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Champagne

Winemaking


  • The varieties of grapes used in producing a Champagne help determine its style. Today, there are three grape varieties that make up the majority of Champagne production: Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. Champagnes can either be single-varietal or a blend of varieties.

    According to recent CIVC data, Pinot Noir is the most grown grape in the Champagne region and makes up approximately 38% of what is grown. Pinot Meunier accounts for 35% and Chardonnay makes up the remaining 27%.

    Pinot Noir produces rich, age-worthy wines by contributing backbone, power and grip to the wine.

    Pinot Meunier is a relative of Pinot Noir. The grape, for some reason, is often considered inferior to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay because of its rusticity, but it is an important component of many Champagnes, including Krug. Pinot Meunier has several notable advantages: it buds later and has better resistance to cold, thus it is able to ripen well in poor years and has better acidity. For these reasons, it is usually planted on lesser slopes. Pinot Meunier adds fruitiness to blends - especially white fruit notes (peach and pear) that bring a fleshiness to the wine - and displays yeastiness well.

    Chardonnay buds early, which makes it susceptible to frost in the spring, but it also ripens early, which makes it a good cold-climate grape. Chardonnay gives freshness, elegance, finesse and a slightly steely character to blends.

    Legally, you can use seven varieties of grapes. The other four are Petit Meslier, Arban/Arbanne, Pinot Blanc, and Gamay. These were once more wide-spread in Champagne, but now it’s illegal to plant varieties outside of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. Some old vineyards with pockets of these other varieties still exist, but most have been replanted to Pinot Noir.

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  • In Champagne, growers are required to harvest grapes manually. The grapes are picked into small plastic buckets and transported to the press house, sometimes located directly in the vineyard to reduce travel time. The whole bunches of grapes are pressed very gently in traditional in basket presses, which yield very pure juice because the thick layer of grape skins acts as a filter for the juice. Today, regulations also permit more modern types of presses.

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  • Most juice or must for Champagne is fermented in stainless steel vats to preserve the crisp, refreshing fruit, though a handful of producers still use traditional barrels. Malolactic fermentation (MLF) is commonly practiced to soften the wines and help develop aromatic richness.

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  • Once MLF of the base wines is complete, the wines are blended. Blending, done at many different levels, is hugely important in Champagne. Champagne is not only a blend of grape varieties, it is a blend of wines from different villages, different vineyards and sometimes a blend of different parcels within each vineyard. It is also often a blend of vintages because harvests are often inconsistent.

    Blending has many advantages; it can enhance complexity by combining lots that underwent MLF with lots that didn’t, barrel fermented lots with tank fermented lots, lots fermented at different temperatures, etc. Consistency (and a house style) is also ensured through this blending process, one secret of Champagne’s continued success.

    When producing a rosé champagne, the red still wine will be added at this step.

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  • After blending, the wine is bottled and the liqueur de tirage is added (the liqueur de tirage is a mixture of wine, sugar and selected yeast culture).

    Bottles are then capped with crown caps like those used on old-fashioned soda bottles. This addition of the liqueur de tirage produces the secondary fermentation. During the second fermentation, three things are produced:
    - Alcohol
    - Carbon Dioxide
    - Heat

    The additional alcohol supplements the somewhat low levels in the base wines. The carbon dioxide that is produced very quickly fills up the empty space at the top of the bottle and begins to be absorbed into the wine. This is where the bubbles in champagne come from – it is always important to remember that with champagne, the bubbles are not produced in a large tank or by means of injection. They happen naturally from the second fermentation and this all takes place in the actual bottle.



    Technical Notes
    In regards to the liqueur de tirage, 24 grams of sugar will produce 6 atmospheres of pressure, which is most common, raising ABV by 1.5%. Adding about 14 grams of sugar produces Crémant, a less frothy style.

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  • The amount of aging is a third important determinant of Champagne’s quality. As the yeast consumes the sugar, it gives off carbon dioxide, creating bubbles. When no more sugar remains, the yeast dies. Under the influence of the alcohol, the lees (the spent yeast cells) begin to break down in a process known as autolysis.

    Autolysis produces the bread or brioche-like aromas that are a hallmark of truly fine Champagne. Autolysis begins after two years of aging, so houses that age their Champagne longer tend to have more concentration of these bread and brioche-like aromas.

    The legal minimum aging for non-vintage Champagne is 15 months and for vintage Champagne, three years. Most champagne houses age their wines for much longer.

    During the course of the aging process, the bubbles in Champagne get smaller and finer. Very fine bubbles are the mark of well-made Champagne. The smaller bubble caresses the mouth rather than assaulting it, giving the Champagne a lush, creamy texture.

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  • Towards the end of cellar aging, riddling or remuage begins. The goal of this process is to collect the sediment of spent yeast cells in the bottle. The invention of this process is credited to Madame Clicquot who invented the 'riddling rack' and the process that slowly moves the sediment into the neck of the bottle. Before the riddling rack, some producers would riddle the bottles by standing them up in sand in their cellars.


    Each bottle is turned 1/8 of a rotation each day at a gradually increasing incline. This loosens the dead yeast cells, or lees, from the side of bottle so that they sink to the top of bottle and can be removed.

    70% of remuage today is done by machine (gyropalette), but in the past, Champagne houses employed specialists to hand-turn the bottles. Remuage takes three days by machine, but six weeks when done by hand. Once the lees have settled, finer champagnes are stacked vertically, or 'sur pointes,' for up to 5 years and even longer of further maturation. The flavor and texture is further enhanced by this increased period of contact with the lees.

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  • Disgorgement is the process used to remove dead yeast cells from bottles of Champagne. In à la glace removal, the necks of the bottles are dipped in freezing brine (salt water) until the wine in the neck of the bottle freezes and a plug of ice containing the sediment is formed.

    The bottles are then mechanically turned right-side-up and the crown cap is removed. The carbon dioxide dissolved in the wine forces the ice plug out. Using this method allows you to remove the sediment from the spent yeast cells without having to filter the wine.

    This process is sometimes performed by hand, or à la voleé in which bottles sealed with cork are disgorged by hand.

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  • Before putting the final cork in a bottle of Champagne, a mixture of sugar and reserve wine, the dosage, is added to regulate the flavor and give a consistent style from year to year. A lower dosage with less sugar will produce an austere, long-lived wine, while a more generous one will give a wine that is fuller in body and richer in aroma. Some Champagne houses do not add any dosage; these are called brut nature or brut natural.

    Champagnes are referred to by different names according to the amount of sugar in the dosage, as measured in grams per liter (g/l). After the addition of the dosage, the bottles are corked, shaken to distribute the dosage, and labeled.

    Brut Nature: 0-3g/l
    Extra Brut: 0-6g/l
    Brut: 0-15g/l
    Extra Sec: 12-20g/l
    Sec: 17-35g/l
    Demi-Sec: 33-50g/l
    Doux: 50g/l and higher

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