Getting Schooled in Champagne

I’ve been curious about Champagne since I started studying wine seven years ago. How do the bubbles get into the bottle? What is the deal with the second fermentation? What’s the difference between grower Champagne and “regular” Champagne? It all became too much! I had to go! I had to find out! So I bought a damn plane ticket and went straight to the source: the Champagne region of France. And because we are in the midst of the Champagne-iest season of all – the holidays – it’s a perfect time to share a few things I learned. Because who knows – maybe you’re shopping for Champagne or popping open a bottle a right now – and like me, you want to know more. Follow me…

I knew I wanted to visit a variety of Champagne houses: a large one, a smaller, more boutique-sized one and a grower Champagne producer. So with the help of a few friends, I set up appointments at Champagne Henriot in Reims, Piper-Heidsieck, just outside of town and Champagne Jean Vesselle in Bouzy (a 30-minute taxi ride from Reims).

In this first post on Champagne, I’m going to reveal the answers to my most burning Champagne question: how do the bubbles get into the bottle? It’s a loaded question, I learned, because I might as well have asked, “How is Champagne made?” So, here we go! If you want more details, visit the official website for the entire Champagne region here. It’s got great explanations for every stage of the process in way more detail than I’m throwing down here. So here’s what I learned in nine sort-of-elaborate steps:

  1. 9A2LC4PzReGfHwqRTJwDXAFirst, a still wine is produced, just like any other still wine. The grapes are harvested (the three classic Champagne grapes are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier) and pressed. Then the juice is fermented in tanks or barrels, with yeast, in the standard, age-old fermentation process, where the yeast eats the sugars in the grape juice and magically turns it into alcohol.
  2. Then a blend is created. It might be 100 percent Chardonnay, in which case the wine is called a Blanc de Blancs. Or it might be a blend of all three grapes in varying percentages for a classic non-vintage Champagne, also using some resérve wines from previous years. (This is how larger houses produce Champagne of very consistent quality from year to year.)
  3. And here’s where Champagne becomes Champagne. The winemaker creates the liqueur de tirage – a blend of fresh sugar and yeast- that is added to the wine, to start the fermentation process again. The wine is then bottled and sealed with a crown cap (like the metal caps on beer bottles or old-school soda bottles), and cellared.
  4. AiAR+hMBSpmmZCEO7KeLHgNow the second fermentation is underway, because the sugar in the liqueur de tirage is eating the yeast and Co2 (carbon dioxide) is forming – which normally is released during fermentation – and now the Co2 is trapped in the bottle, causing bubbles to form – and also building up pressure inside the bottle. Interesting side-note: Waaay back in the day, sugar was added to still wines in Champagne in an effort to balance the highly acidic wine and make it more palatable. Why? Because Champagne is the coldest wine region in all of France, so grapes do not ripen as much as in warmer areas, hence more acidity and less sugar.  With me so far? Good.
  5. fullsizeoutput_1002
    David LeMaire at Champagne Jean Vesselle with the resting bottles.

    Put those bottles down for a nap. Once this second fermentation is complete, the spent yeast cells gather in the bottom of the bottle. And the long arm of the law says Champagne must spend at least 15 months maturing in the cellar, with least least 12 of those months spent aging on the lees (the spent yeast cells). Vintage Champagne has to age for longer – at least three years.

  6. Ay79PqkURv6+4ASzbK5AgQSo now the cool part: the riddling. After the wine has aged for however long the chef du cave (or cellar master, aka winemaker) deems appropriate, the riddling process begins. Back in the day, bottles were put into these A-frame shaped racks called pupitres, and every day, cellar workers would rotate the bottles, until they were 100 percent upside down, gradually getting the yeast sediment into the neck of the bottle. These days, an automated gyropalette is used by most Champagne houses, because it is much faster. It was freaking fascinating to see a gyropalette in action for the first time, because it truly is kind of hard to imagine and describe. Like a gyroscope, the gyropalette turns the bottles in two directions simultaneously – whah? Yep – it’s really cool to watch. Ultimately all the bottles get to a full upside-down position, where the yeast sediment is in the neck of the bottle. Voici!
  7. But wait, how do they get this blob of spent yeast out of the bottle? Well, they load the bottles onto a production line and the necks of the bottles are frozen in a Glycol solution (-27 degrease Celsius), then the metal cap gets flicked off and whammy – that little blob of now-frozen yeast – like a yeast-cicle – just shoots right out! Only a tiny bit of wine comes out with it, before the bottles are up-righted.

  8. Time for dosage! The dosage is the final addition of wine and a very specific amount of sugar (or no sugar at all) to top up the bottle before corking. This is an important step, as it determines if the Champagne will be brut nature (no dosage at all, for less than 3 grams of sugar per liter) or doux (the sweetest style, with more than 50 grams of sugar per liter) or somewhere in-between.
    I’m going to just give you the levels of dosage here, because it is worth knowing, next time you encounter Champagnes of varying styles. (It’s a little confusing because while the word “sec” in French means “dry,” Sec champagne has a surprising amount of sugar in it.) Here from driest/least amount of sugar per litre to sweetest:
    Brut Nature: less than 3 grams sugar/liter
    Extra Brut: from 0-6 grams sugar/liter
    Brut: less than 12 grams sugar/liter
    Extra Dry: 12-17 grams sugar/liter
    Sec: 17-32 grams sugar/liter
    Demi-Sec: 32-50 grams sugar/liter
    Doux: more than 50 grams sugar/liter
    Brut is by far the most popular style of Champagne, but you should try all the styles. Doux champagne can be delightful with dessert!
  9. fullsizeoutput_1011
    The bottling line at Champagne Jean Vesselle. I was mesmerized!

    The final steps: The wine goes onto the bottling line to be corked, and the metal cage is put on, then the foil capsule, then the label and ta dah! It’s ready for popping and pouring.

I’ll share more details of my visits to Champagne Henriot, Piper-Heidsieck and Champagne Jean Vesselle for another post, because, well, I’ve gotten a little long-winded here, haven’t I?

All three houses make beautiful Champagnes and each has a very distinct personality and style. I want to extend a huge thanks to Beatrice Brossier at Champagne Henriot, Catherine Curie at Piper-Heidsieck and David LeMaire at Champagne Jean Vesselle. Each gave so generously of their time to answer my hundreds of questions. And of course, they shared their wines with me to taste.

In the meantime, pop a bottle and raise a glass to Champagne! Santé!


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