Discovering The Art Of Champagne: The Production & Ageing

Champagne Vineyards

If you caught my last blog post about my most recent trip to Champagne, you will understand how precious the champagne grapes are and how specific the conditions need to be for them to grow. However, that is just the beginning of the complexity of the process of producing champagne. Let’s get into the specifics…

Juice Extraction

After the harvest, the grapes are taken back to the champagne houses and are given a quality check before they are added to grape press with the stems, where all the three grape types are extracted individually. The juices produced from the first press is known to be the highest quality juice, known as the “vin de cuvee” and the second pressing is known to be the “vin de taille” which is a lesser quality wine but richer in pigments and¬†tannins (what provides the drying sensation in the mouth). The juice is allowed to cool and settle before the first fermentation process.

First Fermentation

Champagne Tanks

The grape juices then goes through the first fermentation process, where the grape juice becomes alcohol in large metal tanks. Yeast is added, where the yeast consumes all the natural sugars present in the grape juices, producing alcohol and CO2 as a bi-product of the fermentation process, along with further products that contribute to the sensory factors of champagne.

Champagne Fermentation - Oak Barrels

Some champagne houses still age ferment the wine in oak barrels, as it adds a richer and creamier taste to champagne produced.

Blending Wines For Champagne

The next step is one of the most crucial, as it determines what the final champagne will end up being. There are so many subtle differences between growths, which means no two blends are ever the same. As I mentioned in my previous post, each of the different grapes and wines bring unique characteristics to the champagne, often enough a champagne with different combinations of wines are the most preferred for a classic allrounder, known as a cuvee.

The Pinot Noir will add strength and body, The Meunier provides supple body and roundness and the Chardonnay adds floral notes and slight mineral edge.

The winemakers will sometimes use a blend of other wines from previous years to maintain a level of quality and taste that a certain brand may be known for. However, the wine-maker will pick from three different choices with a focus on on each year:

  • A vintage wine, which is produced by a wines from one years harvest and no reserve wines from previous years. However, it would have to be an exceptional year for to produce a vintage. 2018 was one of the best years that the champagne producers have seen in many years, so we can look forward to many vintage champagnes to come in the next 3-5 years.
  • A single variety champagne, which can be a Blanc de Blancs (a personal favourite) or a Blanc de Noirs.
  • Champagne created from a single vineyard or plot that expresses unique and fine quality grapes, they are often known as a Clos. I saw one for myself, by Bollinger, where the champagnes from that particular plot can cost you up to ¬£2,000 a bottle.
  • A cuvee champagne can be produced by a blend of two or three combinations of wine, to create a wonderful champagne. I found my preference was a blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines, which a higher percentage of Chardonnay to Pinot Noir, like 60% to 40%.

Liqueur de Tirage & Second Fermentation & Aging

The wines are then distributed into bottles and they are ready for the liqueur de tirage part of the champagne making process. It is the step that comes before the second fermentation. It is a solution made up of some of the still wine, yeast and sugar is added to the bottle and is sealed – it is this fermentation process that gives the small, delicate bubbles to champagne. The bottles are then send down to the cellars to start the second fermentation process. The second fermentation process can take a few months to complete.

Ageing Champagne In Cellars

After the second stage of fermentation, the bottles are aged in cool, dark cellars for long periods of time. By law, a non-vintage bottle must have aged for 15 months and a vintage bottle for three years, however most champagne houses age the non-vintages for a minimum of three and a vintage for five years. Others may even age non-vintages for four years and vintages for seven to ten years.

Special bottles have to be made for champagne and believe it or not, there is only one bottle produce in Champagne that all the champagne houses buy from. They have to be perfectly created with the right materials and shape to withstand the six bar pressure produced by the bubbles, however even during the ageing process, some bottles may explode.

Riddling, Disgorgement and Dosage

Champagne being Riddled

After the champagne has been fermented, it goes through the ridding process, where the bottles are rotated in stages with 1/4 of a turn per bottle, to the right or left and are titled at a higher degree every time on a special riddling stand. This process is used to attract the yeast sat within the bottle to the neck, using gravity. The gradual process allows even the smallest of particles to be caught and pulled down with the larger particles, which can take 4-6 weeks to complete. An experienced riddler can turn up to 40,000 bottles a day, manually.

Disgorging of Champagne

Once the all the bottles have been riddled, it’s time to disgorge the yeast from the bottle. Many champagne houses will freeze the neck of the bottle and then pop the cap off the champagne bottle. The pressure within the bottle causes the frozen section containing the yeast to come flying out of the bottle, giving you yeast-free champagne.

As a result of the disgorgement, some wine is lost. Therefore it is topped up with a little more wine and sugar, known as dosage. However, amount of sugar added determines what level of sweetness the champagne will have. The following options are available:

  • Extra Brut: Less than 6 grams of sugar per litre
  • Brut: Between 6-12 grams of sugar per litre
  • Extra Dry: Between 12-17 grams of sugar per litre
  • Sec (Dry): Between 17-32 grams of sugar per litre
  • Demi-Sec: Between 32-50 grams of sugar per litre
  • Doux: More than 50 grams of sugar per litre

I’ll be honest, I didn’t know about anything other than Brut or Extra Brut, so I felt like I widened my champagne knowledge vastly. I have quite a sweet tooth, even when it comes to drinks, which is why I liked the Demi-Sec, as it would be perfect with a dessert as it is really quite rich and sweet. The Sec is ideal for those that prefer sweeter drinks for every day drinking and become one of my new favourite champagne styles.

The bottles are the corked, wired, labelled and ready to be sold! There is so much more to champagne than meets the eye, so before it reaches the shop shelves or your table, it has already been in the making for at least 4 years. Crazy to think, right?! I’m sure you won’t see champagne in the same way anymore, I certainly won’t!

Until next time…

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Our trip was hosted by Champagne Tourism Board.