Bollinger uncorks sugar-free champagne

CORKING! A leading French champagne house has cast aside centuries of tradition by producing a sugar-free version of bubbly, aimed at figure-conscious women.

Ayala, owned by Bollinger, the brand favoured by James Bond as well as Patsy and Eddy of TV's Ab Fab fame, will this week launch its Cuve Ros Nature, a pink champagne with no added sugar.

Drinkers will normally consume around 89 calories - the equivalent of eating a third of a Mars bar - in a flute of champagne. By contrast, the new ros will drop the calorie count to around 65. Per bottle the difference is 534 to 390 calories.

Your wallet will also end up slimmer, however, with bottles going for about 45 each.

Around three level teaspoons of liquefied sugar - called the dosage - is normally added to most champagnes at the last moment before bottling to balance the flavour and make it more palatable.

But Ayala is now attempting to grab a bigger share of the highly competitive champagne market by offering its new sparkling ros without the usual sugar dose. Even better, the new method does not lower the drink's alcoholic potency.

The Ayala Cuve Ros Nature will be exhibited to global wine buyers at the London Wine Show this week and Edinburgh's Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh will be the first to sell it next month.

Elizabeth Ferguson, a spokeswoman for Ayala, said: "This is basically a testament to the quality of the perfectly ripe fruit. The dosage is put in to cover up any faults with a champagne but we are using the best possible fruit which is why we are not having to do it.

"This is the first zero dosage ros and it is aimed at the female market. As it is low in calories, that will be an attraction to certain people."

The global champagne market is worth about 3bn per year with more than 300 million bottles sold annually.

But the real success story within the upmarket trade in the UK in the last six years has been the 20% rise in sales of ros champagne.

Alex Caujolle, the food and beverages manager at the Balmoral Hotel, said the emergence of sugar-free versions would give a boost to the market.

"Everyone, particularly ladies, likes low-calorie products so if this becomes known as a low-sugar product then I am sure there will be a market for it," said Caujolle, who last week visited the Ayala vineyard near Epernay, in France's Champagne region, to check on the wine's progress.

"The taste when compared with a normal bottle is very, very similar. It is very difficult to tell them apart."

Diane Lester, the Scottish radio presenter who also runs internet wine-importing company, said: "I think this will go down very well. Men get beer bellies and girls get champagne tummies, so anything that will allow people to drink as much champagne but with fewer calories is likely to be a big hit. Us girls are always looking for ways to reduce our calorie intake without losing out on fun."

Lester said ros wines and pink champagnes were a booming market. "In the 1990s ros was seen as a bit naff, but that is no longer the case. Pink champagne is something you can drink all year round as part of a celebration."

One of the handful of independent stockists about to sell the champagne is Edinburgh-based Wine Importers. Marketing manager Ailsa Cowe said: "We think it is absolutely fantastic and will do brilliantly in the female market. Everything is going health-conscious these days and I think that anyone with the choice of a full sugar product or a healthier option will go for the latter."

Cowe insisted that there was very little taste difference between the new ros and similar full sugar wines. "A champagne expert might be able to tell the difference, but the vast majority of drinkers would not."

Almost all champagnes have declined in sugar content over the past century, but even now, the brut, or dry, category, which accounts for nearly 95% of champagne sales worldwide, can contain the equivalent of three teaspoons of sugar.

Demi-sec champagne can have up to three times more sugar, about as much as in the average glass of lemonade.

The small Ayala vineyard was once one of the great champagne houses before hitting hard financial times in the 1990s and going into bankruptcy. It was rescued by the nearby Bollinger company three years ago.

Bollinger put top executive Herve Augustin in charge. He told wine writers: "When we tasted all the wines in Ayala's vast cellars, we realised that they were of such outstanding quality that they could stand a lower [sugar] dosage."

Augustin first cut the sugar content of his white champagnes and then decided to try a zero dosage ros.

Cherries and strawberries with a long finish

William Lyons, Wine Correspondent

Champagne can deceive. Often the acidity is so high that drinkers don't realise that what they are drinking is actually very sweet and contains an enormous amount of sugar. Veuve Clicquot's 1999 Rich Reserve is a case in point, coming across as a rather full, honeyed champagne. Closer inspection of the label shows it contains a calorie-packed 25g of residual sugar per litre.

Ayala's Cuvee Ros likewise deceives. Unlike most champagnes it is predominantly made up of chardonnay as opposed to pinot noir and a little pinot meunier.

The chardonnay, primarily made up of the 2002 vintage, gives it an appealing roundness and waxy quality, disguising its eventual dryness.

In the glass it has an attractive pinkish hue with a hint of copper and a delicate mousse that quickly disappears. The nose is lively with heavy yeasty notes and hints of morello cherries and wild strawberries. Again, no clue as to its dryness. But once it is in the mouth there is a real sense of just how dry this champagne is. It has an exceptionally long finish which is both searing and muscular.

There is, though, an underlying flaw in the wine's premise. The dryness excites the palate and I suspect anyone drinking this will only be able to manage two glasses without experiencing hunger pangs. It should definitely be served with some sort of food, whether it is warm canaps or smoked fish. So sadly, any calories saved may be gained in those moreish nibbles.

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