Et tu Brut? Tarlant and zero dosage Champagne

This way to Champagne Tarlant (signpost)

This way to Champagne Tarlant

A few months ago, a discussion about “zero dosage” Champagne erupted onto my twitter feed. Robert Joseph typically voiced it with brevity and force:

Robert Joseph - twitter avatar
“There’s NOTHING hedonistic about zero dosage wine. At least not to non-masochists.”

What was this all about? Well, most Champagne, and notably all of the big non-vintage brands (The “Grand Marques” as the French call them) have a little sweetness added after their second fermentation. This “liqueur d’expedition”, usually a white wine sweetened with grape juice, is designed to take the edge off what can sometimes be a rather brutal and acerbic wine.

Melanie Tarlant next to the family vineyards

Melanie Tarlant next to the family vineyards

The problem is that the Champenois have become used to picking their grapes a bit carelessly – never mind if they are bitterly unripe and overly acidic. It doesn’t matter, the liqueur d’expedition will sort it out. So, well known brands like Moët et Chandon (don’t forget the “t” is pronounced, by the way), Bollinger and Tattinger usually have around 8-12gr of “dosage” added. The exact amounts are not stated on the bottle.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. The solution is to take more care with the ripeness and quality of the grapes – then it’s possible to make a true “terroir” wine, and one with very little, or even no dosage. There are those, such as Robert, who believe that this style can never rise above some kind of academic pleasure. I disagree.

As young adults (or children, if you’re French), we “acquire” the taste for alcohol. Most of us don’t immediately like the bitter, strong flavours, but we get used to it, and for many of us, this leads to lifelong pleasure. Why shouldn’t we also acquire a taste for zero dosage Champagnes? After all, our palates become accustomed to more or less sweetness through childhood and later life – and less sweetness, for me, paves the way to greater elegance and greater expression of the terroir.

Tarlant vineyards and Oeuilly in the snow

Tarlant vineyards and Oeuilly in the snow

Benoit and Melanie are the 12th generation of Champagne Tarlant, a small estate that grows and produces Champagne (unlike most small holdings, which just grow grapes and sell them to the big houses). They are so passionate about their Brut Nature (“pas dosé”) style that they have made it their “house” Champagne, not a higher priced speciality cuvée. Indeed the Tarlant zero dosage represents some 60% of their total production (around 100,000 bottles a year – a drop in the ocean for the big Champagne houses). Benoit stressed “It’s not a champagne for elitists – we want to make this (Brut nature) for everyone”.

I might not describe this wine as “hedonistic”, but neither is it austere. There is generous baked apple fruit and an almost creamy texture, terrific elegance and complex, almost oxidative hints – resulting from oak ageing the base wines. Overall, it reminds me of a fabulous, steely Chablis Premier Cru, with added bubbles. And who would suggest that people should add sugar to Chablis?

The Tarlants are not fanatics. They do not wear open-toed sandals, beads or hair-shirts. But Benoit and Melanie are passionate about their vines, and preserving them for the future – so that means that responsible viticulture (no synthetic sprays) and low-intervention is the order of the day. Furthermore, in the winery, wild yeasts are preferred, and great care is taken with the pressing, to preserve the delicate character of the grapes.

tarlant back label

The all important back label

Innovation is also important. Since Benoit took over as chief winemaker in 1999, there has been a keenness to deconstruct the mystery that the Champenois have historically erected around their product. This means experimenting with single varietal and single vineyard “terroir” Champagnes – confounding the notion that Champagne has to be a blend. Benoit: “I prefer to focus on what nature can give me in one place, rather than focusing on the brand”.

The Tarlants are also admirably transparent on the back label. It is (literally) refreshing to see that all of Tarlant’s bottles carry a disgorgement date on the rear – so no more chancing a purchase from a retail outlet with dubious stock controls or rotation.

The Tarlants are astute business people who live in the 21st Century. Melanie is much reknowned for her considerable social media presence, and the estate boasts an enviable online experience via web, video, facebook, twitter and so forth. Their genius is to match a genuine, artisanal love of land and heritage with such commercial awareness.

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    • Nicely done…and a lovely expression of why wine intoxicates us when you mix up taste, personality of the makers, place and belief.

      As you know well, that is what I think is truly on the ‘metaphorical’ label of a memorable great and enjoyable bottle of wine. It’s what I taste in the glass.

      I’ve come to Champagne late in my wine life and honestly, it is only in the last year where under the guidance of my fried Sophie McLean, buyer at Chambers Street Wines, I’ve learned to drink Champagne (and bubbly generally) as wine. As something that is made mostly in the vineyard and where perfect against a preconceived mold is not of interest nor a value. I’ve drunk a lot of Tarlant, all non dosage, and they are on the top of my list of so lovely, yet replete with personality.

      Re: Robert’s quote. I like Robert a great deal. We have through our personal meeting and our disagreements created the seeds of friendship which I do quite enjoy. But never have two people so loved wine, so relished in its technical detail, so prided themselves on understanding the market…and so disagreed on most everything 😉

      Thanks for this contribution to my day. There is labor and love (and time!) in this piece.

      • Thank you Arnold. People create all sorts of friendships across all sorts of philosophical, political, religious divides. All that matters is the maintenance of respect for the sincerity with which the other person holds their views. And a readiness to acknowledge when one’s own understanding of the facts is at odds with reality. I can’t claim to achieve either of these objectives consistently – especially because I enjoy teasing and tweaking tails and occasionally (?) overstating my case – but I try.

        • Nice to see you two having a “love in” on this post! Robert, I will respond to your detailed comments in a bit, was hoping I could get you to reproduce them here, as facebook is such a lousy place for serious discussion. But if not then maybe I’ll quote them and respond!

          • I think Robert and I could go on tour as lively counterparts about marketing wine and do quite well doing it. Nope…not going to happen!

        • ‘Tweaking tails’ you are good at for certain.

          I’ve never been interested in the mass market honestly although once I actually did have a company of mine become so popular to the market that it ended up being a question on Jeopardy 😉

    • I’d like to respond to some interesting comments that Robert Joseph left about this post on facebook:

      “A good piece Simon and actually I don’t disagree with much of it. I have actually enjoyed a number of zero-dosage Champagnes, including Tarlant and Pol Roger. These examples – which, like the – to my mind – best “natural” wines do not taste radically different from my favourite “mainstream” wines.

      They make up for the lack of dosage with the ripeness of the grapes and the natural richness that comes with significant amounts of Pinot Nor and possibly Meunier (as in the Tarlant example).

      I have, however, had far too many Chardonnay-driven Zero-Dosage Champagnes that come with high praise from French sommeliers but leave my palate feeling as though it has been scoured with lemon juice. The first zero-dosage offering from one of my long-standing favourite Champagne houses, Billecart-Salmon, was a very unfriendly beast when first released. It was a more likeable wine when I retasted it a year later, but I still question the hedonistic quality of these wines, when compared to my other favourites, often from the same producers.

      Zero dosage is often like Bartok to traditional examples’ Beethoven. Some people prefer the former; more, I think, would opt for the latter, with those like me who like their Bartok occasional and very well played.

      My bigger point – and of relevance to the “natural” v industrial debate – is why we are drinking wine. Most people are not doing it intellectually any more than they are eating that way. They’re doing it for refreshment and pleasure. So zero dosage reminds me of Lars von Trier’s Dogme 85 ‘filmmaking based on the traditional values of story, acting, and theme, and excluding the use of elaborate special effects or technology’. Fine when well done, but still less appealing to most people – including me on the night when I saw it, than Skyfall…

      I’m NOT saying there’s no place for intellectual pleasure in wine; far from it. But a) I think it’s a minority sector and b) I’ll battle against anyone who dismisses things that are well done purely-for-hedonistic pleasure.”

      • @facebook-671108823:disqus

        Robert, I’m still fairly new to the zero dosage style. I think I first formally encountered it in Brescia in 2011 (EWBC Franciacorta tasting), and found many examples that were very enjoyable – to me, at least! Perhaps I’ve been lucky, as I haven’t tasted any real horrors in this style.

        I have however tasted cheap mass-produced Champagne put up for sale on the UK retail market, which was little better than battery acid – and I’m sure had plenty of dosage added, in a feeble attempt to smooth out the creases. I don’t recall the producers – probably a good thing!

        I think it comes back to the same old point: A well-made wine is a well-made wine is a well-made wine. If a producer decides to jump on the “zero dosage” bandwagon (does such a thing exist?) without properly thinking through how their offering is going to provide pleasure, the chances are it might fail. I haven’t tasted the Billecart-Salmon example, but wonder if that was a case of bandwagon jumping?

        I always like your musical analogues (my background is originally in classical music), but sometimes they are dangerous. For me, Bartok represents unbridled joy and vivacity, and in some senses is far more hedonistic than Beethoven – who I find a little overwrought sometimes (OK, I can accept it might be an unusual perspective!). My point is “chacun a son gout”. My further point is that we shouldn’t assume that the populist view is always right. After all, to some extent the “norm” becomes what people are used to.

        Tasting at Tarlant was very interesting. I was with 3 companions, none wine experts. Melanie served up the Brut nature first, to universal acclaim. She then served the Tarlant Brut “Tradition”, a much more conventional, silkly wine with 7gr Dosage. I loved it, but the others immediately proclaimed it too sweet and all said they preferred the Brut Nature. My point is that they had adopted the zero dosage as their “norm” and their palates then found other wines quite sweet.

        And finally, on the place for intellectual pleasure in wine: We could discuss this at great length I’m sure. But someone made the point that wine geeks and afficionados are the ones who spend big money on wine – and also probably the ones who respond best to more intellectual types of wine. So it’s surely still an important sector. Would a winemaker rather sell one bottle of a £25 wine to a geek, or 5 bottles of a “quaffing wine” to all and sundry? (I do of course accept that both sectors have their place).

        I also think it would be worth digging a little deeper into what perceived hedonistic qualities are in wine. I suspect this could be a very personal thing.

        • Need to nudge you a bit.

          And intellectual appreciation of wine is not the same necessarily as an ‘intellectual type’ of wine of course. Actually don’t really know what either means.

          If I bring a story of my favorite Beaujolais producer Ducroux to a tasting and use this as a means to explain how it is made, what he doesn’t do and why he can make amazing wine that lasts with no SO2. And why he refuses to charge more than he needs to live on. All this on a really easy to love, quaffable glass of natural Gamay costing less than $15. Is that intellectual? Maybe or maybe just having a good time and sharing my passion.

          Not certain what an intellectual wine would be but maybe something unique and not for everyone like a Skerk Vitovska?

          I just reject the ideas that there are is only a tiny group of enthusiasts who are interested and will pay for uniqueness. May not be the fattest part of the mass market but it is significant and growing.

          • If I understand Robert correctly, he means a wine for geeks – one that might seem strange or surprising in its taste profile, and that may not be easy to stick on the table and quaff.

            Of course it’s never black and white, so much depends on context. Last night I took a qvevri wine along to a dinner party. It was a fairly mild-mannered example, but still complex, unusual and with a story behind it.

            But the occasion ended up not warranting a long discussion about the wine, and it was enjoyably supped without ceremony or intellect coming anywhere near it.

            • Ahh…

              I’m starting to think that the word geek should be focused on the obsession with detail and understanding not on breadth (or weirdness) of the palate.

              I’m more tolerant of what I don’t know as it’s an obsession to broaden myself. That initial tolerance is what sets me aside from someone who is looking to find something that just tastes right.

        • Simon, I like Tarlant too. And I share your dislike of cheap, acidic, sweetened up supermarket fizz. However, I’m less of a Bartok fan. And classical music sales suggest that – to recall my comments about free jazz during our discussion of “natural” wines – it is more of a minority enthusiasm than Beethoven. You may find the 9th – and Krug – both a bit “heavy”. I’ll very happily enjoy both. Hedonistically. And yes of course it’s chacun a son gout, but one has to accept that some “gouts” suit a lot more “chacuns” than others.

          My experience tasting with consumers (including ones who spend real money on Champagne) is that, in general, they prefer Pinot-dominant wines with dosage, while French sommeliers favour Chardonnay-dominant, zero-dosage efforts. They say these go well with food – which is terrific for all those people who drink their fizz with meals. I do that sometimes too, but frankly not that often – and probably a lot more frequently than most.

          • Well, Bartok is pretty accepted into the canon I think! Rather more so than “zero dosage” sparkling wine, perhaps.

            Interesting discussion on twitter – about sugar enhancing aroma and also about Pinots Noir & Meunier being more successful in this style. My anecdotal evidence bears out the latter – to a point. But then I like austere Chardonnay-based Franciacorta – although even better if it has a sprinkling of Pinot Blanc.

            Ultimately I just think it’s important to note that the style is valid, when properly executed.

            I am also fundamentally opposed to the view that just because something is more popular, that makes it more “right” or “acceptable”. Were that to be the case, we would never have innovation in any walk of life.

            I rather like Krug actually (well, when someone else is paying). Love the way the autolytic influence is cranked up to the max!

    • Cava is at it’s best always Zero Dosage. And at the high end where most people outside of Catalunya never wander, the wines are stunning.

      The debate about Zero Dosage is one about learning how to make wine better.

      It’s funny to see “zero dosage” as a trend/bandwagon, when a region like Cava has had it as the cornerstone of their wine making. Names to try: Recaredo, Mestres, Reventos, among many more.

      One nice look at one of the best(relatively young wine history wise, but a great example)

      • Fascinating @ryanopaz:disqus – this had not occurred to me (I’m no expert when it comes to Cava).

        I completely agree about learning to make wine better. That was most definitely the point that Benoit and Melanie made to me, during my visit.

        Would you agree that it’s somewhat easier to work with the riper fruit from the Cava region (and for that matter, Franciacorta), than the more marginal climate in Champagne?

        • And rather serendipitiously @ryanopaz:disqus, that link also affirms my point about different tastes (again in music). Nice!

        • Yes it’s much easier to get ripe fruit and the main challenge each year is trying to pick early enough to retain acidity, but develop the phenolics. That said, Brut Nature, as they call it here, often would benefit from a bit of dosage. The problem is, that the locals think only good wine is done without dosage, where as I believe I rather have something drinkable! 🙂

          It turns out even with the riper fruit, it’s not easy to make good bubbles without a bit of balancer.

      • I luuuurve Recaredo wine! In Fact Simon you had the Recaredo Brut Nature at the tasting Onne and I organised in London last fall.

    • Lovely post about one of my favourite Champagne producers, and i am really happy I nudged you to visit them Simon!! I met Melanie a while ago and fell in love with their wine. It was the Zero which is still one of my favourite Champagnes today. I have included it in many tastings, have subjected my non Champagne drinking family to it and brought many visitors to Tarlant and everybody has enjoyed this wine so it has to be a little hedonistic I guess. I believe the secret is in the making of the wine. A point you missed is that Tarlant started to produce Brut Nature in the 80’s so they have a long experience and know how to make a great wine without dosage. I am a fan of Brut Zero Sparkling Wine (and Champagne) but I have tasted many examples that are more than hedonistic – often indeed by people wanting to jump on the bandwagon so they just do not add sugar and in the best case leave the wine a little longer on sur latte… I believe to make a great Brut Nature, one has to start in the vineyard and grow delicious grapes, pick them at maturity, vinify them carefully and then blend them even more carefully. I was lucky enough to taste Chardonnay straight from the press last year as well as several vins clairs (hope to taste more this year ;-)) and the richness and balance is already present in the juice and still wine. So the finished Champagne does not need to be masked with sugar – it is delicious just as it is :-)) And I can rattle of several producers who make wonderful Brut Zero wines, quite a few from Chardonnay but they are often small producers which one has to seek out… Having said that Perle Nature from Ayala is delicious as well:-)