Reflecting on English Sparkling Wine 2020 : The Moving Windows of Dosage

It has been a couple of weeks since I finished writing English Sparkling Wine 2020. I covered a lot of ground, but there's plenty left to explore.

Last week I attended a brilliant tasting led by Essi Avellan MW on low-dosage Champagne with  winemakers from Philipponnat, Louis Roederer, Ulysse Collin and La Borderie. It prompted me into reflecting on the search for balance in English Sparkling Wine. These thoughts are broadly applicable to sparkling wine as a whole, but perhaps especially applicable to a wine style where leanness and difficult acidities are constant risks.

The Moving Windows of Dosage

Visualise two moving windows, sliding back and forth along parallel tracks at different speeds. They will cross each other at different points along the track, providing an opportunity to shoot an arrow - representing dosage - through both. One window represents acidity. The other window represents what you could call progression - the integrity of the path from start to finish on the palate, taking in texture, extraction, bitterness and flavour intensity. The higher the acid and the bumpier the progression, the smaller the windows. The smaller the windows, the less likely it will be that you'll be able to shoot through both with one arrow and hit your target; balanced transparency.

Rathfinny Blanc de Noirs - so carefully-made in order to ensure a low dosage can work.

You could shoot your arrow through the window representing acidity, balancing that particular element. If you miss on progression, though, your palate will not feel integrated and will reveal either the 'sweet-sour' effect if the dosage is high (a dramatic, almost soda-like opposition of sugar and acid that becomes tiring to drink) or toughness, astringency and bitterness. If you hit the right level for the feel of the palate but miss on acidity, though, the wine will feel pleasingly-complete but either tart or saccharine.

Some English Sparkling Wines are made from grapes with low ripeness levels. As well as high acidity these wines will tend to have hollow, lean structures. If you try to balance out the high acidity with a high dosage it will be as subtle as a hippo hiding behind a rake - there's just not enough there. You could age your wine for much longer on lees in an attempt to build texture, but this is a) expensive, and b) not necessarily suited to your style.

Oxidation simply adds more structural elements to be balanced out, making it harder to work at low dosages. Oxidation in quite lean, high-acid styles creates a real headache (and heavy-handed oak influence can do the same). Winemakers are extremely sensitive to the taste of sugar in wines they have been bringing up since birth, so the end result is likely to be an astringent or tart wine where balance is sacrificed in the name of transparency.

Wines with a more natural completeness will take more dosage without throwing it back out on the palate, giving you a much bigger shot at making the acidity window and getting a wine that is both balanced and transparent. In turn they will also take in more oxidative and oak-related characters (if they are asked nicely!). This completeness could come from ripeness, blending, reserve wine usage or lees-ageing. Reserve wine usage (and NV production) will also slow down the speed of movement, making it easier to line up the shot.

In other words, it seems like there is a cycle of virtue when it comes to balance that starts spinning only when acidities are managed and wines achieve a full, integrated palate before the dosage is added. Much as an uneven paint finish is often caused by bad preparation (rather than bad painting), problems of balance on the palate that appear to be dosage-related probably have their origins much earlier in the process.