AKA: “Capturing the Sparkle”
As I stood in the cellars of Champagne Bollinger, looking over what felt like a quintillion bottles resting peacefully in massive towers reaching up into to the ceiling, I breathed in the dank air. I felt awestruck by the wine’s majesty.
To gain a more profound love for Champagne, one does not need to venture to France, although I highly recommend it. Yet it could be valuable and insightful to understand the Champagne method (aka Methode Champenoise/ Methode Traditionelle, depending on whether you are in Champagne or not). This method of sparkling wine is emulated across the globe for high-quality sparkling but truly shines in the cellars of Champagne. It is a laborious method that requires dedication, patience, and highly trained and skilled personnel. I will walk you, step by step, through this process, from vineyard to bottle, to give you a better perspective on why Champagne is both electrifying and rather pricey.
Note: I will be focusing on non-vintage “House Style” Brut, which is the most common style of Champagne. Not sure what those words mean? Read along, and I will explain.
The Champagne Grapes
The grapes, specifically Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Meunier, are harvested from a network of vineyards owned/leased/contracted by the winery. These grapes are picked at the earliest possible time to achieve ripeness but keep as much acidity as possible. Unlike still-wine regions like Burgundy ( a region also known for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay), the goal of Champagne growers isn’t to express all of the complexities of the grape that come with full ripeness but rather to create a zippy low, alcohol dry wine. Note: 7 permitted grapes can be used for Champagne, but the other 4 grapes make up just under 1% of the plantings. To see those rare grapes in a Non-Vintage house wine is…rare.
The grapes, red (Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier) and white (Chardonnay), are gently pressed off the skins using basket presses to ensure that the juice will be white sans pigment or tannin from the skins.
The juice is then fermented with commercial “Champagne” yeast. Yes, the ambient yeast (found in the vineyard and the winery) is also used in Champagne, but it can be unreliable. You see, the juice is very acidic. Yeast has a tough time starting fermentation in a high acid environment. A yeast genetically engineered to ferment in a high acid environment will save time and money for the larger, more commercially viable winery.
The finished, dry, still wine, or ‘vin clair,’ is put into inert containers (like steel tanks).
Vins clairs of multiple vintages are blended by the ‘Chef de Cave’ (Master Blender, or the Chef of the Cellar, as I like to remember it) in a process called ‘assemblage’– think ‘assembling’, like the Avengers getting together. Most Champagne is a non-vintage product, and the master blender needs to maintain a house style year over year. The Chef de Cave will blend fractions from multiple vintages, vineyard lots, and aging methods (vins clairs aged in a tank will taste a lot different than those aged in oak barrels). This process requires an incredible palate and mastery, and a ‘Chef de Cave’ can hold deity-like respect in the industry.
Note: The assemblage process is very similar in Cognac, too, as it is also a non-vintage product
After ‘assemblage,’ the wines get bottled. Next, a little mixture of sugar, water, and yeast is added. The tincture is called, maybe confusingly, ‘liquor de tirage’ (you will see why later). Finally, the wine bottles are sealed with a crown cap, like a beer.
Now, the magic happens. The tirage mixture starts doing its magic. The yeasts begin to eat the sugars they produce CO2, which gets trapped in the bottle. CO2 exerts 6 atmospheres of pressure on the bottle, like a car tire. This process also has a fanciful French name; ‘prise de mousse’ aka ‘capturing the sparkle.’ A more technical term is ‘second fermentation.’
Yeast Autolysis/ Riddling
The bottles are stored ‘sur latte’ or ‘laterally.’ The yeasts get their fill of sugar, excrete the necessary alcohol- raising the abv by 1%- and CO2- to “capture the sparkle”- and die. The yeast starts breaking down as time goes by, imbuing the wine with toasty brioche flavors. Champagne must, by law, age on lees for at least one year (although most quality producers age for 3+ years) making sure the yeast has plenty of time to impart this delicious yeasty flavor.
After aging laterally, it is now time to get the yeast to the neck of the bottle gently. Each bottle of Champagne must be moved from ‘sur latte’ to ‘sur pointe,’ or on its point, aka vertically, upside down. This process is called ‘remuage’ or ‘riddling,’ and there are two ways to execute this process;
More craft (or old-school) way
The wine bottles are placed into an A-shaped ‘pupitre’. A Master ‘Remuer,’ or ‘Riddler’ (no, not Paul Dano or Jim Carrey), will slowly turn the bottles by a quarter turn while also changing the angle of the bottle until it reaches full vertical position. As with the ‘Chef de Cave’, the Master Riddler can do this process with great speed and efficiency. Unfortunately, the process still takes about three weeks or more.
More modern way
bottles are put into a cage on hydraulics, called a gyropalette. The hydraulics are set on a timer to turn the cage slowly yet precisely. This process is significantly faster than a remuer. For example, a gyropalette can riddle +/-500 bottles in just a few hours.
While the concept of a skilled man shifting millions of bottles into upside-down positions may sound romantic , it is not practical. So instead, most Champagne houses, especially the large and mid-size ones, only employ a Remuer to work small lots by hand, while the “house wine” is done quickly and efficiently by gyropalette.
Finally, once the yeast migrated from the side of the bottle to the neck, it is ready to be removed. This process, dubbed ‘disgorgement’ or ‘degourgement,’ is a fun nod to Champagne’s nature as celebratory wine. The neck, where the yeast has gathered, gets rapidly chilled in cold saltwater, and then the crown cap is popped, launching the frozen projectile with the brute force of 6 atmospheres. Some wine is lost, but otherwise, it is very efficient. Like with riddling, this process can be done by hand but is often done via a conveyor belt and a robot.
Also, to return to ‘liquor de tirage.’ Tirage is connected to the French term ‘tirer’ to shoot out. The liquor de tirage with which we dosed the wine is launched during disgorgement.
We have displaced some wine in the last step. We can’t have that. So now it’s time to fill the bottles up again. Another tincture, called ‘liqueur d’expedition,’ sends the bottle of Champagne “on its journey” to markets and tables across the globe. This liqueur comprises a sweetener-sugar, grape concentrate, or dessert wine- or ‘dosage,’ and a liquid (usually wine). This mix aims to balance the rip-roaring acid found in Champagne. The amount of sugar in the liquor de tirage correlates to the sweetness designation on the bottle.
See different levels of Champagne Sweetness in the “How to read the Champagne Label” blog.
It is time to place the “Cork and Cage” (which sounds like a hipster wine bar on the upper-East side, but I digress) and seal up the rapidly escaping ‘mousse’ The Champagne Cork’s mushroom shape and compressed nature at the bottom are designed to expand when it is put in and protect the wine from oxidation or unwanted pops. The cage is just another line of protection. You can never be too careful with Champagne; you might shoot your eye out.
And there you have it; a simplified yet still in-depth play-by-play on Champagne making. This process is, by no means, exclusive to Champagne but has been engineered and perfected by the Champenois.
You have to respect the dedication.
This process was flawless and consistent even before the gyropalette, the conveyor belts, and the disgorgement robots. Although making Champagne is not an easy task, I am still glad that these crazy Frenchmen in the northern reaches of winegrowing have carried the torch and passed the tradition for centuries.
So next time you feel like referring to a $5 Prosecco or a bottle of Andre Sparkling as Champagne, take a breath and think better of it 😉
Visit Champagne’s official site to learn even more.