In the beginning, most Champagne was what is now called Sec or “dry.” These wines were in the 2-4% residual sugar range. While today we would hardly call them dry, they were what was available and were very popular in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In the latter middle of the 19th century, the British market asked for a drier style of Champagne. This same sort of request came twice more from the Paris Market. At the same time, some export customers were asking for sweeter styles of Champagne. From these market driven requests, the six levels of sweetness used for Champagne were developed. Most of the rest of the world has adopted the same wording to describe sweetness levels in sparkling wines whether produced in France, Spain, California, Argentina, or even India.
The dosage (doe-sahj) is the sugar added in the liqueur d’expedition that sweetens the Champagne into balance after riddling and disgorgement.
Sec was the starting point from which the other levels of dryness in Champagne and sparkling wines evolved – but it is little seen now and that is a shame. Typically in the 3-4% residual sugar (RS) range, Sec is now defined in the Champagne regulations as a range of from 1.7% to 3.4% RS. Sec tastes from off dry to pleasantly sweet but it is still in balance. Although hard to find, Sec is ideal with spicier foods and can be super with ham and melon. The fashion is now for much drier wine but good quality Sec Champagne remains useful at the table.
In the latter middle of the 19th century, the British market asked for Champagne drier than Sec. The producers obliged (reducing the sugar of the dosage to about 1.8% with a range from 1.2% to 2%) but they thought the wine wouldn’t sell anywhere but England so they used the English words Extra Dry rather than the French “ultra sec” to describe the new style in the official regulations. Within a few years, the new Extra Dry had surpassed Sec to became the best selling style of Champagne. Although it didn’t say Extra Dry” on the label, Moet & Chandon’s Extra Dry “White Star” was for a very long time the world’s best selling Champagne.
In the 1890s, the Paris market requested a style of Champagne drier than Extra Dry. Again the Champagne producers obliged (this time reducing the sugar dose to a mere 1% or so for a dry but still balanced taste) but, again, they thought this new, very dry style was going to be a passing fad. It was so “brutally dry” they named it Brut. With in a few more years, Brut had supplanted Extra Dry as the best selling style of Champagne. The Champagne regulations now define Brut in a range of from .6% to 1.5% RS.
The 1930s saw the introduction of Champagne with little or no dosage. These bone-dry cuvees were given different names by different producers. Examples include Cuvee sans Dosage, Ultra Brut, and Brut Sauvage. Most properly, Extra Brut indicates a very low dosage and Brut Nature or Natural indicates no dosage. In regulation, they all indicate a dosage of .5% or below – very dry indeed as the recognition threshold for most people is around .7% for sugar. This driest of all possible styles did not take off as had its increasingly dry predecessors and now enjoys only a limited but higher end (and by some highly regarded) market niche.
The two sweetest styles of Champagne, Demi-Sec and Doux were developed for other markets including Switzerland and Russia. Demi-Sec (or “semi-dry”) builds on the sweetness of Sec with an in-the-regulations dosage level ranging from 3.5% to 5% RS. Demi-Sec, if purpose made and in balance, can be delightful when served with spicier or mildly sweet dishes. This is becoming more common as more houses are purpose-making wines for Demi-Sec rather than merely adding more sugar to their Extra Dry or Brut cuvees. Doux (pronounced “dew”) is the sweetest style of Champagne with a dosage that is required to exceed 5% RS. While I have tasted a couple of Doux Champagnes in France (they weren’t very good), I have never seen a bottle for sale in the US. Doux fails because there is too much sugar for the amount of acidity in the wine. If you want something this sweet with bubbles, go with Asti Spumante and save $20 or more per bottle.