From grape to bottle, here’s the process for how Champagne is made.
A delicate moment. Harvesting must be done by hand, in particular because most of the grapes (pinot noir and pinot meunier) are red. The juice is white, but quickly becomes colored as soon as it’s macerated with the skin. It is therefore necessary that the bunches, placed in boxes (“comportes”) containing about forty kilos, arrive whole and quickly at the press. In some years of high maturity, the seeds detach and the champagnes can sometimes have a slight pinkish sheen.
The traditional press, the Coquard, is square or round, wider than it is high. It allows a slow and regular flow of juices which thus become less charged with solid particles, with sludge. More and more, a pneumatic press is also being used. It also treats the grapes with great care and creates clear juices. In Champagne, presses or pressing centers are often located outside the farm. They must be approved by the Comité interprofessionnel and the Institut national de l’origine et de la qualité (Inao) and located as close as possible to the vineyard in order to reduce transport times and the risk of oxidation or unintended maceration.
Fermentation is the method, classically, for white wines. Some famous houses such as Krug, Alfred Gratien or Bollinger have never given up on the use of barrels, while the stainless steel tank, which is easier to use and more neutral, has conquered most cellars. Today, more and more independent winegrowers use barrels and many large houses buy barrels either to make wine or to age or preserve wines. In the spring following the harvest, the “vins clairs“ from different grape varieties, crus or places are tasted and, if necessary, blended according to the cuvées sought.
During blending, wines from other years are incorporated when working with non-vintage cuvées. Once this operation is completed, the wine is bottled with a “tirage liqueur”: a mixture of sugar and yeast. These will attack the sugar and cause the creation of carbon dioxide, and that’s the “prise de mousse” (foam creation) that lasts about two months. The bottle is capped, or more rarely, for some prestigious vintages, it’s corked with a fastener and cork). The bottles are then stored in giant stacks, “on slats.” This step must last a total of at least fifteen months before the next step in the process, élevage. This step, performed manually on a rack or mechanically in a gyropalette, allows the deposit created by the yeast to descend towards the neck.
This step consists in leaving the wine in contact with the deposit created by the yeast. The duration of the élevage is very important. While in contact with dead yeasts, the wine is charged with subtle aromas and gains in roundness and fat. This phenomenon explains the complexity of some great vintages released late on the market. After stirring, the bottles are either kept “on slats” or stored on their tips, heads down, the neck of one at the base of the other. The tasting of an old vintage kept on the tip is undoubtedly the best way to taste old wines.
Manual disgorging does not take place anymore, except for tastings. Most often, the neck is immersed in a bath of refrigerated brine. The deposit, which has become an ice cube, is easier to extract. The volume now missing from the bottle is replaced with the dosage liquor, a mixture of wine and cane sugar. In recent years, some producers have replaced this sugar with rectified concentrated musts (a kind of concentrated grape juice) that creates excellent results. The different qualities of champagne are defined according to the sugar-per-liter ratio present at the time of dosing.
– Brut nature ou ultrabrut: no traceable amount
– Extrabrut: 0 to 6 grams of sugar
– Brut: less than 12 grams
– Extradry: between 12 and 17 grams
– Sec: between 17 and 32 grams
– Demi-sec: between 32 and 50 grams
– Doux: more than 50 grams
A too recent dosage (less than three months) damages the harmony of the taste of the champagne. Whenever possible, it is recommended to purchase wine made in a previous year.
This article was first published on Le Point.