The secrets of champagne making
It’s no news that champagne is the most popular drink in the world for celebrating special occasions.
All champagnes are made using the ‘méthode champenoise’ which involves following a certain number of steps to produce a truly exceptional end product!
Vineyard cultivation and the elaboration of champagne wines adhere to strict rules, probably the most stringent regulations of all. Every step requires a rigorous know-how approach which is the hallmark of champagne excellence.
Would you like to discover the secrets of champagne making? Read on and I’ll reveal some interesting little secrets.
What is the méthode champenoise?
Champagne is not for everyone! Champagne wines are meticulously made from 3 main grape varieties: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.
But there is a secret: 4 other grape varieties are authorized, but unknown because they take up only 0.3% of the vineyard.
They are Arbane, Petit Meslier, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris (all white grapes) and also authorized. Pinot Blanc can be found, for example, in the cuvée Quatre Cépages of the Société des Champagnes de la Grande Charte, or in the cuvée Quattuor of the House of Drappier
To transform the fruits of the vine into exceptional vintages, patience is required! Without further ado, I’ll reveal to you the steps involved in the ‘méthode champenoise’ or ‘Champagne method’ as it is known in English.
The beginning of the process: vineyard maintenance and harvest
Although the harvest takes place once a year, the maintenance of the vineyard is done all year round. Depending on the season, specific work is required to maintain the vines.
During this season, the vine is in a state of dormancy, which is not at all the case for the winegrowers who must start the winter work: pruning. Pruning is an important task which enables the wine producers to control the vines and it also promotes the growth of good quality grapes. Pruning is a meticulous process and follows a precise method that has been in place since 1938. Winter is an essential period for maintaining and preparing the vines for the next vintage.
After the winter rest, comes the budding period when the vine starts its vegetative cycle all over again. The buds begin to swell and the vine growers eliminate the non-fruit bearing elbow buds so that they won’t divert the sap from the buds that will bear fruit. This is called disbudding, it is a manual operation that requires several rounds.
It is the period of the ‘veraison’. This term refers to when the grapes ripen and change color. In less than two weeks, they reach their maximum size and maturity. They will fill with sugar and lose their acidity. The end of this period triggers harvest time.
This is the most yearned for period, the harvest! The winemakers will harvest and inspect the maturity and condition of the grapes and sort them.
The harvest time should not exceed 2 to 3 weeks to avoid the fruit over-ripening .
This is the first step in the wine making process, even though the harvest is not yet finished. The harvested grapes arrive at the press and are transformed into must.The must includes the skin, seeds and stems of the grapes.
The pressing needs to be done quickly after harvest so as not to denature the grapes and to avoid the oxidation of the must. To ensure optimum quality, the grapes must be pressed slowly and delicately.
After the pressing, the must arrives in the winery. It is stored in large numbered vats to allow traceability, or in smaller vats, or barrels to allow a parcel-by-parcel selection and recognition of the terroirs of origin. In large-scale production, yeasts are added, if necessary,otherwise those already present in the must will consume the sugar in the grapes and allow the production of alcohol, as well as the flavors and aromatic components of the wine. The alcoholic fermentation will transform the must into wine.
The diversity of the containers used (stainless steel, enamel, wood, cement, clay, glass, …) contribute to the creation of the very varied wines of Champagne.
The clarification consists of eliminating the solid particles present in the champagne wine. There are different ways to clarify a champagne: refining, filtering, racking or centrifugation.
The blending is a delicate step which helps to define the final character of the champagne wine by finding the best complementing blends between wines from different harvests and different years. Finding the perfect combination is a delicate process that requires accuracy and fines. The tastings are done in the presence of several experienced people including the Cellar Master. At the end of the tasting, the exact composition is defined. Each champagne house adds its own personal touch. Some are looking for a “house style” like Roederer’s Cristal, or Krug’s Grandes Cuvées, while others privilege the expression of the character of each vintage on its particular terroir. In the latter case, the vintages are different each year, as is the case for example with the vintages of Selosse, Françoise Bedel or the Société des Champagnes de la Grande Charte.
Even if all the other steps are very important, the tirage is the most important because it is the moment when the wines are transformed into champagne.
The wine obtained during the blending is going to be bottled and a second fermentation is going to be realized, this is called the “prise de mousse“.
Several elements are necessary to carry out the tirage: the blend (the wine obtained during the previous stage), the yeasts and the liqueur de tirage – composed of sugar and wine.
The aging process
The maturation period, called aging, varies according to the vintage. For non-vintage wines, the aging period must exceed 15 months, whereas a minimum of 36 months is required for vintage wines.
This step, generally done manually, consists of tilting the bottles from right to left and then positioning them progressively from the horizontal to the vertical position to let the deposits rise towards the neck.
The disgorging allows the elimination of the yeast deposits in the bottles. To carry out this operation, it is necessary to plunge the bottles in a liquid at -27°C. An ice cube will form in the neck containing all the stagnant sediments. When the bottle is opened, the pressure will expel the ice cube. Sometimes the disgorging is still done “on the fly”, i.e. by hand. This ancestral technique is slower and is still used for certain rare vintages produced in small quantities.
The end of the process: the dosage
This is the last step in the champagne making process. It involves compensating for the wine that is lost when the bottle is opened. To remedy this problem, the champagne makers add a dosage of liqueur composed of wine and dissolved sugars. This addition represents approximately 1cl per bottle and helps to balance the acidity.
So now you know the steps involved in the delicate process of making champagne wine. To learn even more, I suggest you consult the articles: the history of champagne, is champagne good for your health, what are the greatest champagne wines and what to drink with champagne.