Everything You Need to Know About Making The World’s Finest Champagne

Posted October 23, 2014

WineLibrary Staff

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by Stephen Fahy

credit: Wikimedia Commons

When it comes to sparkling wine, the greatest producers on earth aren’t exactly what you’d call “innovators.” And they’re damn proud of it.

Most Champagnes and higher quality sparkling wines are made in process known as Méthode Champenoise. Also called “the traditional method,” it’s characterized by a secondary fermentation in the bottle providing the wine with both its carbonation, and its distinctive, yeasty notes. The process has been documented as early as the 16th century, and hasn’t changed much since.

The Méthode Champenoise process begins with the blending of multiple still wines - wines that have already been fermented - to attain the flavor and quality that best represents the house style. The blend (known as the assemblage) is then bottled along with a mixture of yeast and sugar and sealed in order for the wine to undergo secondary fermentation. As the yeast consumes the additional sugar, it produces CO2 which, because the bottle is sealed, gets absorbed into the wine forming the bubbles we all know and love.

At this point the wine is left to age for anywhere from 15 months to over a decade. The key to this aging period is that all that extra yeast is still present… and dead. As the yeast decomposes in a process called autolysis, it imparts an incredibly complex and iconic set of flavors on the wine. When a Champagne displays notes like hazelnut or brioche, that’s all down to the yeast.

Once this process is complete, the wine is ready for "disgorgement," or the removal of yeast sediment. The bottles are placed horizontally on "riddling racks," with the bottom slightly higher than the top and are periodically turned in an attempt to get the yeast deposits into the neck of the bottle. This process can take several months to complete, and while we all enjoy the idea of a white-gloved remueur making his way through the caves and hand-turning each bottle, these days many houses have turned to high-tech solutions like gyropalettes (see the pic up top).

Once all of the yeast residue has found its way into the neck of the bottle, the wine is then disgorged. This process involves freezing the yeast plug in the neck of the bottle, usually by dunking it in liquid nitrogen, quickly un-capping it, and removing all the solids while retaining as much of the wine as possible. The remaining wine retains CO2 bubbles and is now bone dry because all of the sugar has been consumed by the yeast.  To offset this dryness, sugar is added in a mixture called the dosage.  Most Champagnes are only slightly sweetened, and are designated as "Brut" with a taste that is still dry.  If more sugar is added in the dosage, it can move up the scale to "Extra Dry" (actually sweeter than Brut,) Demi-Sec, and Doux.

 

The last step is squeezing the cork into the bottle. Few people realize that before going into the bottle, Champagne corks basically look like oversized traditional corks. It’s only once they’re squished into the bottle and sit there for a few years that they take on that iconic mushroom shape! After being inserted, the cork is then secured by that fancy cage we all have so much trouble un-twisting. It’s a necessary evil since the pressure inside the bottle can be as much as 5x higher than the earth’s atmosphere.

All Champagne continues to evolve in the bottle, so it is usually a good idea to let young Champagne age gracefully, to become more harmonious and better balanced. And that doesn’t just apply to the expensive stuff, either! That non-vintage bottle will absolutely benefit from a year in your cellar, so don’t be afraid to pick up a case and let some of your bottles gather a little bit of dust.

 

Then comes the best part: opening the bottle! For an extreme take on that, be sure to check out our interview with Patrick Cappiello of Pearl and Ash all about sabering.

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Stephen C. Fahy, DWS is the Sales Director and a Wine Buyer at the Wine Library. Prior to this, Stephen managed the buying and sales initiatives for stores large and small in both New Jersey and Manhattan.   In addition, Stephen sold to some of Manhattan’s top restaurants and retailers while a Wine and Spirits Consultant for Importer/Distributor, WINEBOW

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