In a previous post
we looked at the history of Champagne
and how something that occured purely by accident became one of the most sought after wines in the world. French monks in the 17th Century attempted to find a way to make the accidental sparkle they witnessed in wine bottles a controlled process. What they developed has since been replicated the world over and is known as the Traditional Method
How Champagne is made:
1. Blending (assemblage)
The first process in Champagne production is making a base wine
. This is made up from a blend of wine made from Pinot Noir
, Pinot Meunier
grapes. They are vinified separately to give their own distinctive style and flavour. The Pinot Noir and Meunier grapes both have black skins and so the juice is pressed out soon after picking. This means the juice does not gain any colour from the skins therefore leaving us with a white wine. Pinot Noir is used for it's backbone and structure, Pinot Meunier for it's perfume and fruit and Chardonnay for its crisp appley quality and elegance. Each Champagne house has it's own style and after each harvest they will blend the wines from each grape variety together to produce a consistent house style. They are allowed to blend in juice which has been stored from previous harvests to be confident of achieving their specific flavour. As the wine is an amalgamation of different years' grapes the wine can only be called Non-Vintage
. Vintage Champagne
is only produced in years when the grapes have ripened perfectly and the resultant wine is an expression of time and place.
2. Second Fermentation
So, the base wine is made in the Champagne houses' style, now they need to make it bubbly.
The base wine is bottled and added to it is a mixture of a little more wine, sugar and yeast. The bottle is then sealed with a crown cap, just like what you find on a bottle of beer, and left to undergo a second fermentation
in the bottle. The sugar is eaten by the yeast producing alcohol and carbon dioxide as by-products. As the bottle is sealed the carbon dioxide has no-where to go and so is absorbed into the wine. This is what, when poured, will be the sparkle.
One of the qualities that makes Champagne unique is its autolytic character. This is the bready, brioche, nutty, biscuity smells and flavours that good Champagnes show. It occurs because once the yeast has done its job and eaten all the sugar it is spent, falls to the bottom of the bottle as is know known as lees. The lees remain in the bottle for the whole of the maturation period and the longer they are left for, the more autolytic
the character of the final wine. Non-vintage Champagne must be matured for at least 18 months and for vintage Champagne the minimum maturation period is 36 months.
Once the Champagne has matured for its allotted time it has to go through disgorgement which is the process of removing the sediment left in the bottle, all the dead yeast and other sediments. If you just turned the bottle upside-down it would create a snow-dome effect and the sediment would disperse throughout the liquid. The sediment needs to be kept together so it can be removed in a clump so it goes through a process called remuage,
or riddling. Bottles are placed in pupitres,
as per the image above, in a horizontal position. Over the period of a few weeks it is then turned a quarter turn and lifted a degree or two. Eventually the bottles are fully upright and are removed from the pupitres.
They are taken, upside-down, to a bath of brine which freezes the top inch or so of the bottle. The liquid within this inch freezes and captures within it the sediment in the neck of the bottle. The bottle is then turned back to its upright position and the pressure that is produced by this motion forces the 'plug' of sediment and the crown cap to pop out of the top of the bottle.
At this point all the Champagne made in a specific house will essentially taste the same, really quite dry. It is at this point, before the bottle is re-sealed that they add 'dosage', a mixture of base wine and sugar that dictates how dry or sweet the Champagne will be. Most Champagne is 'Brut', very dry. Now, before any precious gas is lost a cork is forced in under great pressure. Before being put in the bottle the cork diameter is around 50% larger than that of the bottle so it really has to be forced in there. It is why it is essential to then have a cage around the cork so it doesn't fly off unexpectedly.
You can imagine when Champagne was first made they lost the inch of wine at the top and didn't bother replacing it. Instead, to hide the fact there was a little less liquid in the bottle than there should be they 'dressed' the neck of the bottle with pretty foils and paper. We think it's there to make the bottle look elegant and expensive but it was originally there to cover up the loss of liquid. Nowadays everything is carefully measured but the tradition remains to dress the bottle.
So, there we have it, Champagne. In another post we'll look at Champagne etiquette such as how to open the bottle and glassware and in the next post we'll consider some other sparkling wine from around the world.