WHAT IS REALLY THE MAKING PROCESS FOR CHAMPAGNES ?
Champagne is a very specific wine. It has its own making process called Méthode Champenoise. But how is champagne made exactly ? Where do the bubbles come from ? From the vines to the glass, learn everything you want to know about this famous Méthode Champenoise.
From the harvest to the pressing
Because every year is different, it is important for the winemakers to observe and listen to the vines in order to decide of the right moment for the harvest.
Samples are picked within plots spread throughout the Champagne area to be analyzed : the average weight of the grapes, the estimated sugar richness and the total acidity but also the potential alcohol levels, percentage of maturation and the incidence of grey rot are checked every two weeks. The collected datas enable the Comité Champagne and the AVC – Association Viticole Champenoise – to establish when the harvest should start in each department and for each grape variety.
Made from the pulp extraction, champagne is exclusively made from grapes grown and harvested within the Champagne area. Only 7 grapes varieties are authorized in Champagne :
- three predominant grapes – Chardonay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier
- and the old grapes varieties – Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Arbanne and Petit Meslier representing less than 0.3% of plantings.
The Harvest is entirely done by hand in order to have undamaged grapes for a perfect pulp extraction during the pressing. The legislation imposes a maximum grape yield per hectare and a strictly limited juice extraction of 102 liters of must per 160 kilos of grapes.
Immediately after picking, the pressing is done with a gentle, gradual increase in pressure and low juice extraction. Once the whole-clusters are pressed, the juice must be separated into fractions. The extracted juice flows into the tanks where the cellarmaster adds the sulphites – Sulphur dioxide. The sulphites will have different actions on the wines : they inhibit the oxidation of the freshly pressed juice and they control the growth of unwanted indigenous bacteria and moulds. The following stage is the débourbage, a process to let the residues settle to the bottom of the tanks. Once the juice is finally clarified with the racking, the winemaking process can begin with the first fermentation.
The first fermentation
In the fermentation room, the juice start what is also called the alcoholic fermentation; the process that converts the musts into wine by transforming the sugar into alcohol. The cellar-master ferments his wines in tanks – usually thermostatically controlled stainless-steel vats – or in oak to create the still wine, called Vin clair. During this fermentation the yeasts consume and transform the sugar naturally present in the grape into alcohol and CO2.
This fermentation brings the wines to the annual required alcohol levels by volume and contributes to the future sensory characteristics of the futur wine. After the first fermentation, the producers may decide or not to perform the malolactic fermentation in order to convert the malic acidity, naturally present in the grape juice, into the lactic acidity. Happening sometimes naturally during the alcoholic fermentation, the malolactic fermentation tends to create a softer acidity in the wine with a rounder, fuller mouthfeel. However, some winemakers prevent it in order to maintain a more tart or acidic profile in the finished wine and to ensure freshness during the aging. Finally, the still wine may be clarified by filtering, cross-flow-filtration, fining or centrifuging to eliminate undesirable impurities and to have clear still wines for the blending.
The second fermentation
Ready for the blending, the vins clairs are listed by grape variety, vintage, vineyard, parcelle and pressing fraction. By tasting all the still wines, the cellarmaster decides which ones need to be blend and how : he can blend them with different crus, with different grape varieties or with different years. On the other way, if the harvest of the year is truly exceptional, he can choose to include no reserve wines at all and make a vintage; if the still wine of one grape variety is self-sufficient he will create a Blanc de Blancs or Blanc de Noirs; if he wants to promote one specific part of its vineyard he will elaborate a mono-cru, clos, or monoparcellaire champagne.
Once blending is complete, the wines need to be chilled at 25°F to crystallize the tartaric acid; this process called the cold-stabilization is followed by a renewed clarification to obtain a perfectly clear wine for the second fermentation in bottle. The bottle fermentation is a complex and delicate process involving the addition of a small quantity of yeast and sugar – liqueur de tirage – to obtain the effervescence – prise de mousse. By consuming the sugar, the yeasts release alcohol and CO2 as well as with other elements that contribute to the sensory character of the wine. Hermetically sealed with a bidule – a polyethylene stopper- the bottles are stacked in the cellar horizontally – sur lattes. The maturation on lees can start and will last a minimum of 12 months for non-vintage – 15 months of storage in total – and three years for vintages. The wines are kept at a constant temperature of 54°F, for a time usually much longer than what the legislation requires and longer than what the law imposes for other sparkling wines.
After aging, the sediments – lees – must be removed from the bottle by a complex process called riddling – remuage in french. Placed on special racks, called pupitres, the bottles are hold at a 45°angle with the crown cap pointed toward the ground. Then, every two days the bottles are turned and slightly shaken with their angle on pupitres gradually increasing in order to collect the lees at the neck of the bottles, ready for disgorgement. This process takes 8 to 10 weeks to have the bottle in a complete straight down position and the lees settled in the neck. Today, producers use a mechanized riddling equipment – called gyropalette – instead of the manual riddling reserved for Prestige cuvées.
Once the sediments are located in the neck of the bottles, the cellarmaster proceed to the disgorgement. Today a mechanical process that used to be manual, it consists in removing the lees after the fermentation, the aging in bottle and the riddling. The winemaker freezes the neck to trap the sediments into the ice and then ejects the plug of ice with the pressure inside the bottle by removing the capsule. Once the bottle open, the dosage is added, made of a shipping liqueur or a concentrated and rectified grape must called MCR. The dosage is used to balance the acidity, magnify the character of the wine and define the category of champagne – Brut Nature, Extra-Brut, Brut, Demi-Sec. The dosage can be used as well to mask unwanted defects in the wine. It is the last stage before corking.
The bottle is now dosée and closed with a natural cork. The producers need to shake vigorously the bottle in order to marry perfectly the liqueur with the wine – this process is called poignettage and is done just before the mirage which is the final check on the limpidity of the wine before cellaring.
In Champagne, the winemakers usually hold their champagnes in the cellar after disgorgement for several months before release : it is the post-disgorgement aging. This aging is to give time to the champagnes to recover from the disgorgement and dosage. The longer this stage is, the more the wines will develop the mellow, biscuity richness that characterizes old champagnes.
Finally, the bottle needs to be prepared for its release : the cork and wire cage are wrapped by the coiffe, with in some case a neck band called the collerette, a label on the front of the bottle and eventually on the back. The champagne is then ready to be shipped and tasted…