The School of Cool: The Sugar Trials at i4C

The Sugar Trials
The Sugar Trials

Don’t we all love sparkling wine, whether it is high end champagne, or cremants, cavas and more? At the third of the International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration seminars, we learned more about how dosage affects sparkling wines aromas, flavours, and balance.  This was a bit more technical in details compared to the other earlier seminars, but well worth it.  Sparkling wine is more than just wine; it is a process, as moderator John Szabo, said.  The base wines can be neutral and not too interesting. It is the process that makes it a more complex, enjoyable beverage, with dosage being added at the very end of that process.

Dosage is adding of either wine or sugar to the sparkling wine at the end of its second fermentation.  This additional dose of sweetness can make the final sparkling wine taste from dry to semi-dry to sweet.  As you will read, sweetness in sparkling wine can be a very complex topic.


Our panels to discuss sparkling wine were:

  • Karen McNeil – International wine author, keynote speaker (USA)
  • Dr. Belinda Kemp – The Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute at Brock University
  • Paul Fender – Winemaker, Tawse Winery (Niagara, Ontario)
  • Jamie Goode, Wine author (United Kingdom)
  • Rhys Pender MW, Wine author (British Columbia)
The Sugar Trials guest panelists at i4C with John Szabo speaking.
The Sugar Trials guest panelists at i4C with John Szabo speaking.

Our Sugar Trials Process

Our seminar was composed of two parts; the first part being a blind tasting of a base sparkling wine with dosages of 0g, 3g, 6g, and 9g, followed by our discussion of the wines’ balance with the wine maker.  The second half of our seminar was to learn from the speakers about the intricacies of the sparkling wine process and the perception of sweetness, combined with tasting six different sparkling wines from Ontario and elsewhere around the world and discussing if the dosage is over dosed, under dosed, or just right.

Dr. Belinda Kemp

Dr. Kemp started off the seminar to discuss her experiments of varying dosage with sparkling wines, which then leads into our second speaker, Paul Fender, and his four base sparkling wines with varying dosage.  Dr. Kemp is the founder of the Fizz Club in Ontario, where the members drink and discuss sparkling wine from around the world.

Fizz Club started in 2013, with a group of Ontario wine makers. Our first topic was dosage. What is in dosage? It doesn’t have to just be sugar, or the same wine that is in the bottle. In 2014 with Trius Winery we did a trial over 6 months with their Trius Brut sparkling. We wanted to show wine makers how you can change sparkling wine by changing the dosage.

We chose a range of wine treatments. We used 6g dosage as the control as that is what Trius was using at the time. We undertook a sensory analysis at Fizz Club, which produced some interesting results. One interesting result over the 8 different treatments we applied was that wines dosed with sparkling wine was preferred against wines that were dosed with still wines or brandy.

We also did extensive lab work.  One wine had 0g dosage while another we added 8g/l of sugar. In the lab we measured different levels of compounds at 5 weeks, after adding dosage. After 5 weeks, the 0g dosage had higher levels of fruity ester compounds while the dosage with sugar had higher levels of aromatic alcohols. We determined that the flavour profile of a sparkling wine changes as the sugar is integrated when it is released 2-3 months later. At 15 weeks by chemical analysis, there was no difference chemicals in the aroma compounds between 0g and 8g/l dosage.

We also did a foam analysis, which measures how much foam is produced and how long it persists.  The wines that had 0g dosage had longer foam stability. The reason being that the more sugar you add to the wine, the more viscous the wine gets and the less foam will be produced. Besides considering aroma and flavour compounds changing in the wines over time there is also viscosity and the pressure in the bottle.

Sparkling wine dosage trials slide courtesy i4C
Sparkling wine dosage trials slide courtesy i4C

We are currently undergoing trials across Ontario testing pressure and dosage at the moment. She is seeing wine makers dropping pressure levels.  Length of time on lees, temperature of the wine, and low dosage are other things Dr. Kemp says should be considered. Some wines stop fermentation when they are at the “right” level of sweetness for us. This can be because of the amount of fructose left over in the wine. Yeast does not like fructose and we cannot consume fructose either. Fructose is sweeter than glucose so if you have higher fructose levels, you don’t need extra sugar. “The wine will tell you what it wants”. To conclude, when wine makers undertake dosage trials, it is important three months later to re-taste the wine, as data has shown that the wine changes chemically.

Paul Fender

Everyone talks about balance. Balance is something he strives for but rarely achieves. Sparkling wine to Paul is not always about balance. If you are opening it for a date, birthday, anniversary, the sparkling wine needs a hedonistic value; to be pleasurable. We can be intellectual about tasting wine, but ultimately wine needs to be something that makes you smile as it tastes good. When we do our trials, we try to make something that tastes good.

When we do trials we blind taste them over time. We are susceptible to our biases so blind tasting is important. As a winemaker I want to make a drier style, more intellectual wine, but I may not want to drink this all the time. We want to taste the wines blind and see what we like.

We were presented with Paul’s wines, with the 4 different amounts of dosage.  We, the audience picked the 6g dosage as our favourite. Paul re-tasted the wines the day before the seminar.  6g is what he thought he wanted, but in his re-taste he thought it was a little sweet. He added the dosage 6 weeks ago. He now thinks that his final choice for dosage for his sparkling brut wine will be between 4-6g. Paul wants the tension and acidity to show, and not be masked by sweetness, but also wants a little bit of pleasure in the mouth. His favourite today was the 0g dosage. To Paul, dosage level is always a moving target.

Karen McNeil

Karen likes oppositional things, like champagne and sparkling wines due to its contrapuntal tension; tension of acid and sugar, or tension between acid and creaminess due to long lees aging. Karen noted that wines in the Champagne region were made since Roman times and were slightly effervescent. The Champenoise were not originally amused by the bubbles, and spent time to try to correct these bubbles. But bubbles were only one of the problems in early Champagne. It was thin, strident, pink, cloudy, and gritty. To Karen, sugar was the best thing to happen to early Champagne; to disguise what were considered flaws. Eventually remuage (riddling) is invented at Veuve Clicquot around 1816 to solve some of champagne’s problems.

As Champagne improved in quality, it also became drier. More Champagne houses expanded the idea of dryness. They thought a drier style might help them sell to more countries that preferred dry. Champagne in early days was viewed as a dessert wine. The idea that you can own two moments in mealtime, dessert and as an aperitif, was good for marketing people and sales. The first wines they experimented with were demi-sec, half dry. When those were successful then came sec, the dry level. The next evolution is in English, and the category was called Extra Dry to distinguish from sec as the British were viewed as the only market that liked dry wines. Eventually the French developed a fascination for these extra dry wines, so they reverted back to French naming and called the driest wine brut. We now have extra brut, nature, etc., names for 0g dosage. But 0g dosage wines go back to the 1840s by Perrier Jouiet.  It was not as popular then as now.

Karen felt Wine 5 was a little severe and dry. She would like to try wine 5 with a little more sugar, not to make it sweet, but to mollify the cliff edges of acidity in the wine. To Karen everything is now sitting on one side of the sea saw balance.

Wine 6 she thought has a higher dosage but the overall tension was overall more intriguing. She didn’t know if this wine is better than wine 5, but she preferred the expression on the palate.

Rhys Pender, MW

To Rhys you have to consider wine in a snapshot of time. Consumer tastes always change and evolve, so wine making also has to change. Anecdotally people are moving toward a dryer style. From his WSET wine courses, Rhys finds that 70% of his students like a dryer style. He feels there is a trend toward dryness. As a producer of wines also, Rhys thinks there is a link to quality and your goals. Many Canadian wines sit on the fence, trying to please everyone. Now it is harder to sit on the fence if you want to be considered producing a “Quality” sparkling wine. You have to commit to either a sweeter or drier style.The change to drier style is a little producer driven and little consumer led. For Rhys, producers need to gain more confidence to commit to drier or sweeter.  His point on quality is if you want a quality terroir driven wine, it is often going to be balance of sugar supporting the wine. To Rhys, 6g is not a sweet wine, but you have to be careful as too much sugar takes away terroir.

Wine 7, is a richer, fatter wine, which is sweeter to Rhys. He would like it to be a little drier and crisper, but has a fantastic complexity of flavour.

Wine 8, is more leaner, in a crisp, mineral style. Rhys thinks it is spot on with dosage level, and it shows the stony character of the wine.

Jamie Goode

In wine education we are taught to be measuring devices. The more you study wine, the more you will converge on an accurate reading of the wine in front of you in terms of taste and smell. How the olfactory receptors detects aroma molecules, and how the tongue detects and tastes flavours; these signals are put into our brains as a measuring device, but it is not that simple. What we see and experience around us we think of as reality, but it is a really a selective view of reality. Our brains evolved to see what is around us and recognize things useful to our existence. What we are aware of consciously is based on a model of reality we create from our senses. When we are consciously aware of the world out there, that perception of the world has been highly edited by our brain. We do not have access to the raw data collected by the brain. We only have access to the edited info. The brain takes these sensory modalities; touch, vision, taste and smell, etc, and combines them at a pre-conscious level, so actually we are modelling the flavour of the wine. There is no direct correlation between the wine’s flavour and what we experience.

We all live in quite difference taste worlds. What is interesting we often agree on tastes because as we taste and discuss wines, we learn together. This group learning irons out some inconsistencies in our experiences in a wine. When it comes to sweetness we are not very good at reading sugar levels because sweetness is moderated by many other things; the most obvious one is acid. When you take a sugar solution and add acid, the solution tastes much less sweet and that is what happens with wine. If you have high acid levels in the wine you can carry quite a bit of sugar without tasting the sweetness. That is the skill of the dosage level. It softens sometimes quite the high acid levels, so you don’t notice the sweetness, just a nice dry sparkling wine.  Interestingly with global warming, and getting riper, sweeter fruit, the big Champagne houses are dropping their dosage levels. Balance between sugar and acid is key. That is why ice wine can have 14g and not be cloying with acidity. Without acid it would be like drinking syrup.

The second key component is aroma. It is really important as how we perceive sweetness. We talk about some aromas, e.g. floral or fruity, as a sweet smell, but sweetness is a taste.  We can’t smell sweet, so what we have done in our history is to learn to associate certain smells with sweetness, so you smell an aroma you associate with a sweet taste, and you think you are going to get something sweet to taste. So then we describe a smell as sweet. If we did the dosage trial before, playing with a sugar solution with different acid levels and that changed our perception of sweetness, now if you added floral aromas, the sugar solution you smell will taste sweeter. People rate tastes higher in terms of sweetness if it is also presented with a sweet smell.

With old sweet wines like port, we talk about sugar being eaten by age, but the sugar level in the wine has not changed.  What has changed is that the intense fruity aromas are replaced by more savoury aromas.  When the brain does its subconscious processing, it thinks the wine is not as sweet as it does not have the associated sweet smell.

Temperature of wine also affects our perception of sweetness. When we taste a wine that is warm, it tastes sweeter than it is cold. Likewise with perception of tannin or acid; they are enhanced when the wine is cooler and that moderates how sweet a wine tastes. Jamie also thinks that colour matters. We associate certain colours with sweet things; Red and pink we associate with sweetness. He thinks all these different aspects interact to create our perception of sweetness.

To summarize, we are getting highly edited views of reality and we cannot access the raw data. As good wine tasters we should try to double think about the way our brains have processed all the info that has come in.

Jamie liked both wines 9 and 10. He thought the first one was quite balanced but had a little more sweetness than the second wine.

Jamie thought wine 10 was spot on for dosage.

The Blind Tasting Results

For Paul’s Tawse Sparkling Brut wines with the four dosage levels, my guess was Wine 1 – 3g, Wine 2 – 0g, Wine 3 – 9g, and Wine 4 – 6g. I was correct!  Differentiating between the 6g and 9g dosage was the most difficult for me.  I had to taste back and forth between the two wines several times.  I do not know if sweetness level detection is linear with sweetness intensity, follows a logarithmic scale, or maybe something between these two scales?

The remaining six wines that we blind tasted:

WINE 5: Sperling Vineyards 2013 Blanc de Blancs Brut Nature, Okanagan Valley, BC
WINE 6: Champagne Drappier N/V Blanc de Blancs, Champagne, France
WINE 7: Château des Charmes 2014 Blanc de Blancs Sparkling, St. David’s Bench, Niagara, ON
WINE 8: Marcel Cabelier 2014 Crémant du Jura Organic, Jura, France
WINE 9: Pierre Sparr NV Crémant d’Alsace Chardonnay Brut, Alsace, France
WINE 10: Henry of Pelham 2012 Blanc de Blancs Carte Blanche, Short Hills Bench, Niagara

The Sugar Trials sparkling wine flight
The Sugar Trials sparkling wine flight

I thought Wine 5 was under dosed, Wine 6 was correctly dosed, Wine 7 was slightly over dosed, Wines 8-10 were correctly dosed. Wine 6 was Brut Nature, so would have 0g dosage.  My tasting notes for these six wines are coming up in a separate article along with the tasting notes from the previous two seminars.

I hope you enjoyed this discussion of dosage and perception of sweetness in sparkling wines. Creating a sparkling wine is quite a process. It takes the wine maker beyond making a still wine.  Adding dosage, the amount of dosage, and the type of dosage, all affects your perception of the wine in the end.  In the end, we all want a sparkling wine to enjoy.

Author: mywinepal
Drink Good Wine. That is my motto and I really want to help you drink good wine. What is good wine? That can be a different thing for each people. Food also loves wine so I also cover food and wine pairings, restaurant reviews, and world travel. Enjoy life with me. MyWinePal was started by Karl Kliparchuk, WSET. I spent many years with the South World Wine Society as the President and then cellar master. I love to travel around the world, visiting wine regions and sharing my passion for food & wine with you. Come live vicariously through me, and enjoy all my recommended wines.