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Off-dry champagnes are about as trendy as a 1970s sex manual at the moment. But, says Sarah Jane Evans MW, it's time to relax a little and get in touch with your sweeter side
In the bling world of champagnes, of
prestige cuvées and Swarovski-trimmed bottles, there’s one category that seems to have disappeared almost completely from sight – demi-sec (and its cousins sec and extra-dry). It seems that no
self-respecting wine list would be seen dead exposing itself to the ridicule of a sweet(er) champagne.
What happened to the joy of secs? Laurent-Perrier first sold a zero dosage back in 1889 (the unsexily titled Grand Vin Sans Sucre). Despite that, in those days the popular demand was generally for the sweeter styles.
By the 20th century, certain markets – notably the UK’s drinkers – were showing a marked preference for the drier styles. James Bond became the role model for the champagne drinker, rather than Tsar Nicholas or Auntie Nora. Sex rather than (demi) secs won out.
In the UK, the sweeter champagnes are just a drop in the ocean – 39 million bottles of champagne were shipped to the UK in 2007, of which just 349,386 were demi-sec. Only 1% of Taittinger’s sales
are the sec Nocturne.
Does this mean it is a style in terminal decline? Is it dying out because customers actively dislike it, don’t understand it, or because they are too embarrassed to admit their preference for something sweeter? Or is it just that sommeliers have forgotten about it and need a nudge? All these are possible. Before discussing that, let’s look first at what makes good secs (and that – I promise – is the last of the bad puns).
Speak to a Champenois about non-vintage, vintage or rosé and you’ll quickly lose the romance. You will find yourself plunged headlong into a technical discussion about vineyards, yields, extraction of flavour without colour from Pinot Noir, use of oak in the fermentation or ageing of the wines, technical trials on yeasts and the science of bubbles. But talk to them about sec and demi-sec styles and conversation dries up. They are, it seems, just not excited by them.
In fact, that’s the problem. The demand for sweeter wines has slowed, and the serious drinkers of champagne have moved to drier styles. Many producers have been able to use their poorer quality wines in demi-secs, knowing that the sugar masks many faults. In general, sweet wine drinkers have been far more forgiving of faults.
However demi-sec is not a properly sweet wine. That’s doux (though doux is rarely made these days). At up to 50g/l, demi-sec is not really a dessert wine and it has even fallen off the dessert menu.
As an example of this, Desserts and Wines, the book of recipes and sweet wine matches by award-winning sommelier Olivier Poussier, does not list a single sweet champagne in its 120 choices. While Poussier delves into sweet curiosities across the world, only dry champagne and rosé get a look in on the champagne front.
Down in the New Forest, surely there are plenty of mature, conservative, middle Englanders with a secret liking for sweet fizz? Gerard Basset at TerraVina knows his Hampshire guests very well, and he doesn’t think so.
Like Poussier, he is just too busy to think about secs (sorry, the pun is irrepressible). ‘Maybe I should have some on the list. The problem is, when you run a business, you have priorities and demi-sec isn’t one. You forget about it. But if somebody was to knock at the door, I would think about it.’
So it’s not just that his guests prefer ZD? ‘No, nobody asks for that either. It’s very trendy in London.’
Up in London, sommeliers are definitely tending towards the brut-ish customer. Matthieu Longuere at La Trompette sums up the view, expressed to me by many: ‘Demi-sec? No.’ (This said with an expression of surprise that I should mention it.)
His opinion is widely shared and was backed up by the press reaction to the memorable annual CIVC tasting in 2006. There were a number of reasons to do with the outcry, but one of the most strongly felt was the inclusion of a tasting table of demi-sec. It was, so the feeling went, a waste of space. No one was interested.
There’s a ray of light from Alvaro
Marcos-Garcia at Theo Randall at One Hamilton Place. Though he doesn’t list any at the moment, he’s at least thinking about a half bottle for the dessert menu. A champagne champion in London at the
moment is Xavier Rousset, sommelier and co-owner of Texture. He has a list of 90 champagnes, and tries hard to be generous about demi-sec.
‘We have two or three on the list, including Pol Roger Rich and Veuve Clicquot Rich 2002. But demand is not quite there − I’ve only sold the Veuve Clicquot.’ Rousset is not embarrassed to admit that he likes demi-sec, but adds, ‘it’s not typical of champagne’. For him, the sugar masks the acidity, which is the key to champagne, and the other characters: ‘It’s like salt in cooking. If the chef uses too much, it hides everything else.’
Many of the sommeliers I interviewed for this feature admitted that demi-sec could be an interesting niche, that a change of heart was overdue and that there was a definite opportunity for restaurants and bars who want to make a point of difference.
In a world where Moscato d’Asti, sparkling Shiraz and Brachetto hold sway, demi-sec has the chance to be hand-sold by the sommelier, especially as a half bottle. With afternoon tea or a Thai salad, or as a late-night choice in a bar, it brings a touch of glamour and a psychological lift with a rush of bubbles.
Customers, after all, tend to quite like wines with a little sweetness, particularly if it doesn’t damage their credibility. In which case, whatever purists might think, demi-sec champagne ticks all the boxes. Sommeliers just need to have the confidence to stock it and suggest it…