Americans notoriously love sweet things. We export Coca-Cola around the world, put ketchup on steak (well, some of us do) and clamor for the latest seasons of “The Great British Baking Show” and “Cupcake Wars.”
Last year, however, 97 percent of the Champagne imported to the U.S. qualified as dry. Demi-sec Champagnes, which contain between 32 to 50 grams of sugar and are among the category’s sweeter iterations, have been on the decline in the U.S. for the past decade. Americans increasingly reach for brut, extra brut, and non-dosage varieties. (To clarify, brut Champagnes have zero to 12 grams per liter of residual sugar, extra brut zero to six, and non-dosage zero to three, with no additional sugar added.) If the trend continues, it seems possible that demi-sec Champagne could fade into obscurity in the domestic market for good.
Yet demi-sec Champagne, an historic example of Champagne’s versatility, might actually be the key to the category’s success. By appealing to the sugar-oriented palates of American consumers, Champagne could become more of an everyday beverage. If Champagne producers and the American wine trade want Champagne to be more than just a celebratory aperitif sipped at special events, we should make room for demi-sec Champagne.
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The sweet lowdown
Drier Champagnes may hold court these days, but OG Champagne had more in common with what we categorize as demi-sec today. When the region came into prominence in the 18th and 19th centuries, sweeter styles of Champagne by far outweighed dry ones. Russia comprised a large portion of Champagne’s early market, so Champagne houses catered to the country’s preference for sweeter styles of wine. Champagne often contained over 100 grams per liter of residual sugar, and was sipped at the end of the meal with dessert.
As countries like England became larger consumers of Champagne, in the late 1800s, producers gradually began to make drier styles. Perrier-Jouët claims to have created the first brut Champagne in 1846. Veuve Clicquot’s signature Yellow Label was officially trademarked in 1877 to distinguish dry Champagnes from sweeter ones in the British market. In 1889, Laurent-Perrier went one step further and launched its “Grand Vin Sans Sucre,” a Champagne produced without the addition of sugar, or dosage. It wasn’t for nearly a century that the style would truly be embraced by American and English consumers, both of whom remain primary export markets for dry Champagnes.
Today, the trend is to produce Champagnes with as little residual sugar as possible. While a handful of producers like Tarlant and Laurent-Perrier began vinifying cuvées without added dosage in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the brut nature, or non-dosage, category has boomed over the last decade, with imports growing from just 315 bottles in 2006 to over 72,000 in 2016, according to the Comité Champagne.
This is partially because rising temperatures in the region have allowed producers to make pleasing Champagne without the addition of dosage, or sugar added after disgorgement. No longer are producers required to use dosage to counteract harsh acidity, the impetus for the practice in previous centuries.
These days dry is definitely the thing, and not just in Champagne. “Other wines like Riesling have gone drier, too,” Michael Engelmann, wine director at The Modern and Untitled in New York, says. “It is also something that you have noticed in pastry shops; people want less sweetness.”
“The mood in Champagne, for a few years now, is much more in favor of less sugar, as the booming of non-dosage and zero dosage cuvées can illustrate,” Vitalie Taittinger, artistic director of Champagne Taittinger, says.
We don’t always want what we say we want
Interestingly, while drinkers may adamantly profess their love of drier wines, studies have shown that many still prefer the sweet stuff. In both 2015 and 2016, Sonoma State University surveys found that, although consumers stated a loyalty toward dry wine, they statistically actually prioritized fruity, semi-sweet styles when asked how they prefer wines to taste. While this may seem counterintuitive, it illustrates a disconnect among consumer preferences.
“People only want to drink dry wine, even if their Chardonnay has the same level of residual sugar as Kabinett Riesling,” Cedric Nicaise, wine director at Eleven Madison Park in New York, notes. Consumers have become trained to gravitate toward wines that are labeled as dry, like Chardonnay, even if they actually contain just as much sugar as a sweet wine.
Somewhere along the way, sugar became a bad word in the wine world. This perception is held not just by consumers, but by producers and the wine trade as well.
“Demi-sec Champagne is often put aside because many consider that sugar masks wine and the soil.” Arnaud Margaine, proprietor and winemaker of Champagne A. Margaine, says. As the trend for vineyard-specific, terroir-driven Champagnes increases, so does the trend for non-dosage cuvées. Margaine is one of the few grower-producers who make a demi-sec Champagne available in the U.S. Ironically, so is Anselme Selosse, the father of terroir-driven Champagne production. Selosse’s off-dry “Exquise” cuvée, which has evolved from a demi-sec to a sec Champagne, regularly retails for over $200 per bottle.
Dosage is most often associated with large Champagne houses. “Dosage is not just about sweetening wine, but homogenizing,” Ryan Arnold, wine director of Lettuce Entertain You’s restaurants in Chicago and Los Angeles, says. “Larger producers use sugar to smooth out edges and mask inferior grape-growing practices.”
While this practice certainly occurs, careful use of dosage can enhance the character of a Champagne, lifting aromatics, softening the palate, and adding richness. The key to a well-crafted demi-sec Champagne is thoughtfulness and restraint.
“The important thing is to keep a nice balance on the perception of sugar and acidity,” Margaine says. “On this type of wine, it’s great to keep a note of freshness.”
Food pairings are a particular strength of demi-sec Champagnes. The best bottles range closer to an off-dry wine such as Mosel Riesling or Vouvray than a dessert-level sweet one.
“Although people’s taste profiles are trending towards drier in every category, there is still a great place for sweet wines in the world, especially for food and wine pairing,” Jack Mason, Master Sommelier with Pappas Bros. Steakhouse in Houston, says.
Pairing demi-sec Champagne with food diminishes the perception of the wine’s residual sugar, allowing the flavors to shine through. This may be one reason why wine drinkers have turned away from demi-sec Champagnes; since consumers have grown to view Champagne as an aperitif, rather than a wine to be paired with food, dry Champagnes make more sense.
However, modern sommeliers now profess the merits of drinking Champagne throughout the meal, pairing it with everything from foie gras to fried bites. Taittinger recommends pairing their demi-sec cuvée classically with a range of desserts, while Mason notes that demi-sec Champagnes can be the perfect match to savory dishes with sweet elements, like salads with candied nuts, or burrata with fruit. Margaine likes to contrast dishes with his demi-sec, using its residual sugar to cool down spicy flavors.
“It can be a fun alternative to anything one might pair a classic style of Kabinett Riesling with,” Mason says.
The next big thing?
When reviewing the numbers, it’s not that demi-sec Champagne isn’t made anymore. A representative from the Comité Champagne emphasizes that demi-sec Champagne is still an important category for many producers, accounting for 2.5 percent of Champagne’s total exports and second only to brut Champagne. But demi-sec Champagne is far more likely to be made by houses than by grower-producers. And growers are far more popular among the most outspoken Champagne lovers: the somms.
“I think that the new wave of hot producers have certainly become augmented to the non-dosé style or very low dosage, but when you look at the majority of the market, the wines are still as sweet as they have been,” Mason says. “The vast majority of Champagne that is sold by the more traditional, large houses, is still quite sweet.”
Somms crave enamel-ripping acidity and terroir-driven specificity, both of which are perceived to be diminished by high dosage levels. But if wine professionals eschew this still-important style of Champagne, they are overlooking an entire segment of the region in favor of a fashion that, like all other trends, could fade away in the future.
“I think non-dosage Champagne is very much in style now, and that will be for a couple of years, but like everything else, the pendulum will swing and people will go for more balance than razor-sharp acidity,” Nicaise says.
In all likelihood, demi-sec Champagne will never overtake the brut style in the U.S. or abroad, but neither will it (or should it) disappear entirely. Sweeter styles of Champagne have a long history in the region, and it’s the job of the wine professional to understand the region as a whole, not just in the context of the latest trend.
If sommeliers truly wish to bring the message of Champagne to the masses, they should use demi-sec cuvées to appeal to consumers’ sugar-inclined palates with inventive, complementary pairings. Even those drinkers who claim to prefer drier tastes are already primed to accept the demi-sec category. It’s time to give the people what they want.