Champagne: Magical elixir or marketing ploy?

I distinctly remember the first time I ever tasted champagne, and I’m talking about real champagne, and not the sickly sparkling wines that we frequently bought at supermarkets throughout our adolescent years. I was 18, standing on a pier in Southern Norway, surrounded by Norwegians who were celebrating our return from a great circumnavigation. It was bottles and bottles of Moet Chandon Rosé being passed around as people sprayed, glugged, and poured this supposed magical elixir. It was only 6 months later that I’d land my first ever wine job, but standing on this pier in Norway, I remember thinking I was crazy because I couldn’t taste the magic.

Of course, back then, I didn’t understand what the magic was exactly. I could not comprehend what it was about champagne that made it synonymous with celebrations. The devil on one shoulder told me that it was all one big marketing ploy by big champagne houses that tied occasions like weddings, graduations, or births with this magical elixir.

Fast forward a couple of years, and I’m working full time in the wine industry in Copenhagen. I danced around the chai at work, recommending bottle after bottle of my favourite wines to customers from all over the world. Yet the top shelf, too high even for me to reach, remained elusive to me. There stood a lineup of some of the greatest grower champagnes to have ever been made. At this point of time, I had already dived head first into the world of natural wine; everything surrounding the natty stuff, I was obsessed with. But champagne always remained the mysterious aunt at the wedding; invited to the party, but no one really knows what she does the other 364 days of the year.

When it comes to wine, I didn’t like not knowing; I was used to having the answers when people asked me technical questions about the wines on our shelves. I still remember the first time someone asked me about dosage, it was my opening shift, and a client was looking to buy a bottle of champagne for her birthday. It quickly became evident that she knew more about the champagnes on our shelf than I did. There was no bullshitting my way out of that conversation, so best I could say was a joke about being too short to reach the champagne shelf.

Grower Champagne is a phrase that I threw around already, but what exactly does it mean? It’s about as literal as it can possibly be; Champagne makers who also grow their own grapes. It’s the only region in the entire world where we give merit to winemakers for simply farming their own grapes; and to use that as a basis for what natural Champagne is feels disingenuous to winemakers outside of the region.

But what exactly constitutes naturalness in Champagne?

In order to answer that, we must know how Champagne is made. The AOC Champagne specifications dictate manual harvest, pressing, and fermentation, with malolactic fermentation being optional. Then from the 1st of January, a process called tirage takes place. The wine is bottled and blended with a liquid solution of yeast, wine and sugar (liqueur de tirage) to create the secondary fermentation in the bottle to activate the formation of bubbles (prise de mousse). The bottled Champagne then undergoes ageing, with non vintage Champagne ageing for at least 15 months and vintage Champagnes a minimum of 3 years.

The final steps in Champagne making include disgorgement and dosage. The neck of the bottle is opened to expel the sediment within and the liquid that’s lost during disgorgement is replaced with a liqueur de dosage. This is the point in which sugar may be introduced depending on the wine that’s added (quick guide below). The strict rules of the Champagne AOC does not leave much room for creative interpretations and experimentation in wine; as any wine that doesn’t get approved for AOC legally must get sent to the distillery.

For me, naturalness in Champagne isn't necessarily about challenging the AOC; instead, it’s about the winemaker’s philosophy towards winemaking and farming that makes a Champagne stand out. Just look at the yields of the big Champagne houses versus some of the producers we represent; there’s only so much thought that can go in each individual bottle when the production amount equals the population of a small country.

There are ways to produce a liqueur de tirage and liqueur de dosage “naturally” and only using byproducts of grapes; but that’s a long and technical explanation that turns this little rant ten pages long. If that’s something anyone wants to read, you know where to find me. It’s also great bedtime reading for anyone who wants to be put to sleep as well.

This is a lot of words to really just say that naturalness in Champagne isn’t so much about the traditional specifications of what we hold natural wine standards to be. But instead celebrating vignerons who actively partake in the natural wine community; and those who go against the big Champagne houses to intervene as little as the wine needs them to.

Ultimately, it’s about the energy in the wine they produce.

A quick guide to Champagne dosage

Dosage (lavishly pronounced do-saaaaaajjje) is the addition of the shipping liqueur just after disgorging. The liquid consists of a mixture of pure sugar and reserve wine. Each house has its own secret formula and the choice of the reserve wine is essential, it is the one that will balance the wine and adjust its texture by bringing complexity.

Here’s the different types of Champagnes, on a scale from driest to sweetest:

Brut Nature = no added sugar & under 3 grams/litre of residual sugars

Extra-Brut = between 0 and 6 g/litre of residual sugars

Brut = less than 12 g/litre of residual sugars 

Extra sec (or Extra Dry) = between 12 & 17 g/litre of residual sugars 

Sec (or Dry) = between 17 & 32 g/litre of residual sugars

Demi-Sec = between 32 & 50 g/litre of residual sugars

Doux = more than 50 g/litre of residual sugars

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