If I could only drink one type of beverage for the rest of my life, it would be sparkling wine (sorry, bourbon). If money were not an issue, it would be Champagne. Most of you probably know this, but please only call it Champagne if it’s from the Champagne region of France.
Prosecco, cava, crémant, spumante, sekt and your Korbel do not count – don’t be fooled because they put California Champagne on the bottle – that simply does not exist. Besides the allowed grape varietals (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier – say MOON-yay), the aging requirements and the terrior, the most unique thing about Champagne is the process that traps those tantalzing bubbles in there; méthode Champenoise (Champagne method) or méthode traditionnelle (traditional method).
I’m going to break it down for you.
1. The first key is to have grapes with high acidity and moderate sugar levels. Here is the basic fermentation equation:
sugar+yeast = alcohol+carbon dioxide (+heat)
Low sugar in the grapes=low alcohol in the wine. This is important because two fermentations happen in the production of sparkling wine and high levels of alcohol are toxic to most yeast. So, the base wine can’t have too high a level of alcohol or the second fermentation won’t take place. Champagne is very far north in France and has a very cool climate, so this part is easy for them.
2. Now that we have our grapes, we have to press them. The traditional press is a wide, shallow basket. These are still used today in addition to the more modern bladder press, which has a gross name, but is very gentle on the grapes. The juice is extracted in phases, called tailles (TIES), which translates to cuts. The cuvée is the first press and contains the juice that is rich with sugars and acids (the good stuff from near the center of the grape pulp). The second cut is called the taille (same word, new meaning here), which is richer in minerals and lower in sugar and acids. This often goes into demi-sec Champagne because the additional sweetness will cover any coarseness. The last press is the rebêche, which is sent to the distillery for spirits or vinegar.
3. After pressing, we have to let the juice settle, called débourbage in French. Sugar may have to be added at this point (chaptalization) because we want the must to reach an alcohol level of 10-11% in the base wine.
4. Fermentation happens now; mostly in stainless steel tanks, some in oak. The process is relatively warm – 60-70°F and quick – 7-10 days. Malolactic fermentation may happen here if the producer so chooses. This process converts malic acid (think citrus fruit) to lactic acid (think milk) and should be called a conversion since it’s not a true fermentation, but let’s not get too technical. It makes the wine rounder, creamier and can add additional flavor and complexity. Once fermentation is complete, the wine is racked, or separated from its sediment and moved to another cask or vat.
5. Assemblage (if you want to be fancy, say ah-SEM-blahge). Separate lots of wine are systematically tasted and blended to achieve and maintain the house style; house=producer= Krug, Bollinger, Billecart-Salmon, etc. Assemblage is a vertical and horizontal blend, meaning it’s a blend of: vintages, grapes, crus – think Premier (prem-E-ā) or Grand – officially recognized as being of superior quality) and vineyard sites.
6. This is followed by fining – removal of matter, racking – moving to another container and cold stabilization – to counter physical, chemical and microbial changes.
7. Now we have to “create the sparkle” or “set the foam” or as the French say, “prise de mousse“. This step represents the second fermentation and traditionally, this takes place in the same bottle from which it is later served. This is what sets Champagne or other sparklers made in the traditional method apart. So, how do we get the wine to undergo a second fermentation? Well, as the wine is being bottled, liquer de tirage (yeast, sugar and usually a fining agent) is added. The yeast will start feeding on the sugar and thus spark a second fermentation in the bottle which will take place over the next 20-45 days. Additional alcohol – about 1.5% – and pressure – from the carbon dioxide will be produced as well. At this stage in the game, the bottle is sealed with a crown cap (think beer).
8. Aging takes place sur lie, or on top of the dead yeast cells. They’re trapped in the bottle, remember? As the yeast cells break down, they break open, releasing amino acids and this is what gives Champagne that toasty, nutty bouquet. Concurrently, the carbon dioxide is dissolving more and more into the wine, creating smaller and smaller bubbles.
Here is a picture of sediment in a bottle:
9. Next, we have the riddler. Not the enemy of Batman, but the person or machine (not called a riddler, but called a gyropalette) that rotates the bottles while they’re aging. In French, this process is called remuage. By hand, it takes three months; with a machine, it takes about a week. The idea is to gradually move the bottle from a horizontal position to a vertical one in order to collect the dead yeast cells in the neck of the bottle.
Here is the rack that houses the bottles in a manual system:
Here is someone demonstrating riddling by hand:
10. Now, we’ll remove the sediment and this is called disgorgement (dégorgement). The bottles will be chilled to reduce the pressure, the neck will be dipped into an icy brine solution to freeze the sediment into a plug of slush, the bottle is turned upright, the crown cap is removed and the internal pressure shoots the ice plug out of the neck of the bottle.
Here is a picture of a frozen plug:
11. Some wine is lost during this slightly violent process, so we’ll replace it with the same or a similar cuvée and this is called the dosage. The amount of sugar here will determine the final sweetness of the Champagne – Brut, Sec, Doux, etc.
12. Final aging – for non-vintage (NV) Champagne, it’s 15 months and for vintage, it’s 3 years.
There, now you understand how Champagne is made. To celebrate, sing along with Don Ho.