Written by Tynan Szvetecz
Filed Under: Wine Making
Today, the methods used to make Champagne and Sparkling Wine are very close to the original techniques pioneered by Dom Perignon in the 17th century. Bottles of Champagne from France and even bottles of Sparkling Wine from the United States and Australia are often marked to reflect these techniques, called Methode Champenoise or Methode Traditionelle.
The first stage involved with making Champagne is quite similar to the process typically associated with regular wine making. At the end of the growing season (early fall), grapes are harvested and pressed into a must. This must is placed in an open container where yeast is added and the process of fermentation that converts sugar to alcohol begins. Champagne is traditionally made from a blend of the grapes Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir. Chardonnay is a white grape, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir are both dark grapes. As with conventional white wine making, the grape skins are removed before creating the grape must.
After the first fermentation completes, various vats from multiple vineyards and multiple grape varieties are blended to create the ideal mix of flavor, sugar level and acidity. This blending process is where the real art of world-class Champagne making occurs,, for the ultimate balance, complexity and flavor of the final product depends on it. It requires not only skill but also intuition and instinct because Champagne is meant to age well. The wine maker must create a blend that will be wonderful when it is opened years down the road.
When the wine maker is satisfied with the blending process, another round of yeasts and nutrients are added to the wine, and it is finally sealed and corked in a thick-walled glass bottle. This matures in a cool cellar where a second fermentation process begins and more alcohol and Carbon Dioxide are produced. Because the bottles are sealed during this second fermentation, the Carbon Dioxide cannot escape and becomes trapped in the wine. While this fermentation is a slow process, it eventually leads to an increase of pressure within the bottle to six atmospheres.
During the second fermentation, the yeast eventually use up the available supply of nutrients and sugar and die. This marks the completion of the second fermentation and the beginning of the maturation process. Champagne is aged anywhere from nine months to several years - five years on the outside for the highest quality Champagne â€“ and this is when the true aromas and flavor of the Champagne come together. Decomposition of the dead yeast cells add interesting flavor nuances including the toastiness often associated with quality Champagne and Sparkling Wine.
At this stage, wine makers are faced with a serious challenge. How do you remove the dead yeast cells in order to prevent the Champagne from being cloudy when it is opened? Not only would this prevent the aesthetic pleasure of watching bubbles rise to the surface, it could have detrimental effects to the flavor. The process is not easy, because the wine makers have to be sure to retain the carbonation within the bottle. It involves tilting each bottle towards the neck and rotating it often to collect the yeast just under the cork. The tip of the neck is then flash frozen and the cork popped. The yeast is removed, along with a small portion of the wine.
The final step to making the finest Champagne has to do with how the small amount of Champagne that was lost during the yeast removal process is replaced. Each individual Champagne and Sparkling Wine producer has a secret formula that is used to create the replacement liquid. It is typically made from certain types of sugar and old wine. This process, called dosage, will dictate whether the Champagne is Brut (very dry) or Doux (very sweet). The final product is then re-corked with traditional Champagne corks and cages and is ready to drink.