This article explains how champagne is made and the key terms in the context of the champagne-making process.
Along the way, you will learn about the telltale elements which make your favourite champagne style taste the way it does.
You’ll pick up some champagne characteristics that you particularly enjoy, which just might lead to discover a new favourite altogether.
The genius of champagne production calls on more tricks than any other wine style to create flavour, complexity and balance.Tyson Stelzer
Overview – it’s all about the acid
Acidity is the key to champagne. Because champagne’s grapes are grown in a place where it’s so cold that they hardly fully ripen, every element of the champagne-making process is geared towards reducing the acid’s effect.
Bubbles, lees, malolactic, dosage, blending and ageing – all these parts of the champagne-making process are critical to turn this acid into a key feature, not a detractor.
The traditional method by which this is achieved is known as Méthode Traditionnelle – and it’s complicated, slow, labour intensive and expensive.
Pressing the grapes to make juice… gently
How can white wine be made from the red pinot noir and meunier grapes? The secret is careful, selective harvesting and immediate, gentle pressing.
All champagne grapes are white on the inside and the gentle press avoids stains from the red-skinned grapes, unless rosé is the goal, but that’s another story. (Read about how rosé is made and why it’s so expensive.)
By law, only the first 2550 litres of juice from every four tonnes of grapes may be used.
The coeur de la cuvée, the ‘heart of the cuvée’, is the middle of the pressing which yields the purest juice.
The tailles — coarser, inferior juice that flows last from the press — is used in varying levels according to the house style, and rarely at all in the finest cuvées.
Confusingly, a bottle that says ‘Cuvée’ does not imply only the purest juice. In this context, ‘cuvée’ simply means ‘blend.’ Read more about Champagne Terminology.
Settling – separating the solids from the juice
Debourbage is the French word for settling of solids and impurities from the must (pressed grape juice), to allow the clear juice to be drawn off from the top. Like the pulp setting to the bottom of a glass of orange juice.
This process is taken to another level by the houses of Billecart-Salmon and Pol Roger, who perform a second settling at cold temperature, producing particularly exquisite and fresh champagnes.
First fermentation – alcohol creation
These days, the ‘alcoholic’ fermentation of champagne takes place in stainless steel tanks. However, traditional oak barrels are coming back into vogue for fermentation and/or maturation to increase suppleness, texture, power and complexity.
Ruinart, Piper-Heidsieck and Pol Roger are classic house styles of stainless steel fermentation. Bollinger and Krug epitomise barrel fermentation, while Billecart-Salmon encapsulates a mix of both.
Most champagne producers ‘chaptalise’ prior to fermentation by adding sugar or concentrated grape juice to increase the alcoholic strength. Some makers ‘inoculate’ the ferment with cultured yeasts, while others rely on wild yeasts.
Why is it important to know what happens at fermentation?
Each champagne house uses a different philosophy to create their house style. Some houses rely on traditional methods with all-natural ingredients, some houses use new techniques to speed up the process and improve flavour. Different philosophies in champagne making lead to different results.
Some growers and the house of Louis Roederer rely on ‘wild yeasts’, the natural yeasts on the grapes rather than ‘inoculating’ with a cultured yeast. This can increase complexity but care needs to be taken that the wines don’t turn too funky and savoury. The most notable growers relying on wild yeast are Agrapart, Benoît Lahaye, Geoffroy, Jacques Selosse, Larmandier-Bernier and Tarlant.
Malolactic fermentation – converting ‘tart’ into ‘soft’
Malolactic fermentation converts tart ‘malic’ (green apple) acid into softer ‘lactic’ (dairy) acid. This process is practised by almost all houses to soften their wines. Notable exceptions include Gosset, Lanson and Salon.
With the advent of warmer vintages, an increasing number of houses are experimenting with blocking malolactic fermentation.
The most significant houses playing with partial malolactic fermentation on some cuvees are Billecart-Salmon, Krug and Philipponnat.
Chef de Cave – assembling a blended champagne
Champagne is usually a blend of chardonnay, pinot noir and meunier. Blanc de blancs (‘white wine from white grapes’) is usually chardonnay and blanc de noirs (‘white wine from red grapes’) usually pinot noir/meunier.
More than anything, the blend determines the non-vintage house style, from the rich concentration of Krug and Bollinger, to the delicate finesse of Pol Roger and Billecart-Salmon.
Skilful blending is Champagne’s answer to its erratic seasons. Challenging vintages are handled by blending wines from different vineyards, different vintages (reserve wines) and different grapes.
It is as if we have to make a cake, but the recipe changes every year because the ingredients change with the season, but the cake must remain the same.Mary Roche, Louis Roederer
What do the different grapes do?
- Chardonnay gives structure, elegance and finesse
- Pinot noir gives perfume, body and richness
- Meunier gives plump fruitiness.
Assembling a blend can be incredibly complicated. Bollinger Special Cuvee NV, for example, is a blend of an incredible 240 base wines, spanning three varieties and two vintages, plus at least five older reserve wines.
Perhaps the most profound challenge of all lies in blending a wine now that must be consistent with the house style when it emerges from the cellar in two, five or eight years’ time.
It is little wonder the French call the blender the ‘Chef de Cave’. The imagery here is wonderful – like Heston Blumenthal in a dark, wet cave mixing a secret concoction.
Reserve wines (for NV blends)
Non-Vintage (NV) wines are deepened by a portion of older vintage ‘reserve’ wines stored in tank, barrel or bottle. The reserve wines are crucial for maintaining consistency in Champagne’s wildly fluctuating seasons.
Tirage – kicking along the fermentation
Prior to bottling, a ‘liqueur de tirage’ of sugar and wine is added (see ‘Second fermentation’, further down).
Bottling – but not the finished product yet
Wines are then bottled and sealed under crown seal (like a beer), or occasionally cork. They may be filtered and cold stabilised at this time to remove any solids.
Second fermentation – bubbles!
The sugar added to champagne prior to bottling starts a secondary fermentation in the bottle known as the ‘prise de mousse’. Under the pressure of a sealed bottle, the carbon dioxide (which is produced by the yeast feeding on the sugar) dissolves in the wine, creating sparkling wine.
Understand the bubbles
The finer the still wine and the cooler the cellar in which this fermentation occurs, the smaller the bubbles. A finer bead (smaller bubbles) is an indicator of quality.
Maturation – mellowing with age
As mentioned earlier, acidity is the key to champagne, but its astringency makes these wines unapproachable in their youth. The mellowing, softening effect of age is crucial to the champagne style.
Dead yeast cells (‘lees’) from the second fermentation remain in the bottle and contribute subtly to champagne’s complexity. The longer this process of ‘autolysis’ persists the better, improving mouthfeel and longevity, and adding biscuity, bready nuances to the flavour profile.
The mandatory minimum in champagne is 15 months for non-vintage and three years for vintage wines, but reputable producers always far exceed these minima, typically ageing non-vintage cuvees 3–4 years, vintage cuvees 7–8 years, and prestige cuvees sometimes 10 years or more.
Riddling (remuage) – collecting the bottle sediment
Riddling is where each bottle is given a quarter-rotation every day, and slowly tilted from horizontal to upside down. The lees sediment collects in the neck of the bottle. This process of ‘remuage’ is sometimes still performed by a ‘riddler’, who can turn 50,000–60,000 bottles every day!
In modern times, the riddling process has been taken over by gyropalettes in most champagne houses. These giant robotic arms slowly rotate large cages of bottles. The effect is the same, perhaps even more consistent, albeit without the romance.
A gyro can riddle a cage of bottles in as little as three days, but many estates use a longer cycle of a week or more.
Disgorgement (dégorgement) – removing the sediment
After riddling, the sediment is settled on the inside of the cork or crown cap. The neck of the bottle is then frozen, the cap released, and the plug of sediment shot out (‘dégorgement’ in French), leaving perfectly clear wine behind.
Why does the disgorgement date matter?
Champagne can sit in the cellar of a champagne house for years or even decades before it’s released. This aging can can be done while the lees remains in the bottle, or after the lees has been removed (disgorgement).
Bottles which age ‘on lees’ tend to age slower. They typically taste fresher and more vibrant than champagnes which are aged after the lees has been removed. So, while it’s important to know the the age of your bottle, it’s just as important to know the date the lees were taken out of the bottle (disgorgement) because the disgorgement date has a big impact on freshness and taste.
It’s traditionally been challenging to ascertain the disgorgement date of a champagne bottle, but reputable houses are increasingly displaying this information in the fine print on the back label. Krug provides an ID code to look it up on its web site. The Louis Roederer web site will give you the disgorgement date when you enter the bottling code.
The date of disgorgement is very important, because a bottle will taste very different six months after disgorgement than it will two years after. Didier Gimonnet
Dosage – the final flavour enhancement
To replace the volume lost through disgorgement, the bottle is topped up with sweetened wine (‘liqueur d’expedition’) and a cork is inserted.
Depending on the house style, some Chef de Caves create a dry wine which is balanced using dosage. Other winemakers attempt to set the sweetness by picking the grapes later in the season, when they contain more sugar. ‘Low dosage’ means that not much sugar is added at the end – though the wine may still contain a little ‘residual’ sweetness after fermentation.
The significant decrease in dosage over the past decade has been very important in allowing the fruit to show to its full capacity, rather than masked with sugar.Antoine Roland-Billecart, Billecart-Salmon
Low dosage champagnes are usually labelled ‘zero dosage’, ‘extra brut’ or ‘brut nature’. More and more great examples are arriving every year. Some of the best are Tarlant Zero Brut Nature NV, Eric Rodez Cuvée Zéro Dosage NV, Jacquesson Cuvée No 737 Extra Brut NV and Bollinger RD Extra Brut 2002.
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