This episode of “Wine 101” is sponsored by J Vineyards & Winery, makers of small-batch, single- vineyard wines and acclaimed sparkling wine using the traditional method (meaning J makes sparkling wine by hand). J makes a portfolio of bubblies ranging from vibrant and crisp to creamy and graceful. If you’re not feeling bubbly, J Vineyards still wine is equally sublime. To fully experience J wine, paired with curated cuisine, visit the J Vineyards & Winery tasting room in Sonoma County.
On this episode of “Wine 101,” VinePair tastings director Keith Beavers looks at the science behind tirage and dosage. The former refers to what happens during the initial blending and fermentation process of sparkling wine. Meanwhile, dosage is used to explain the dryness of wine. But what is the science behind these two terms? And how can they be used in conversation? Tune in to learn more.
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Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers. Cat lovers out there: When I’m away from my cats, I need pictures of my cats daily.
What’s going on, wine lovers? Welcome to VinePair’s “Wine 101” podcast. How are you, like really? That’s great. There are two words that confuse people a lot, and they’re very similar. We have to talk about them. Get your drills out again, we’re drilling down on dosage and tirage.
I think we need to focus on these two words. I know that I did a sparkling wine episode all the way back in Season 1, but it seems like these two words really confuse people, and it makes complete sense why. Number one, it’s a different language. If you don’t speak French, you don’t know it. I don’t speak French. Also, their meanings are somewhat similar, but they exist in different parts of the process of sparkling wine. So today we’re going to talk about the word dosage and the word tirage. Really what they are are words that define two very important steps in the winemaking process. Once you understand them, it’ll be so much easier drinking sparkling wine with people that talk about sparkling wine. They’re going to say these words, and you will go, “Oh, OK, I know what you’re talking about.”
One word, tirage, is in the beginning of the winemaking process, and dosage is at the extreme end of the winemaking process. So we’ll start with tirage. To understand these things, I like to translate the word. The reason I say that is, these words that are used in wine, they’re not always directly translatable. Again, do I use words that don’t exist? I don’t know. I use these somewhat general translations to help me understand stuff in wine all the time. So the first word, “tirage,” in French means “draw.” This word refers to the part of the process of sparkling winemaking, where after all the base wines have been blended in the beginning, they add a solution of yeast, wine, and sugar. And they apply that to the base wine to get the whole process started. This is like, “Hey, yeast, here’s some sugar. Get going. Let’s do it.” They call this solution “liqueur de tirage,” or the drawing- out liquor. But really, tirage is the word used for this entire part of the sparkling winemaking process, which involves the second fermentation happening and then the wine actually maturing on the lees, which are the dead yeast cells. This solution is not a hodgepodge solution just hanging out in the corner of the winery. It’s an actual, highly calculated, thought-about solution with different proportions of yeast and sugar. The winemaker uses this, knowing that that science will give him or her the dryness level they’re looking for once the wine is done with the process.
Once that process is over and they’ve hit the dryness they would like, they then start to think about the dosage. A very dry Champagne, for example, is bone dry. We’re talking about a base wine — you’ll hear about it in the sparkling wine episode — but grapes that are picked for sparkling wine have a very high acid content. So when the wine is done going through its second fermentation and ready for a dosage, the winemaker has to decide how much of a dosage they want to put in it. What kind of sweetness level do they want in the resulting wine? So now, we’re at that word. What is the dosage? And of course, the translation here is pretty easy. “Dosage” just means dosage. So that’s nice. The dosage is the final addition to the sparkling wine before they put it out to market. Where the tirage, the liqueur de tirage, was a combination of yeast, sugar and wine, the dosage is just sugar and wine. There’s no third fermentation process. It just can’t happen. This solution, this dosage, is called “liqueur d’expedition.” I’m sure I’m messing that up. It’s the liqueur of the expedition, and that seems to me like you’re expediting the process. It’s now time for the wine to go to market. Let’s put this little guy in there, give it some residual sugar, bring the sweetness up to how we want it, and put it out to market. We’ll talk about the dosage levels in a second.
Right now, there’s a very popular thing going on where winemakers that make sparkling wine, especially in Champagne, are doing something called a zero dosage. That means that there is no added sweetness to the wine before it goes out into the market. Often, these wines are very, very bone dry. It’s this new thing happening. It’s not new, but it’s gaining popularity on the American market. The reason I say this is, if you have a bottle of sparkling wine that has no dosage, it actually can attain the depth that one would be looking for with a dosage. But it would require the wine to age for a very long time and slowly but surely get to that level. So the dosage is a way to get it sweet and get it out to the market. But it actually gets even more complicated than that, especially in places like Champagne, where they have multiple vintages of base wine waiting for their house blend. Every house has a different style of what they want to achieve, and it’s very complicated. Basically, the older the wine, the less necessity you have for a dosage. Now, I’m sure I said what I’m about to say in the sparkling wine episode, but here we are, right here and right now.
Let’s talk about the dosage levels and those words that may confuse people beyond dosage and tirage: brut, extra brut, and all those things. I’m going to use the E.U.’s classification of sweetness levels because this is what the “Oxford Wine Companion” uses, and Europe has established many laws there. In the New World, it’s a little bit different. We do it here as well. But it was codified in Europe. The level of sweetness in a sparkling wine, according to the E.U,. is based on residual sugar grams of residual sugar per liter. Then there are ranges of that with names or examples to describe those different levels. Sparkling wines with less than 3 grams per liter of residual sugar, and have not added any dosage after the second fermentation, is called brut nature, or just zero dosage. That’s that bone dry stuff. Wines with up to 6 grams per liter of residual sugar are considered extra brut. Wines with less than 12, I guess between 6 and 12 grams per liter of residual sugar is just called brut. So we have brut nature, extra brut, and brut. Those are the levels of the driest side of sparkling wine. Then we start to see a little bit of sweetness in the palate with these wines going forward. When a sparkling wine is between 12 and 17 grams per liter, it’s called extra dry. I know it sounds weird, but that’s the way it is. The way I see it is, the word brut means “crude” or “raw.” So when you’re in the categories of brut, it’s just keeping it as dry as possible with small additions. As we get higher, what they’re saying with extra dry is that it’s not crude or raw. It’s not that dry, but it’s still dry. It’s extra dry, but not brut. I know it’s confusing, but if you know the numbers in the names, it kind of helps out. If extra dry is between 12 and 17 grams per liter of residual sugar, between 17 and 32 grams per liter is just straight-up dry. Between 32 and 50 grams per liter is medium dry, and anything above 50 grams per liter is straight-up sweet.
What’s happening here is really just science. The winemakers are adding as much sugar — it’s kind of a simple syrup in wine — to achieve the sweetness level they want. Because the initial second fermentation deprived the wine of a lot of sugar, being bone dry it has a high acid. The thing about the zero dosage wines is they’re sharp, they’re beautiful, they’re awesome wines. But they’ve got some hard edges to them. But you’ll notice as you go out there and drink sparkling wines that have these levels, you’re going to see the subtlety of the increase of sweetness. It’s pretty cool. I know this is a quick one, but these words can be confusing and I figure we should talk about them. They’re key wine terms in the sparkling wine realm. So now you have an idea of what they are. When people start talking about these two words, tirage and dosage, you can be like, “Oh, cool dosage. What is it? Is it a brut, extra brut?” And then you’ll know exactly what they’re talking about. All right. Let’s talk next week.
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And now, for some totally awesome credits. “Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big ol’ shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. Big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darbi Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.