How Is Champagne Made?
Champagne is made to ferment twice in order to produce its famous bubbling or sparkling quality. It first ferments in wooden casks. After fermentation, the wine is left to clarify and is then blended by expert tasters, the artists of Champagne. After adding a little sugar and yeast, the wine is transferred to strong bottles. The wine then goes through a second fermentation in the bottle, making it naturally sparkling.
For the first three months in the bottle the wine is gradually moved and tipped by hand until the bottles are upside down and the impurities have fallen on to the bottom of the cork. The bottles stay in that position for at least six months, some times for years. The “bubbly” effect is produced by the carbon dioxide gas released during fermentation in the bottle. When the wine is mature and ready for market the cork is released and the sediment shot off with it. Then a small amount of syrup dissolved in old champagne is added and the wine quickly recorked. Other wines are not bottled until fermentation is complete.
Champagne is sparkling wine or, in EU countries, legally only that sparkling wine which comes from the Champagne region of France. Where EU law applies, this alcoholic drink is produced from grapes grown in the Champagne region of France following rules that demand, among other things, secondary fermentation of the wine in the bottle to create carbonation, specific vineyard practices, sourcing of grapes exclusively from specific parcels in the Champagne appellation and specific pressing regimes unique to the region. Many people use the term Champagne as a generic term for sparkling wine but in some countries, it is illegal to label any product Champagne unless it both comes from the Champagne region and is produced under the rules of the appellation.
Primarily, the grapes Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay are used in the production of almost all Champagne, but a tiny amount of pinot blanc, pinot gris, arbane, and petit meslier are vinified as well. Champagne appellation law allows only grapes grown according to appellation rules in specifically designated plots within the appellation to be used in the production of champagne.
Champagne became associated with royalty in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. The leading manufacturers made efforts to associate their Champagnes with nobility and royalty through advertising and packaging, which led to popularity among the emerging middle class.
Méthode Champenoise is the traditional method by which Champagne is produced. After primary fermentation and bottling, a second alcoholic fermentation occurs in the bottle. This second fermentation is induced by adding several grams of yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae and rock sugar to the bottle – although each brand has its own secret recipe. According to the appellation d’origine contrôlée a minimum of 1.5 years is required to completely develop all the flavour.
For years where the harvest is exceptional, a millésime is declared and some Champagne will be made from and labelled as the products of a single vintage rather than a blend of multiple years’ harvests. This means that the Champagne will be very good and has to mature for at least 3 years. During this time the Champagne bottle is sealed with a crown cap similar to that used on beer bottles.
After aging, the bottle is manipulated, either manually or mechanically, in a process called remuage (or “riddling” in English), so that the leessettle in the neck of the bottle. After chilling the bottles, the neck is frozen, and the cap removed. The pressure in the bottle forces out the ice containing the lees, and the bottle is quickly corked to maintain the carbon dioxide in solution. Some wine from previous vintages as well as additional sugar (le dosage) is added to maintain the level within the bottle and, importantly, adjust the sweetness of the finished wine.
Where Do Champagne Bubbles Come From?
An initial burst of effervescence occurs when the Champagne contacts the dry glass on pouring. These bubbles form on imperfections in the glass that facilitate nucleation or, to a lesser extent, on cellulose fibres left over from the wiping/drying process as shown with a high-speed video camera. However, after the initial rush, these naturally occurring imperfections are typically too small to consistently act as nucleation points as the surface tension of the liquid smooths out these minute irregularities.
The nucleation sites that act as a source for the ongoing effervescence are not natural imperfections in the glass, but actually occur where the glass has been etched by the manufacturer or the customer. This etching is typically done with acid, a laser, or a glass etching tool from a craft shop to provide nucleation sites for continuous bubble formation (note that not all glasses are etched in this way). In 1662 this method was developed in England, as records from the Royal Society show.
Dom Pérignon was originally charged by his superiors at the Abbey of Hautvillers to get rid of the bubbles since the pressure in the bottles caused many of them to burst in the cellar. As sparkling wine production increased in the early 18th century, cellar workers had to wear a heavy iron mask to prevent injury from spontaneously bursting bottles. The disturbance caused by one bottle exploding could cause a chain reaction, with it being routine for cellars to lose 20–90% of their bottles this way. The mysterious circumstance surrounding the then unknown process of fermentation and carbonic gas caused some critics to call the sparkling creations “The Devil’s Wine”.