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How Champagne is Made
By: Maggie Bernat Smith
Posted: Dec. 26, 2012

 

Champagne is the only region in the world where the wine breaks all the rules of what we consider the best, such as wines made from a single estate, from a single vintage, where what happens in the cellar is noninterventionist. Champagne is the epitome of a blend. It’s a blend of grapes (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier), it’s a blend of regions within Champagne, and it’s a blend of years. But the winemaker, called a master blender, is considered to hold the most coveted and respected position in the Champagne region.

 

Read Maggie's article on what makes Champagne unique >>

 

The harvest in Champagne usually takes place in mid-October but can be earlier in exceptional years. Since machine harvesting is forbidden all the vineyards are hand-picked and placed in small plastic containers to prevent damage. Particular care has to be taken with the black grapes so the juice remains clear. The grapes are not de-stemmed and pressed. Although traditional pneumatic and hydraulic presses are used, the most popular is a small vertical press with a shallow base.

 

The grapes must be pressed quickly so the black grapes don’t stain the juice. The first pressing extracts 2,050 litres called the cuvee, which is the highest quality juice. The second pressing (the next 405 litres) is called the premiere taille, and the remaining 205 litres is called the deuxieme taille. The taille is not as high of quality as the first press and many Champagne houses brag that they never use this juice.

 

The first alcoholic fermentation takes place, typically in stainless steel vats, although some houses will ferment in neutral oak for a richer full-bodied wine. The result is a very acidic dry still wine that is barely drinkable. This base wine must be really out of balance so the final product can be in balance. Yes, confusing.  A lot, though not all, of producers will then send this finished juice through malolactic fermentation. This is the process of turning that harsh malic acid into the creamier lactic acid as is commonly done in Chardonnay.

 

The winemaker will have all these lots from different villages, different crus with different qualities and characteristics (it could be upwards of 100) fermented separately. They will be stored and used in blends for years ahead, and for the dosage (added for the second fermentation). A law in Champagne dictates that a minimum of 20 percent of the vintage must be held in reserve for future blending. In a climate as cold as Champagne’s each harvest is a gamble for ripeness of grapes.

 

The master blender or winemaker will then put together a blend of these different wines in an attempt to predict what the wine will taste like in its distant future. Before bottling, a small blend of yeast and sugar called the liqueur de tirage will be added to set off the second fermentation in the bottle and create the sparkle. The bottle is then closed with a temporary seal, usually with a crown cork and laid to rest horizontally in the cellar. When the yeast starts its job eating the sugar they create three things: alcohol and CO2, and when they die, they will leave a deposit on the side of the bottle.

 

As the wine slowly ferments, the gas is unable to escape and is dissolved in the wine. During maturation in the bottle these dead yeast cells (lees) are adding complexity of flavors to the wine such as bread, biscuit and toast notes. The time that a wine spends on its lees, by law 15 months for non-vintage Champagne and at least 3 years for vintage Champagne, contributes to its final quality.

 

The next two stages are to remove these deposits from the bottle, called riddling. Riddling is simply slowly turning the bottles from its horizontal position to a vertical position so the lees slowly enter the neck of the bottle against the cork. This technique was developed at the beginning of the nineteenth century by the widow ‘Veuve’ Cliquot herself and her chef de cave Antoine Muller. This work is done at a slight twist and downward movement each day by a remueur and can manipulate 30,000 bottles a day. Now many Champagne houses have an automatic machine that can do this same task but remueurs are still around to this day.

 

Once the bottles are vertical the lees are not affecting the flavor anymore and will be ready for the process of disgorgement. The neck of the bottle is frozen and the ice is holding the sediment which will be released, topped off with another wine and cane sugar solution (dosage) which plays a big part on how sweet the wine will ultimately be. The wines are then corked and a wire muzzle added for extra protection against the pressure inside the bottle. The Champagne house then will make its own decision whether they want to age the wine even further to recover from the disgorgement process or release it to the public. With additional aging, the bubbles will become creamier and the sugars from the final dosage will evolve into honey and toast notes along with the fruit that develops into a fabulously complex interplay of flavor.

 

This is why the Champenois are so protective of their region, heritage, tradition and style. You cannot replicate the soil or climate of Champagne and you can 100 percent guarantee that the sparkle you will consume went through this insanely laborious method. What’s the easy button outside the region of Champagne? Shoot carbonation into a tank and bottle it! If you see traditional method or “Methode Champenoise” on the bottle you know the second fermentation happened in the bottle to get these refined characteristics.

 

Ready to taste the difference for yourself? Find a Methode Champenoise Champagne here >>


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