You might have heard about the ongoing war on sugar. With rising cases of obesity and diabetes worldwide, public health officials have declared sugar the number one public enemy. This is a just war. Not so just, the war on sweetness. Specifically wines. The desire for sweetness in wines has dropped over the years, with the most evident being Champagne.
While sugar is traditionally added to Champagne in a process called dosage to balance out the typically high-acidity wines of the region, the amount of sugar added has dropped over the years, resulting in the creation of new categories of sweetness
to describe the drier styles of bubbly demanded by the market.
Today, Champagne a la mode is dry as presented in French Champagne house Louis Roederer’s Brut Nature, a zero dosage cuvee created in 2006 in collaboration with Philippe Starck. Part of the reason for this shift was the fact that sugar is sometimes used to cover up deficiencies like under-ripe grapes. But that doesn’t necessarily make sweet bubbly bad. As with any other wines, there are good years and bad years – and dosage levels were merely a sign of the times rather than a conscious, widely-practised effort to cover up flaws. I remember a chat with Louis Roederer cellar master Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon some time back, when he described tasting a particularly vintage example from the house.
“If candy was for children, then sweet wines were for the underdeveloped palates of philistines.”
The particular bottle was produced at a time when Champagnes were perceptibly sweeter – and it was still blindingly exceptional. For years, I was a naysayer of sweet wines. The zeitgeist suggested I sneer at those who enjoyed a little doux. If candy was for children, then sweet wines were for the underdeveloped palates of philistines with their white zinfandel and supermarket moscato for whom sweetness is the most basic of desirable flavours – an indication of fast-acting caloric intake that the lizard part of a brain craved. My virgin glass of good sauternes was the first step in my dry-wines-are-superior rehabilitation. It was luscious, dessert- like, satisfyingly complete and intriguingly complex – qualities I previously thought to be mutually exclusive.
Responsible for this is the Botrytis cinerea mould, which thrives on certain varieties of grapes, drying them out to concentrate flavours and sugars and, like magic, creating flavours of honey, apricots, nuts, and even ginger in the wine. Most styles of sweet wines also happen to be exceptionally expensive and difficult to produce. Botrytis wines require very specific growing conditions – wet, misty mornings and warm, dry afternoons – and multiple picking passes at the vineyard as the mould spreads erratically – and only affected grapes are picked.
A few months back, I stopped recreational drinking for health reasons. While tasting continued, the only drink I allowed myself was the occasional nip of wine at social gatherings. Sweet wines became a godsend since there was more flavour. A half-glass of vin santo – an Italian sweet wine made by drying grapes – went much further, and was much more edifying than a full glass of Chianti. Taste, of course, is subjective. I don’t doubt that some people genuinely dislike sweet things, but the lesson is to not let the flavour of the day get in the way of the flavour you want – and I’m not just talking about wine.