Sunday, December 8, 2013


Often people ask me, "why is Champagne called BRUT?"

“Words, words, words,” replies Hamlet when Polonius asks what he is reading.

And Hamlet is right.  Words only signify what we say they signify, and that often changes with the times and like the times. 

A case in point are the names, the labels, given to styles of Champagne.  Champagne names do not always mean what you might think, and there are reasons for this.  

In the 1790s when Champagne was beginning to achieve consistency in atmospheres of pressure because bottles were stronger and corks tied down more firmly, when clarity from lees was still a dream that was being experimented with in all the chalk caves filled with bottles under Reims and Epernay, in this time refrigeration was only as good as your climate, and was, as we know it today, almost a century in the future.  For preservation, meats were salted or hung, which gave a pungent or a sweet and rotting smell to larders.  And the resulting dishes were powerful in taste.  In order to hide over-saltiness or gaminess, sauces were devised that were stronger and over-the-top flavorful and rich.  And since Champagne, like all other wines, was meant to accompany meals, though the dosage of sugars added in the liqueur d’expedition as the final cork was put into the bottle was high, the Champagne tasted dry to taste-buds primed by powerful- tasting foods, and was therefore called Sec, which means “Dry.”  It tasted dry therefore it was Dry, though it was sweet.  “Words, words, words.”

About twenty years later, around 1810, the time when remuage was being perfected, allowing bottles of clear Champagnes to be shipped around the world, an Englishman approached a favorite Champagne house and asked for a Champagne less Sec.  In fact, though the man asked for a Champagne less “dry”, he was really asking for a Champagne less sweet.  Obligingly the Champagne house created for England a Champagne they called Demi-Sec, or “half-dry”, meaning what it was, a Champagne “less-sweet”.   The weather in England may have had something to do with this strange request.  Since 1800 the winters had gotten steadily colder; in 1810 the Thames froze over, which had not happened since Samuel Pepys wrote about it in 1667.   Likely most English took advantage of this climate change to store foods, unsalted, in ice-rooms, allowing truly fresh meals.  And with such came the desire to drink a “less-sweet” Champagne, Demi-Sec.    

Things went along like this for about another fifty years, and the 1860s saw the beginnings of kitchens that had “ice-boxes” in which to “refrigerate” and keep foods fresh, practically eliminating the need to salt for preservation.   And once more the fresher tasting foods brought palates in line for tastes in wine.  Again the Champenois attribute the odd request for a Champagne less “sec” to an Englishman, and so they replied by once again cutting the dosage and creating a wine they labeled this time in English to make certain the British understood:  “Extra Dry”.   That must have done the trick because for the next almost forty years labeling and drinking of Champagnes stayed pretty much on an even keel.   

Then once again, it happened.  To celebrate the change in Centuries, in 1900, Edward Albert, The Prince of Wales, future King Edward VII, sent his cellar-master to Reims, to Champagne GH Mumm, with, yet again, an astonishing request”:  The Prince desired to celebrate the coming new Century with a Champagne with less dossage.  Sacre Bleu!   While such a request came as a shock to the Champenois, no one dared say so to the Prince, or to his emissary.  What they expressed in private, “C’est brutal de boir un vin si sec,” they expressed only on the label:  BRUT.  And, once again the Champagne maker cut the dosage to a level considered brutally dry.

Of course the taste the British express in Champagne has proved to be excellent, and today when we drink Champagne most normally it is a “brutally dry” bottle labeled BRUT.    
“Words, words, words.”  Yes words often are all upside-down, as in Champagne labels.

Today the term “Extra Dry” still proves to confuse consumers and wine-shops and sommeliers.  It should be dryer than Brut, but in fact it has a dosage half again sweeter.    This is hard to explain without going through all the above explanation.

“Words, words, words.”

Once again the unthinkable has happened.  There is today a Champagne even more brutally dry, called Brut Nature.  It is a specialty of some Champagne Houses, and is in fact the way all Champagnes are when they have finished their second fermentation in the bottle, have spent years on their lees, and are about to be riddled and disgorged for clarification,  just before being dressed and shipped to you and me.   At this stage the Champagne is brutally dry, or Brut Nature, or Brut Zero.   It is a Champagne for special foods, like oesetra caviar. 

In the last twenty years this words confusion has been slightly rectified in Champagne.  Some terms have been switched in the line-up, trying to make the dossages and words more understandable.  

1810 -1900                                                                                                 1990:

Sec:  between 50g of sugar and 32g per litre                     Demi-Sec: 50g-32g/l

Demi-Sec: between 32g and 17g                                             Sec: 32g-17g

“Extra Dry”: between 17g -12g                                               “Extra Sec”: 17g-12g

Brut:  less than 12g/l                                                                  Brut: less than 12 g/l         

                                                                                                          Extra Brut: 6g/0g

                                                                                                          Brut Nature: 0g

Personally I like it better the way it was.  “Words, words, words.”

Sec, and Demi-Sec, and “Rich” or Doux Champagnes are great dessert wines; Extra- Dry is marvelous with savouries like pates and spicy soups and Asian foods.  Whatever Champagne types you consume they become far more than words.  They become dreams.

A votre santé!

Now, beside me is an antsy Commanding General.  He wants me to get along with all these words, words, words, and start wording off about him.

Caesar, I promise your time is nigh.  Soon, soon, soon.

Madeleine de Jean.
The Night Julius Caesar Invented Champagne ©
December 8, 2013