As the name indicates, the Champagne process or Methode Champenoise evolved in France’ Champagne region. Champagne started off as still wine – sometimes red, sometimes white, sometimes pink – that nature occasionally made fizzy. Methode Champenoise is the process by which the Champagne producers artificially and consistently reproduce that frothy outcome. (Keep Reading)
In the strictest sense, Methode Champenoise starts in the vineyard. The right clones of the correct grape varieties must be grafted to the correct rootstocks planted in the right soils in the right climate to produce high acid, physiologically mature fruit with low sugar contents. Common knowledge says that Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay are the only permitted grape varieties in Champagne. These big three make up the vast majority of the plantation but there are others that are allowed. Other permitted varieties include Petit Meslier, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, and Arbanne which are all white varieties (although Pinot Gris will produce a pale coppery Rosé if ripe enough and allowed to) grown in the southern Aube area of Champagne. Others varieties that may still linger in the Champagne vineyards include Bachet and Beaunoir and even a bit of Gamay; none of these last three may be replanted. Most of these “other varieties” that still exist in Champagne are grown in the Aube sub-region.
Each of the big three varieties brings certain elements to the finished wine but each variety expresses differently depending on the soils in which it is planted. Chardonnay is grown mostly in the Cote de Blancs and in a few other special sites. It likes the white limestone clay soils. Chardonnay brings lemony citrus and apple fruit with lots of acidity and a distinct white earth minerality not unlike the smell of Children’s vitamins. Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier are grown mostly in two areas – the Montagne de Reims and the Vallée de la Marne – with Pinot Noir being planted in all the best sites. The Montagne de Reims, notable for north-facing chalky slopes that derive heat from the warm winds rising from the valleys below, runs east-west to the south of Reims in northern Champagne. The Valée de la Marne, south of the Montagne de Reims and above the west-east running River Marne, contains south-facing chalky slopes. Pinot Noir brings red fruit and earth with some richness and vinousity. Pinot Meunier (which is about 44% of the total plantation) brings biscuity richness and forward fruit for early drinkability. Pinot Meunier (called simply “Meunier” by many of the growers) is mainly planted in the Aube and in the coolest areas of the rest of Champagne. Not that you’re ever likely to taste it but Arbanne tastes of green flavors (peas and herbs but not under-ripeness), along with lemon, spice, and grass. And Petit Meslier brings melons and apples and a bit of mint. Both need to be parts of blends.
Picking begins when the grapes reach 18 to 20% sugar and still have very high acid levels. After picking, the better houses practice a hand sorting or triage of the bunches to remove any rotten or damaged grapes.
Once in the winery, the grapes are pressed in either the traditional Champagne basket press or the more modern bladder press. In either case, the object is to remove the juice from the skins as quickly as possible so as to reduce or eliminate extraction of color and tannin. The juice is then allowed to settle and clarify in preparation for the primary fermentation. The initial fermentation is usually carried out in temperature-controlled tanks to insure a fresh, non-oxidized result. Some houses still barrel-ferment a portion or even all of their wines. After the newly fermented wine falls bright, it is kept in large tanks until needed for a particular blend. Most but certainly not all these base wines go through a full malo-lactic fermentation. The result is a thin, acidic, usually white wine low in alcohol and bone dry. It is the raw material from which Champagne is made.
The chef de cave’s special skill is blending a wine to undergo the second fermentation that will make it Champagne. He has to predict what a blend of low-alcohol, high-acid, bone-dry base wines will taste like after another fermentation, aging en tirage and the addition of the dosage. Once the chef de cave decides on the blend or cuvee, it is assembled in large quantities and bottled.
As the cuvee is bottled, a carefully proportioned mixture of sugar and yeast known as the liqueur de tirage is added to it. The yeast ferments the sugar and, as in all fermentations, produces alcohol, carbon-dioxide, and heat. The alcohol brings the alcohol content of the Champagne to the desired level. The heat passes through the glass and out of the bottle without any effect. The carbon dioxide is trapped in the bottle and dissolves into the wine.
When this second fermentation is completed, the spent yeast falls to the side of the bottle where it breaks down and gives the distinctive yeasty-toasty-bready-doughy character to the wine. This aging process, en tirage, must continue for a minimum of one-and-one-half years for the wine to be called Champagne. Some Champagne houses will shake the aging bottles to stir-up the yeast sediment and aid extraction. Some, such as Bollinger, will continue this aging process for ten or more years to draw out the most yeast character possible.
Riddling and disgorgement are the processes by which the yeast and sediments are removed from the bottle to yield a bright, clear wine. Riddling may now be done by hand or machine. Either way the process uses sharp twists and gravity to slide all the sediments into the neck of the bottle. Disgorgement is the way the neck is then cleared of the sediment. The neck of the bottle is dipped into freezing brine which causes the wine in the neck to freeze into a plug of ice containing the sediment. The bottle is then opened and the pressure of the dissolved carbon-dioxide gas causes the sediment-filled ice plug to shoot out.
Once the sediment is gone, the dosage is added, the wine is topped up, and the bottle is corked with its final closure. The dosage is a small amount of sugar that is added to the bone dry product of the second fermentation to bring out a little more fruit flavor and balance the crisp acidity that is the hallmark of Champagne. The sugar for the dosage is dissolved in a liquid which may consist of a number of different things. Different producers use varying blends of old Champagne, still wines (young or aged, some in oak), unfermented grape must, and even brandy and Calvados. As the medium for the dosage has an enormous influence on the character of the finished product, the exact mixture used by each producer is often a closely guarded trade secret.
After the dosage is added the wine is ready to be corked and to have its wire harness, labels, and top dressing applied. The sealed bottle is then shaken to better mix the dosage with the new Champagne and left to rest for a time to allow the disparate elements to merge. Wines that undergo the full process in the bottle they are sold in may be labeled “Naturally Fermented in This Bottle.”