The last two weeks of the year are rife with occasions and excuses to pop open a bottle of Champagne. I don't think anyone needs excuses or occasions, and in fact I strongly believe Champagne should be popped open more often. But now is as good a time as any to try one of my favorite new categories: "non-dosage" Champagnes.
Just before bottling, almost all Champagnes are given an addition of sweet syrup—that's called the dosage. The amount of sugar in the dosage varies from brand to brand, but it's essentially added to balance the high acidity of what would otherwise be extremely austere wines. The sugar in the dosage rounds out the body and finish of the wine, softens the impact of the acid, and flushes out fruit flavors. In brut Champagnes, the most common category, the sweetness is hardly noticeable, as these wines generally taste "dry," even if technically they are not.
But the dosage gets in the way of that electric spark of acidity in Champagne. Non-dosage Champagne is so new that there's no codified name for it, just a slew of proprietary terms to describe it on the label: extra brut, brut nature, brut zero, dosage zero. The first such bottling I became aware of was Laurent-Perrier's Ultra Brut, a style the house says dates back to the 19th century, when it was known as Grand Vin sans Sucre. To make a balanced Champagne without sugar, though, is not simply as easy as withholding the dosage. The fruit going into it usually should be exceptionally ripe, its own fruity robustness compensating for the deficit in sweetness and harmony that a dosage brings to the wine. To that end, Laurent-Perrier uses only Chardonnay and Pinot Noir for good, ripe vintages, making the Ultra Brut hardly an everyday Champagne. It's full and round with clear citrus and apple flavors and a long, focused finish.
What I love about this style, besides offering more transparency to the wine in its natural form, is that it goes so well with some of my favorite foods. With oysters, for instance, which tend to be in such great form in December, you want as dry a wine as possible to accompany their briny, mineral sharpness. A non-dosage Champagne like the Ultra Brut is the perfect accompaniment for other cold-weather delicacies as well, like caviar, crab, and winter greens. Don't think of it as special-occasion Champagne; it's a white wine worthy of the best of meals. Not to mention that this time of year, something bracing, exhilarating, and dry might be a refreshing alternative to the saccharine holidays.
Here are a few commonly found bottles:
Tarlant "Zero"—This wine has a fullness and a depth lacking in many non-dosage Champagnes, thanks to the fact that some of the base wines are aged in oak barrels (instead of the more common stainless steel tanks). Tarlant also offers a compelling "Zero" rosé, which has a great bright cherry purity.
Larmandier-Bernier "Terre de Vertus"—Vertus is the town where this house is located, and the wine is named after its soil. This is one of the most transparent Champagnes you'll taste, uncompromisingly structured with thrilling mineral intensity. The wine is always vintage dated, so it's from a single year.
Pol Roger Pure Brut—Surprising in its depth and steeliness, with charming red fruit and lemon zest on the nose.