One thing natural wine connoisseurs can agree on is that vignerons are artists in their own right; each with an individual style. When it comes to producing champagne, the qualifications include a long list of regulations that must be met during the production process for winemakers to even be able to print that name on their labels. To create a truly sumptuous product, not only do the mechanics of champagne making have to be meticulous and precise but also equal parts artistry from the vigneron and nature itself–a radical harmony, if you will.
Before getting into the elaborate details of what it takes to make champagne, it’s essential to understand what distinguishes it from other wines. First and foremost, this popular beverage that’s enjoyed globally cannot be called champagne unless it is produced in the Champagne region of France. That means, anywhere else in the world that makes bubbly wines must refer to them as “sparkling wine” or “prosecco”. Read on to learn more about what specifications are required for wines to be able to wear this fancy name.
Three Main Grapes Are Used for Champagne
Champagne is made by different grape varieties but chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Meunier are the most common grapes used for making champagne. With that said, most champagnes are a product of blending these grapes. With Meunier’s floral aromas, Pinot Noir’s body, and Chardonnay’s versatility of either being buttery or acidic– together they create that crisp effervescence. It is possible that other grapes are included in making champagne but only if they were grown during a certain year due to changes in regulations from the Champagne AOC, or, Champagne, an Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée. Vintage champagnes are made from a single year.
Climate Characteristics in the Champagne Region of France
The weather in the Champagne wine region of France is optimal for vines to thrive — rarely getting too hot or too cold. Between its proximity to the ocean and receiving the ideal amount of sunlight and precipitation on its rich soil, the Champagne’s natural elements work in perfect synchronicity. This and the highly regulated production method is why champagne remains such an exclusive name.
The Méthode Champenoise Way of Making Champagne
Some of the best champagnes are created using the Méthode Champenoise or “the Champagne Method”. This is a labor-intensive process that some argue makes the highest quality products– it is also a timely process that champagne producers work diligently on all year long.
The Champagne AOC actually announces the start of the harvest for champagne makers pending on the sugar levels of the grape. This ensures a perfect balance with their acidity. Once this is announced, pickers will head out to the vines for the grape harvests and begin collecting grapes by hand. Using machinery to pick the grapes is not allowed–we weren’t kidding when we said this was a meticulous process. These pickers work in teams for roughly twelve days, filling baskets in the vineyards. From there, tractor drivers will transport the grapes to the press house.
Almost immediately after picking the grapes, they are headed to the press to do just that–be pressed into grape juice. The first round is called “vin de cuvée’ and extracts the purest of juices with less phenolics and higher acidity. Many champagne makers use this first press only when it comes to production. A second press is often done and called “taille” which uses more pressure. Interesting enough, these juices are astringent and rarely ever used in the making of champagne. Instead, they are sold off to make sweeter wines. If a third press called Rebèche is done, is is sold to use for spirits or vinegar–never sparkling wine.
The still wine, or vin clair, is then transferred to stainless steel vats or casks (wooden barrels) where the first fermentation will take place. They are separated by grape variety, age, and vineyard. Alcoholic fermentation is essentially a substance breaking down, or expiring, into gases, alcohol, and acid. The fermentation process is another component in wine making that has to be just right. Too much exposure to oxygen results in too much CO2 and fermenting too long results in too much alcohol. Sulfur dioxide may be added to balance everything out while the juice is stored several weeks.
Champagne assemblage, often referred to as “assemblage” in the context of Champagne production, is a crucial and skillful process in crafting high-quality Champagne. It involves the art of blending different base wines to create a final cuvée (Champagne blend) with the desired flavor profile, aroma, and balance. Here’s how it works:
1. Base Wine: Champagne production typically begins with the fermentation of several grape varieties, including Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. These grapes are harvested from different vineyards and often from different vintages to provide a variety of flavors and characteristics.
2. Varietal Selection: Each grape variety contributes unique characteristics to the wine. Chardonnay, for example, can add freshness and elegance, while Pinot Noir brings body and structure. The winemaker carefully selects and vinifies these grapes separately.
3. Blending: The winemaker, known as the “maître de chai” in Champagne, then assesses the individual base wines from various vineyard plots and vintages. They aim to create a final blend that reflects the house’s consistent style and quality.
4. Trial Blends: Through a series of trial blends, the winemaker experiments with different proportions of the base wines. This process can be highly iterative, involving numerous tastings and adjustments to achieve the desired taste profile.
The goal of Champagne assemblage is to create a harmonious and consistent Champagne that reflects the house’s style and quality standards year after year. It requires a deep understanding of the characteristics of the base wines, a keen palate, and a strong commitment to maintaining the house’s reputation. Champagne houses often have closely guarded secret recipes and methods for their assemblage, which are passed down through generations of winemakers.
The winemaker’s talent really comes into play during this stage, as there is an art on choosing which elements from different wines they want to blend together. This fermentation process is done in the bottle and chilled at twenty-five degrees to ensure the tartaric-acid is crystalized. Liqueur de tirage is a mixture of yeast and sugar that is added to the blend where the yeast begins to ferment the sugars. Between this and the carbon dioxide dissolving, the bubbles can finally start to form.
Yeast is a key ingredient when it comes to giving Champagne its bread-like flavor and mouthfeel. After aiding in the fermentation process, the dead yeast cells, now called “lees,” sits with the wine to add to the complexity of its flavors and aromas.
Riddling/Remouage and Disgorgement
Bottles are then ready to age and stored neck down vertical position at a forty-five degree angle in a wooden rack called a pupitre. The bottles are gently rotated by hand or a mechanism called a gyropallete. This “riddling” phase allows for the yeast to float down into the neck of the bottle and separate itself from the wine. This is done over a span of a few weeks to a few months. Once this is complete, the yeast will need to be removed. In earlier years, the cork of the champagne bottle would be slowly pulled out and the internal pressure would exert the dead yeast cells out. However, the modern way involves lowering the temperatures of the bottles and inserting the neck into a freezing solution. The cork is removed and the yeast build-up is ejected, or, disgorged.
Roughly three percent of wine may be lost during this process. Because of this, a sweetening solution is added to the bottle. The amount depends on the producer and how sweet they want their Champagne to be.
The Champagne dosage is the next step. A mixture of wine and sugar, known as liqueur d’expédition, is carefully added to the bottle to fill the void created during disgorgement. The liqueur d’expédition contains a specific amount of sugar, which determines the Champagne’s sweetness level, ranging from brut (very dry) to doux (sweet). The amount of sugar added varies depending on the desired style of Champagne and the producer’s recipe. The cork is then added and wired down due to the internal pressure of the carbon dioxide gas.
Voila! The Final Product
The final step is aging. After an average aging period of fifteen months, keeping the bottles at a constant temperature, Champagne is finally born. Based on all of the elaborate details and each winemaker’s preference, Champagnes can vary in sweetness. Brut being the driest and Doux being as sweet as you can get.
One final fact about Champagne making is the incredible influence that women in the late nineteenth century had on its creation. Specifically widows who were allowed to run businesses with their deceased husbands’ money, many became the head of renowned champagne houses. Their insights are why we have such delightfully crisp Bruts.
Champagne is best served chilled, so throw some of our brut in an ice cube bucket and enjoy with friends. With your newly found knowledge of the incredible way that Champagne is made and the fellow women who made it all possible, you’ll have the best conversation. You can also bring the gals together to learn about Iola Wines and our natural wine club. We even have a sparkling club which is dedicated exclusively to the bubbly!
For those who are passionate about natural wines, joining a natural wine club can be an excellent way to explore different types of wines and expand your knowledge. Natural wines are made with minimal intervention, often using organic or biodynamic grapes, and can have unique flavors and textures that differ from traditional wines. By joining a club, you can receive regular shipments of hand-picked natural wines and learn about their origins and production methods. It’s a great way to connect with other wine enthusiasts and discover new favorites.