"Sweets to the sweet," the saying goes. But suppose the sweet in question doesn't care for sugar and favors savorier, edgier flavors instead. Don't let the romance of Valentine's Day fizzle over a token box of chocolates. Instead, make it pop with the driest sparkling wine on the market.
Though the buzz in mainstream media surrounding "sugar-free" Champagne—more properly called zéro dosage, non dosé, brut nature or sauvage—began a few years ago, it has quieted a bit, no doubt because the bone-dry, startlingly tart style poses a formidable challenge to most palates. Of course, that's precisely why it enjoys a cult following among enophiles, who also appreciate the challenge winemakers face in producing it.
To briefly explain, the climate in the Champagne region is quite cold by viticultural standards. Historically, the grapes grown there were too low in sugar and high in acid to yield much quality still wine. But they proved just right as the building blocks for bubbly—so long as those blocks were carefully assembled and then polished via dosage, or the addition of some form of sugar to round off the edges and lend finesse to the finished product, be it brut (dry) or doux (sweet).
Today, however, the growing demand for "natural" over "processed" goods from consumers with increasingly sophisticated tastes has facilitated an industry-wide trend toward minimalist winemaking practices. Yet the intricate méthode Champenoise is anything but, so more and more estates are daring to attempt the delicate balancing act that is Champagne production without the safety net of dosage.
Whether climate change will make their jobs easier remains to be seen, but for now, their success is mixed. As San Francisco Champagne Society owner Bill Marci observes, some zero-dosage wines come across as "so sterile that you have to work to enjoy them." With that in mind, Jay Schuster, wine director at RM Champagne Salon in Chicago, uses the Socratic method on customers who ask for the driest bottle he's got: "'Do you mean no sugar? Or do you mean crisp? Do you mean mineral?' Mostly they want something in the brut category," he explains—which is, rest assured, plenty dry despite containing up to 12 grams of sugar per liter.
Still, Schuster says, brut nature done right "is the most authentic Champagne you'll get, because you're tasting the real thing." At its best, Marci agrees, "the natural fruit that comes out is just fantastic," and you're more likely to pick up on the chalky, flinty subtleties of the region's famous terroir. Provided, that is, you serve it properly: Bubbly should be chilled to 45 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit and poured into regular white-wine glasses to "get nuances that may not be there in flutes," Marci says (for rosés, he even uses Burgundy stems).
As for food pairings, he adds, "Most of the no-dosage wines drink well by themselves," though Schuster loves them with raw shellfish, "a simple wood-grilled salmon with some olive oil, or hamachi crudo with a little green apple and truffle jus."
Below are some bottles the Schuster and Marci recommend to pick up for your boo—just don't serve them with chocolate.
① NV Ayala Champagne Brut Nature ($36)
"My absolute go-to with oysters," Schuster says of this aromatic wine. "It gets the salivary glands going, and that crisp minerality and the green-apple notes on the front go with the brininess of the oysters—you get to taste the best of both."
② 2009 Larmandier-Bernier Terre de Vertus Premier Cru ($54)
Biodynamically farmed Chardonnay vines yield a zesty yet complex, terroir-driven vintage blanc de blancs that Marci finds "incredibly delicious."
③ NV Gruet Blanc de Blancs Sauvage ($13)
Though this sparkler isn't a Champagne at all, the acclaimed New Mexico winery that makes it has Old World roots, which show in classic bready, appley aromas complemented by loads of zippy lemon and lime.
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