We all know that when it comes to wines, champagne always, somehow, manages to stand out. There are many reasons for this; it’s captured people’s imaginations in ways that few other wines have and become synonymous with celebration and good times.
But it all starts, of course, with how the wine is made. It’s a relatively well known that wines can only bear the mantle of champagne if they come from the Champagne region, but there is also a very strict, (and fascinating), method that goes in to making it.
One of the most striking things about champagne are its bubbles. There are a few ways to create sparkling wine, and champagnes uniformly utilize what’s known as Méthode Champenoise or the “Classic” method. Really, this is champagne; would you expect anything less? This is the same method used to create carbonation in Cavas too; lightly sparkling wines like prosecco and lambrusco get there bubbles from something called the Charmant method.
It all comes down to the cuvée
Anyway, the Classic method is a complex, multi-stage process which not only gives champagne its bubbles but its flavor too. It starts with the cuveé, otherwise known as the base wine. These are usually blends of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, sometimes Pinot Meunier, or cuvées made purely of a single one of these varieties, all of which come from the Champagne region.
Time for the tirage
But Champagne’s journey really begins with the addition of the liqeur de tirage, a mixture of sugar and yeast. The mixture is sealed in thick glass bottles with the Champagne, leading to fermentation that usually lasts a few months, which produces alcohol and carbon dioxide, which are of course what makes it all fizzy.
This is the stage that sets sparkling wines made with yeast apart from those that are simply carbonated, as well as non-sparkling wines in general.
Aging on the lees
What sets Champagne even further apart are the long periods, often years, that are spent “aging on the lees”.
Sounds weird, doesn’t it? It actually kind of is. Lees is the name given to the dead yeast cells that remain in the wine during aging after the fermentation is complete. Over the years this aging process gives Champagne its added richness and its distinctive yeasty character.
Riddling: Wine’s most boring and most dangerous job
This leads to a part of the Champagne making process that’s even more odd; riddling. This is the process by which, during aging, bottles are kept facing downwards and regularly rotated by around 90 degrees in order to gradually move all of the dead yeast to the neck of the bottle.
Nowadays this is mostly done by machines, but it used to be done manually by hand. And, while that might sound like one of the most boring jobs on the planet, it was also actually one of the most dangerous. As you can imagine, measurements weren’t so precise in the old days, and bottles weren’t as soundly produced; this meant that the workers riddling in the cellars had to wear masks to contend with the regular explosions of bottles.
Sounds rough. But if done right, (with your face intact), the result is a bottle of Champagne just a couple of steps from being finally ready.
Once the excess yeast has imparted its flavours and needs to be removed, the neck of the bottle is usually dipped in a bath of liquid nitrogen, making a little dead yeast filled ice cube in the neck of the bottle. When the cap of the bottle is subsequently popped off, the ice shoots out like a cork leaving behind clear sparkling wine.
Now it’s almost done. The freezing and ejection of the dead yeast leaves a less than full bottle; this is made up for with dosage, the adding of a last few drops of wine and sugar. This not only fills up the remaining empty space of the bottle, but also finalizes the flavour of the final product. A doux is a very sweet champagne, while a brut, (the most common variety), is drier.
Now that you’re on expert on how Champagne is made, we bet you’re thirsty. Download our app and browse our selection of fine de Venoge Champagnes here.