In this post, we will focus on the most famous of all sparkling wines, Champagne, and the process of making it, known as méthode champenoise (Champagne method). Sparkling wine producers in different regions around the world often use this process, but just like only sparkling wine from the official appellation may bear the name Champagne, the same goes for the process, which is otherwise known as the méthode traditionnelle (traditional method).
Harvest and Primary Fermentation
Champagne is made primarily from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier grapes and begins as still wine. The grapes are harvested earlier than usual when the grapes have lower sugar levels and higher acid content. The juices from these grapes are fermented just like their still counterparts. Afterwards, however, wines from various vineyards and vintages are blended together in a process called assemblage to produce the cuvée, which serves as the base wine.
Secondary Fermentation and Vintages
Once blended, the winemaker adds sugar, known as the liqueur de triage into the blend, which triggers a secondary fermentation. A crown cap, similar to the ones found on beer bottles, is affixed to the bottle and helps to trap and contain the carbon dioxide produced during this fermentation. With nowhere to go, the carbon dioxide dissolves into the wine, creating the iconic bubbles that we know and love!
By law, this secondary fermentation process must take a minimum of 15 months in Chanpagne, and vintage Champagnes must take even longer: 3 years! On that note, not all Champagne producers make wines of a single vintage, and even if so, they do not make them every year, but only on years with exceptional harvests. The benefit of producing non-vintage Champagne, which is labeled NV, is that it allows the winemakers to establish a consistent house style independent of the weather of any particular year, which may vary widely in the northernmost growing region in France, which has notoriously fickle weather.
Aging on Lees and Riddling
During secondary fermentation, each bottle is moved slightly and incrementally throughout. This process, called remuage in French and riddling in English, allows the dead yeast cells, called lees, to collect in the neck of the bottle. Skilled cellar masters have developed and honed a shaking and twisting technique over the centuries, and although this process is mostly done by machines today, it is still done by hand sometimes at certain Champagne houses. A good remueur can handle up to 40,000 bottles per day!
Bottles start an an angle, which is slowly increased until the end of the process, when they are sur-pointes, meaning completely neck-down. Manual riddling lasts about 4-6 weeks and the bottle is rotated 1/8 or 1/4 each time, with an average of 25 turns per bottle. By comparison, mechanical gyropalettes can operate around the clock and compress the process into 1 week without sacrificing any quality.
Disgorgement and Dosage
Once riddling is complete comes the fun part: dégorgement (disgorgement in English). The liquid and yeast mixture in the neck of the bottles is quickly frozen, and the cap removed. The pressure inside the bottle then shoots out the dead yeast frozen in the neck. You may notice that many labels indicate the date of disgorgement. Afterwards, the bottle is filled with a mixture of wine and sugar, called liqueur d’expedition and dosage, respectively. After inserting the familiar mushroom shaped cork, capped by the caging, the Champagne is now complete and will rest in the cellar for months to come.
The amount of dosage that is added to the bottle is particularly important, as it determines the dryness of the Champagne. The level of dryness is indicated on the bottles with the following terms, presented here from driest to sweetest: brut nature (no added sugar), extra brut, brut, extra-dry/extra-sec, dry/sec, demi-sec, and finally, doux.
The Traditional Method in Napa Valley
Although they cannot label their sparkling wines as Champagne, many producers in Napa Valley have close connections to legendary maisons in the Champagne region. In the late 1970s, GH Mumm, a major Champagne house in Reims, sent Guy Devaux to establish a winery in Napa Valley that would create premiere sparkling wines in the United States. The family behind Champagne Taittinger also began their efforts to produce top-quality sparkling wines in America in the late 1970s. Today, Domaine Carneros, with its gorgeous chateau and vineyards, is also one of the leading producers in Napa Valley. Check them both out and book your next tastings there with Reservine!