The Making of Champagne

So, you like Champagne. Congratulations, you have great taste! But have you ever stopped to think what makes a sparkling wine ‘Champagne’? Ever wondered what ingredients go into the delicious blend you love so much? What about the processes under which it is made? Well, look no further. The Finest Bubble are here, as always, to provide the answers you seek.

Firstly, it’s important to understand that the name ‘Champagne’ itself is legally protected. Sparkling wine is produced all over the world, but protected by the Madrid system under a 1981 treaty, the word Champagne is exclusively reserved for wines from the Champagne region, made in accordance with the Comité Interprofessionel du vin de Champagne (CIVC) regulations.

Champagne’s location in France

The principal regulations enforced by the CIVC are:
+ Capped grape yields per hectare
+ Minimum annual required alcohol levels by volume
+ Juice extraction strictly limited to 102 litres of must per 160 kilos of grapes
+ A natural winemaking process known as the ‘Méthode Champenoise’
+ A minimum 15 months storage period for bottled wines prior to shipping

But what’s the whole story, from vine to wine? We’ve identified ten essential stages in the Making of Champagne and outlined them below.

Stage 1: Vineyards

The location of the vineyards in Champagne is very important for many reasons and the classification a vineyard receives is based on the village it is located in. The most valued vineyards are those within villages given the status of Grand Cru, of which there are 17 (accounting for less than 9% of all planted vineyard land in Champagne). These vineyards are located on the best soils in the best locations and produce the best grapes. Some of the most famous Grand Cru villages are Ambonnay, Aÿ, Chouilly, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger and Verzenay.

Pickers working hard at Bollinger’s Vieilles Vignes vineyard

The next best vineyards are the Premier Cru vineyards, of which there are 44, located in villages rated between 90 and 99 percent. The top-rated areas in Champagne are Montagne de Reims, which has nine Grand Cru vineyards and Côte des Blancs, which has six Grand Crus.

Key regions in Champagne

Stage 2: Grapes

The grapes used to make Champagne possess characteristics not found anywhere else in the world due to the particular geography, soil and climate of the Champagne delimited region. The three grape varieties used in the production of Champagne are: Chardonnay (white), Pinot Noir (black) and Pinot Meunier (black). A blend of the three grape varieties goes into the production of most Champagne in differing quantities. There are exceptions such as Blanc de Blancs, which is made from pure Chardonnay and Blanc de Noir, made from only black grape varieties such as Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier.

Chardonnay grapes from a Taittinger Grand Cru vineyard

Stage 3: Pressing

After harvest, grapes are immediately transferred to the pressing centre. Ranging in capacity from 2,000 to 12,000 kilograms of grapes, these computer-controlled presses produce 2,550 litres of juice. Using a technique of gentle but gradually increasing pressure, the presses separate the juice into fractions. Rosé Champagne however, is made by maceration: leaving destalked black skinned grapes to macerate in a tank prior to pressing until the desired colour is achieved (24-72 hours).

Modern pressing machine

The first 2,050 litres of juice is called the vin de cuvée and is the purest juice, rich in sugar and acid. The remaining 500 litres is called the vin de taille, which is also rich in sugar but has a lower acid content. After pressing, the juice settles and cools and the solids are racked prior to first fermentation.

Stage 4: First Fermentation

The juice is then transferred to a stainless-steel tank where the first fermentation takes place. At this point, the juice is completely dry and very acidic.

During primary, or alcoholic, fermentation the grape musts transform into wine: the yeast consumes the natural grape sugars, producing alcohol and carbon dioxide (CO2) along with other by-products that contribute to the sensory characteristics of the wine. Primary fermentation takes place immediately after pressing, usually in stainless steel tanks though some producers still ferment their wines in wooden barrels.

Stainless-steel tank at Pol Roger

Malolactic fermentation (MLF) is the process that transforms malic acid into lactic acid. Like all forms of fermentation, MLF influences wine aroma development, in this case making for softer, riper, generally creamier sensations.

MLF is an optional process, used by all but a few Champagne makers who avoid it for the sake of crisp varietal expression.

Stage 5: Blending

Blending takes place each spring following the previous year’s harvest. The winemaker must taste and assess many different lots from all the different vineyards and regions. For non-vintage Champagnes, the winemaker will draw on the most current vintage, but will also rely on stocks of reserve still wines from previous years. These wines will give the Champagne a richness and a fullness of character and will also make the wine easier to drink at a younger age.

Eventually, with the help of his team, the winemaker will decide upon the perfect assemblage to create their house blend ‘non-vintage’ Champagne. Great growing years will produce vintage Champagnes, made using wine from only that vintage.

Samples lined up to be tasted and tested before blending

Once blending is complete, the wine undergoes cold stabilisation: the process of chilling wine prior to bottling to induce crystallisation of tartaric acid (particularly important for sparkling wines), so preventing crystal formation in the finished product.

Stage 6: Second Fermentation

Second fermentation is crucial and unique to the making of Champagne. After blending, the winemaker kick-starts the effervescence by adding a sweet solution known as the liqueur de tirage – a mixture of still wine, sugar and yeast. Once filled, the bottles are sealed with a crown cap (the type you see on a beer bottle) or cork and then they are aged sur latte (stacked on their sides between thin layers of wood).

Bottles stacked sur latte for second fermentation

Inside the bottle, the wine undergoes a second fermentation that continues for 6-8 weeks. The yeasts consume the sugar, releasing alcohol and carbon dioxide, along with esters and other superior alcohols that contribute to the wine’s sensory profile. The cooler the temperature in the cellar for second fermentation the better, as it slows the process, creating smaller bubbles and a more consistent bead.

Stage 7: Ageing on the Yeast

Deep inside the cellars, the bottle then undergoes a long period of maturation. Aged on the lees (dead yeast cells), all of the sugars are consumed and the yeasts gradually die and compose, enhancing the flavours of the final product. This process is known as autolysis, releasing molecules that are slowly transformed as they interact with those in the wine. All Champagnes must spend at least 15 months in the bottle before release, of which 12 months maturation on lees is required for non-vintages and 3 years for vintage cuvées. However in reality, most non-vintages are cellared for 2-3 years and vintage Champagnes for 4-10 years.

Champagne ageing in a Vinothèque deep down in Pol Roger’s caves

Stage 8: Remuage

After extended lees ageing, bottles undergo a process called remuage or riddling. The bottles are rotated, loosening the sediment created during second fermentation, whilst being gradually tilted from horizontal to vertical with the bottle neck-down (sur pointes). The sediment is then collected in the neck of the bottle for removal later. Riddling can be carried out manually in a pupitre or can be automated in a gyropallette.

The process of riddling by hand takes up to six weeks

A good remuer can handle roughly 40,000 bottles a day and would need to do this for 4-6 weeks to complete the process or a gyropallette (computerised pallet that holds over 500 bottles) can get the job done in a week.

A gyroplatte can get the job done in about eight days

Stage 9: Disgorgement

The purpose of disgorgement is to expel the deposit that has collected in the neck of the bottle as a result of the remuage process. This is achieved by submerging the neck of the bottle into a refrigerating solution at -27°C. The sediment is then ejected under pressure (in the form of a frozen plug) when the bottle is opened, with minimum loss of wine. Disgorgement can trigger a short, sharp intake of oxygen (although many Champagne houses now disgorge in protected environments) which together with dosage (see below) will have a significant impact on aroma development.

Bottles with metal caps are generally disgorged by machine but certain cuvées are still disgorged by hand (à la volée). The bottle is held upside down, opened and then quickly tilted back upwards so that only enough wine is forced out to take the sediment with it. This traditional technique is still used today for very small or large bottles and very old vintages. Disgorgement is a critical point in the life of Champagne, the grand finale after many months and sometimes years of peaceful maturation on the lees.

Pol Roger’s impressive disgorgement line

Stage 10: Dosage

Finally, the bottle is topped off to its previous fill level with liqueur d’expedition; a sugar mixture. The amount of sugar determines the sweetness of the wine and balances the acidity. It’s a fine line, as acidity is essential to keep the wine fresh during its lengthy bottle-ageing as well as any cellaring by the consumer.

The role of dosage in the wine’s sensory development also varies according to the style of Champagne. If the winemaker is happy with the wine as it stands, the liqueur d’expedition will consist of a mixture of sugar and the same wine as the bottle holds. Alternatively, if a final additional touch of aroma is thought desirable, the liqueur d’expedition may be made with a reserve wine – great Champagne wines set aside for long ageing in casks, barrels or even magnums. These add an extra dimension to the winemaker’s repertory of flavours, creating a palette from which to choose the perfect finishing touch.

During dosage, a small amount of sugar is added to balance the acidity

The quantity of dosage liqueur added varies according to the style of Champagne:

Brut Nature      zero dosage or under 0-3 g/l
Extra Brut        0-6 g/l
Brut                 0-12 g/l
Extra Dry         12-17 g/l
Sec                  17-32 g/l
Demi-Sec         32-50 g/l
Doux                50+ g/l

After dosage comes final corking. The cork is squeezed into the neck of the bottle, covered with a protective metal cap, then held in place with a muselet  (wire cage) to make an airtight seal. This new cork, like its plastic predecessor, does allow for some exchange with the outside air, which is why the wine continues to age over the years. The Champagne is then returned to the cellar to age in bottle for several months before it is finally released and we can all start enjoying it.

Your Next Stage: Tasting!

So that’s all there is to it! Easy, right? Well, perhaps we should still leave it to the experts. Whilst you may not now be rushing off to Reims to purchase some land and an old Maison, understanding the process of Champagne production is vitally important for consumers, especially when drinking older vintages of prestige cuvées. Hopefully you can now better appreciate the delicacies of the blend and why the subtle differences in flavour and style are present.

Understanding the production process also adds a lot more context to what the different styles of Champagne available are:

Non-Vintage (NV) – The most traditional of all Champagne styles, NV is a blend of multiple varieties and vintages. The idea is to assemble a consistent wine every year. Minimum ageing is 15 months.

Vintage – Champagne made using wine from a single year, or vintage. Not all years are declared vintages and not all houses make the same vintages. Aged for a minimum of 3 years prior to release, there have been 46 vintage years in the last 60 years. Vintage champagnes contain longer-life base wines, and while they are quite enjoyable immediately upon release, they still have significant development potential.

Prestige Cuvée –  This is the very best wine a house produces – the tête de cuvée or Grande Cuvée of a Champagne House.  Prestige cuvée champagnes are made from grapes harvested from the highest-rating Grand Cru villages it ages beautifully, and prestige cuvées in particular are at their peak long after release.

Late Disgorged–  Late-disgorged bottles celebrate champagne’s magnificent ageing capacity. Wines matured with their yeast lees for years or sometimes decades in ideal conditions

Blanc de Blancs – A Champagne made completely of white grapes, usually 100% Chardonnay.

Blanc de Noirs – A Champagne made completely of black grapes, such as Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. These are much more scarcely produced than the blanc de blancs and are also stylistically more challenging.

Rosé – Typically white and red wine are blended prior to second fermentation to create a pink wine. Rosé champagne is often approximately one fifth more expensive than white champagne due to production costs. Read more about rosé Champagne production here.

Whatever your favourite style, we think that the best way of learning is drinking! So why not come along to one of our tasting events and put this newfound knowledge to the test, discover some new styles and vintages and learn through practical analysis.