The French term Champagne may refer to three different concepts: a wine region in France, divided into four departments with a 320km north-south distance and 150km east-west; the Champagne Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée which certifies the origin of wines produced in Champagne department; and Champagne as a sparkling wine different from Cava, Crémant, Sekt and Proseco among others.
But, how should Champagne be produced to be able to bear such a name? The well-known méthode champenoise or traditional method has to be followed to obtain Champagne wine. After the alcoholic fermentation in stainless steel vats or wood barrels, rules demand a secondary fermentation in the bottle, so wine obtains certain aromatic advantages. Let's see the whole process with a little more detail.
Champagne harvest: It is the C.I.V.C. (Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne) who indicates the start of harvest time, establishing two different dates, one for Pinot varieties and another one for Chardonnay. Usually it takes 100 days after the end of flowering period for harvest to start, so they take place usually by mid-September. Champagne is the only region in all France where mechanical harvests are forbidden, so harvest is carried out manually. Grapes pick-up is also avoided during very sunny or rainy days. Each maison will decide the best harvest moment according to the sugar content and acidity, keeping in mind that grapes should have sugar enough to produce 10 to 11 alcohol degrees and acidity enough to furnish a balanced sparkling wine.
Pressing in Champagne: it is crucial that grapes are undamaged and in perfect conditions when they reach the press. During the pressing cycle, C.I.V.C. requires a maximum performance of 2.550 litres for each 4.000 kilos of grape and three pressing cycles. The first one, named la Cuvée, is where the purest, the most delicate and high quality must is obtained. Here a maximum of 2.050 litres are produced. In the next pressing (première taille) 500 litres of acid and harsh must are procured. Finally there is the third pressing (deuxième taille) which must is of very low quality and will normally be used for “supermarket” Champagne wines.
Champagne oxidation and débourbage: During wine making it is crucial to avoid any oxidation. Oxidation is a process where enzymes attack wine or must phenols, developing brown-tawny colour and sour taste, similar to Jerez wines. To prevent it, sulphur dioxide is added to must, removing also any undesirable yeast that would produce uncontrolled fermentations. All thru this stage, must is cooled so any solid matter can be accumulated at the bottom of the deposit. Later on, with the débourbage, these sediment are removed.
Champagne alcoholic fermentation: Once all solid matter have been eliminated, must is racked into a new deposit, for alcoholic fermentation. It can take place by addition of selected saccharomyces ellipsoideus yeasts, resistant to bottle's low temperature and high pressure, or by the natural action of indigenous yeasts present in the grape' skin, though this is strongly discouraged unless it is a special Cuvée from a selected plot, whose natural yeasts behaviour is well known. In the first fermentation, yeasts adapt themselves to a must rich in protein, vitamin and minerals and slowly turn must into wine, releasing carbon dioxide. Fermentation temperature ranges from 18 to 20ºC and it can take from two weeks to two months. The slower the fermentation is the higher quality and more fruit will the final wine have. At this moment, when the first fermentation is finished, there is a wine rich in green apple, peach, banana, almond and nuts flavour.
It is at this point when the oenologist will decide if wine should carry out a malolactic fermentation that would smooth wine's acidity, as malic acid turns into lactic. Great Champagne maisons, such as Krug, Salon and Selosse choose not to have it in their champagnes, so they rise more acid and sharp when young but also age better thru time.
As far as alcoholic fermentation is concerned, in Champagne there are different wine containers: stainless steel tanks, fibreglass vats (rarely), and old oak casks that range from 225 litres to 1.000 litres, used in the celebrated maisons Bollinger or Krug. What does wood supply to Champagne? Wine is deeper, more intense and far-reaching. It has been scientifically proved that the base wine is richer in glycerol, so the sensations are more unctuous and deep and at the same time oxidation is more noticeable. Roasted coffee, toast, smokes and hazelnuts are typical in old wood aged Champagne wines.
Champagne assemblage: This is doubtlessly one of the key moments where the oenologist in chief adds his personal style and the winery's temperament in their Champagne. It is a hard work, requiring careful attention; great maisons such as Moët & Chandon have hundreds of vats containing wine from over 150 different counties. All along the process, wineries have reserve wine from other vintages that would be used for their secret blending. Nevertheless, assemblage is a stage that will ascertain the future champagne; so many points have to be considered. Will wine develop elegantly if Pinot and Chardonnay are not in different development moments? Should we maintain the winery style or follow the vintage's personality? How will wine be once it has become sparkling? An unbalanced and immature wine can bring freshness to a dense blend, while a neutral and pale wine can bridge a Cuvée's light and heavy wines. Finally some wines are just not suitable for blends, although they can be great Champagne wines individually.
Sparkling formation in Champagne: Once the winery's foreman has established the blend of base wines, the mixture is completed in large deposits before bottling. In this moment sugar and yeasts are added, the so-called tirage or expedition liqueur. The common relationship is 22 sugar grams per wine litre and is increased in 1.2% of alcohol. The next step is to bottle the blend and seal it with a natural cork corker or crown. Bottles will rest piled up horizontally in the cellar at 10 to 12ºC. The second alcoholic fermentation will last for around two weeks and this is the period when the sparkling is generated, as a result of carbon dioxide action. In the course of fermentation, sediment is also formed, being the solid matter of dead yeasts that have positive effects on Champagne, these process is known as autolysis. The bottle will rest a minimum of 15 months for new wines and three years in case of vintage dated champagnes.
After ageing, bottles are arranged with corks down in desks. The starting angle is 45 degrees but they will be turned periodically one eighth of a turn until 90º are reached. This is called remuage and is necessary in order to get the solid matter (dead yeasts) settled at the bottom, on the bottle cork. Nowadays the whole action is performed under computer control.
Disgorgement in Champagne: the last stage in Champagne producing is the disgorgement or dégorgement. A “Champagel” equipment freezes the bottle's neck (the machine's inside liquid is at -28ºC). Then at the moment of uncorking a dark ice plug goes out, taking with it all the dead yeasts. Still some exceptional craftsman accomplishes this process manually, at room temperature and with no mechanical aid.
The small volume of wine that gets lost with the disgorgement is replaced by some base wine and sugar. The quantity of sugar or expedition liquor will define the resulting Champagne, according to the following classification: Extra Brut, if the sugar content goes from 0 to 6 grams per litre; Brut if the sugar content is not higher than 15 grams per litre; Sec in case of sugar content from 17 to 35 grams per litre; Semi-Sec when it ranges from 33 to 50 grams per litre and Doux if the Champagne has over 50 sugar grams per litre, which renders it necessarily sweet.
How should a Champagne label be read?
There is a great deal of information in a Champagne label: producer name, wine classification according to its dosage or expedition liquor, year in case it is a vintage champagne, alcohol content, society name, county where it is produced, country of origin (France), nominal volume, rank of the wine according to the varieties used, code of registration and finally two capital letters but, what do these letters mean?
Find your Champagne….Blanc de Blancs, Blanc de Noirs or Rosé, which should you choose?