagne houses have championed dry-style Champagnes.  Some of my favorite Champagne producers that have traditionally made dry Champagnes include Gosset, Jacquesson, and Bruno Paillard.  Philipponnat’s prestige cuvée, the sublime Clos des Goisses, is usually made with no dosage in most vintages.  (The vineyard’s location, on a south-facing slope on the Marne River, soaks up so much sun that its ripe grapes don’t need the dosage.)  Most prestige cuvées, such as Dom Pérgnon and especially Cristal (4 g/l), are made with a low dosage.   Two of my favorite houses, Krug and Bollinger, have always produced dry Champagnes, along with Salon and its sister-house, Delamotte.

But the big guys always made their brut Champagnes on the sweet side, until recently.  Which brings us back to the biggest guy of them all, Moët & Chandon.  There used to be a catchy TV commercial a number of years ago about a stockbroker that said, “When E.F. Hutton talks, Everybody listens.”  The same is true with Moët & Chandon, part of the gigantic conglomorate, LVMH, which also includes Veuve Clicquot, Ruinart, Krug, Dom Pérignon, and others in its group.  I predict that every major Champagne house, which has not already done so, will be producing Champagnes with 6 to 9 g/l in the very near future.  Sweeter brut Champagnes will be dead in the water.  And I, for one, say “Amen” to that!

This movement towards dryer Champagnes in the LVMH group started with Champagne Dom Pérignon.  Its renowned Chef de Cave, Richard Geoffroy, began lowering the dosage on the Dom ten years ago, and it is currently down to 6 to7 g/l.

Moët & Chandon’s journey to dry Champagnes has been a long one.  A decade ago, Moët’s White Star, a NV Extra Dry Champagne with 20g/l, was the biggest-selling Champagne in the U.S. (Moët sold it only in the U.S., guessing correctly that many Americans preferred a less dry Champagne, even if they claimed  to prefer dry bubblies.)  A few years ago, Moët, sensing the direction things were going, pulled the plug on White Star.  It no longer exists.  The only NV Brut that Moët now sells is its Brut Imperial, formerly made with 13 g/l, now at 9, and probably going lower in the near future.

In addition to unveiling its new low dosage NV Brut Imperial and superb 2002 Brut Rosé (5.5 g/l), Benoît Gouez introduced Moët & Chandon’s latest Vintage “Collection” Magnum Champagnes to me at a recent tasting.  Moët began its Collection Series two years ago with two late-disgorged older vintages in magnum that had a common theme.  The 1995 and 1990 in magnum were the first of the Collection Series.  Moët has now re-released the following as Collection Champagnes:  The 1992 (5.5 g/l); the 1982 (7.5 g/l); the 1975 (7.5 g/l); and the 1964 (dosage not given), all in magnums.  The fact that these Champagnes were all late-disgorged, all in magnums, and all aged at Moët & Chandon’s winery played a major factor in their excellent condition, of course, but all were nothing short of fantastic. 

And all of them are available for sale.  The 1992, disgorged in 2004, had great depth and concentration, and was amazingly fresh for an almost 20-year-old Champagne; one of the best 1992s I have ever tasted.  The 1982, disgorged in 2002, was even better, delicate, with sublime length on the palate.  The 1975, also disgorged in 2002, was rich and powerful, with aromas and flavors of mocha, orange peel, apricot, and mushrooms.  It was the first Champagne in this tasting that had developed secondary aromas of coffee and truffles.  I rated it just a touch below the1982.  The 1964, disgorged in 1997, was my favorite.  It was rich, powerful and vinous, like a great white Burgundy with bubbles.  The 1964 also exhibited the longest length on the palate.  An amazing Champagne from an amazing vintage.

I have been to many Moët & Chandon tastings over the years, both in New York and in Epernay, France, home base of Moët.  This tasting was by far the best one I’ve experienced, starting with its new, low-dosage NV Brut Imperial.  Moët, the big guy, has often been disparaged by critics over the years, as huge wineries often are.  I have always been impressed with the quality of Moët & Chandon over the years, considering its size.  But I can say with confidence that Moët has never been better than it is today.  If it had slipped in the past, as some critics suggest, it is definitely back.