Let’s start at the beginning. What do Champagne, Cava and Cremant d’Alsace have in common? All three wines have bubbles to be sure, but more importantly the process by which these bubbles occur all derive from what is known as the “traditional method” of sparkling wine production. Below I have outlined the steps for this time consuming, laborious and expensive process. Although this is not the only way to create a wine with fizz (for instance wines from Prosecco utilize a different method), the traditional method of vinification is universally acknowledged as producing the highest quality and most ageworthy sparkling wines.
Harvest: Harvest in Champagne generally occurs around mid October. Although 8 varietals are permitted in the production of Champagne, the most widely used are:
Pinot Meunier, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Generally, the Pinot Meunier is the first varietal to be harvested, followed by Chardonnay and then Pinot Noir. Grapes will be hand harvested in order to ensure that the grapes are brought in clean and undamaged.
Pressing: Grapes will be pressed as soon as possible, especially with Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, as skin contact with these dark skinned varietals will soon begin to taint the juice if left on the skins. A traditional basket press often used, the idea being to extract the juice slowly and methodically. Two pressings are utilized here. The first press is called the “cuvee” which is considered the finer, more high quality juice. The second pressing is called the “tailles” (or tails) and considered of lesser quality. Appellation regulations strictly regulate the volume of juice from each pressing that can included in the final product. As an example, if 100 hectoliters of Champagne were to be produced, Champagne A.O.C. stipulates that 80 hectoliters would need to be from the first “cuvee” press and 20 hecotliters from the second or “tailles” press.
First Fermentation: Next, the first of two fermentations takes place. A key factor in this first fermentation is that it be relatively quick and warm. The emphasis here is to produce a relatively neutral wine that is high in acidity. Why a neutral wine? Because the formation of fruity esters (like characteristics one would find in a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc) will interfere with the flavor and autolytic development that will largely occur during the secondary fermentation and ageing process. Why such high acidity? A second fermentation and extended lees ageing requires that such a wine have the acidic structure to engage such a process. Most often this first fermentation takes place in stainless steel, and most do not go through malolactic fermentation. However some producers will use a combination of wood and stainless steel in this first fermentation. Bruno Michel, Tarlant and Bollinger are such examples. At the other end of the spectrum, Krug and Alfred Gratien vinify entirely in wood barrels.
Blending: The blending process in Champagne is what sets this region apart from just about any other wine producing region in the world. Whereas most wine regions produce a new vintage of a particular wine every year, the Champenoise are master blenders. Although in a good year many domains will produce a vintage champagne, the Champenoise pride themselves on their masterful skills of blending multiple vintages to create a signature “house style”. Perhaps the epitome of this artful skill is evidenced in the wines of Krug, where up to 7 different vintages are blended to create their multi-vintage cuvee. Maintaining a supply of multiple vintages of reserve wine in stock to blend in with newer vintages also implies holding back stock, which in turn adds to the cost of producing Champagne.
Second Fermentation: Once a blend has been created, a mixture of still wine, sugar and yeast will be added to the blended wine. This mixture is known as the “liqueur de triage”.
The wine is then bottled with a crown cap (think beer) and left to begin a secondary fermentation in the bottle. Here, active yeast will begin consuming the available sugar, resulting in the anaerobic production of alcohol within this sealed bottle. A by-product of this fermentation is carbon dioxide, which if not allowed to escape into the atmosphere, results C02 which is dissolved into the wine a.k.a., bubbles! This second fermentation generally takes between 4-8 weeks.
Lees Ageing: Following the completion of the secondary fermentation, the wine will then begin a period of ageing in bottle where the wine will interact with the dead yeast cells (lees) and which will greatly influence the flavor and texture of the finished champagne. This process is known as “autolysis”. Flavor characteristics relative to this bio-chemical process include nuances of baked bread, roasted nuts, and salty cheese. Chardonnay in particular is a varietal that benefits greatly from this lengthy autolytic ageing process. By law, non-vintage Champagne must age a minimum of 15 months on their lees, although most age between 18-24 months. Tarlant’s NV Cuvee Louis spends an incredible seven years on the lees. Talk about an over-achiever! Vintage champagnes must age a minimum of 3 years on the lees, with many wines far exceeding this requirement.
Remuage/Riddling: Once the champagne has completed its extended lees ageing and is ready to be bottled it will go through a process known as “remuage”. This procedure is aimed at loosening the dead yeast cells and sediment that has formed at the bottom of the bottle, and slowly moving it towards the neck of the bottle which it will be removed or disgorged. This process must be done methodically and over time so as not to disrupt the champagne in bottle. Remuage can either be done by hand, by slowly turning the bottle a bit every day till it is vertically upside down, or done automatically by machine. By hand the process can take 2 months, by machine or gyro-palette the entire process can be accomplished in about 1 week. Once the wines are positioned vertically upsided down (sur pointe) with the yeast in the neck of the bottle the champagne is ready to be disgorged.
Disgorgement: This process involves removing the dead yeast/sediment in the neck of the bottle. Most often this is achieved by submerging the neck of the champagne bottle into a cold brine, thus quickly freezing the dead yeast matter that has collected in the neck. Once the crown cap is removed, pressure from the dissolved Co2 expediently pushes out this yeast plug, and voila, the champagne has been disgorged.
Dosage: Before the champagne is re-corked, a measured amount of champagne and cane sugar will be added to the finished wine. This is known as the “liqueur d’expedition”. The amount of this mixture, known as “dosage” will in effect determine the final sweetness level and style of champagne. In certain instances, no liqueur d’expedition will be added, resulting in a wine with zero dosage. Brut style champagnes are next on the dryness level with residual sugar falling between 5-15 grams per liter. Brut champagnes are amongst the most popular style of Champagne in the United States. I will cover champagne styles more thoroughly in a future post.
Re-corking: We are now in the home stretch! The fermented, blended, fermented, aged, riddled, disgorged and dosaged sparking wine is finally ready to be bottled and manipulated for the last time. After a cork is inserted, a protective wire cap is placed over the bottle to help secure the cork and bottle. The wine is then shaken vigorously, in order to help integrate the wine with the liqueur d’expedition. The finished wine will now rest anywhere from several weeks to several months (and in some cases longer) before it is sent out into the big bad world of wine shops, restaurants and connoisseurs.