“Come quickly, I am tasting the stars!” -Dom Perignon
I had the opportunity to spend a week in the Champagne region of France this spring for the International Wine and Tourism Conference. I have been to France before, but never to the Champagne region, and can I tell you how magically beautiful this area of the world is? If you haven’t been and are planning to travel abroad soon, please try to work Champagne into your itinerary. If you have any questions to that end, please leave me a comment!
But, let’s get into it! I know how wine is made, and I’ve had the pleasure of touring many wineries throughout the U.S. and Europe, but I had never focused on champagne-making. This was so much fun to see, and the process quite surprised me with its delicate yet complex nature.
Each champagne house has its own special recipe and process, but the steps which one takes to achieve champagne is essentially the same. First, I should point out a few minor overarching bits of information:
- It is only called champagne when it comes from the Champagne region of France, everything else is sparkling wine or something different (i.e. Prosecco in Italy, Cava in Spain, etc.).
- In France, champagne is comprised of any of the following varietals, and only these varietals: Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay. It can be a single varietal, but mostly, you will find blends.
- Grape growth and location is governed by a strict set of laws and regulations.
- Fun fact: When drinking champagne, a glass that is too clean will not show bubbles!
The Champenoise process begins at harvest, which is generally 100 days after the first bloom on the vine. The grapes are gathered and pressed, where the juice is run into large oak barrels, stainless steel vats, or even ceramic for the winter.
After the winter has passed, the juice has fermented into a young wine. The young wine is blended by the winemaker to achieve the optimal champagne flavor. My personal favorite is a blend of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. This is called the first fermentation and creates the base wine. The result produces regular wine, it is simply not yet aged.
After the first fermentation, the blended wine is bottled. Yeast and sugar is added to aid in producing carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is a natural product of the chemical reaction that occurs when yeast turns sugar into alcohol. When this chemical reaction occurs in a closed container, the carbon dioxide cannot escape, thus creating the luxurious bubbles! The amount of sugar added to the base wine, also called the dosage, is what determines whether a champagne is sweet or more dry, for example, dry, brut, extra brut, etc. Here’s a little cheat sheet for you the next time you go shopping for champagne!
Once bottled with a metal cap, the wine begins the process of the second fermentation. French law requires that it ferment on lees (with yeast) for at least 15 months before it is available for sale.
During this second fermentation process, the bottles must undergo remuage or riddling. Riddling is the process by which the bottles are turned 1/4 turn every eight hours in order to move the yeast from the side of the bottle down into the neck to prepare for disgorgement. In some places, this is still done by hand with a remeur; however, the introduction of the gyropallet has transformed the riddling process. The gyropallet is a mechanical box that fits anywhere from 300 to 500 bottles for riddling mechanically. Currently, most wineries reserve manual riddling for their higher-end couture blends selected by the winemaker.
After the riddling process is complete, it is time for disgorgement. Disgorgement is where the remaining yeast and lees are removed from the bottle. This is generally done by placing the neck of the bottle in a freezing solution so that yeast and lees form a slush for easy removal. The pressure of the gas pops out the yeast and lees, leaving open space in the bottle. Once the solution is removed, a small amount of the original blended wine and sugar is placed back in the bottle and corked. The bottle may then continue to age or it is ready for retail sale. This is the portion of the process that really changes the price, and sometimes, quality of the champagne. More expensive champagnes are aged longer on the lees, whereas less expensive champagnes are aged at the minimum 15 months. In those instances, the base wine (the original blended grape juice) is almost always the exact same blend. It is the aging, riddling, and ultimate care that produces a cost differential.
It is after disgorgement and continued aging (should the winemaker choose to do so) that the bottles are then labeled and shipped to the open market for consumption.
And that is how champagne gets from the vine to your table!
Hope you enjoyed this post! Time for some bubbly!