Story by Reishu Sharma
I recently received a chance to visit the wine production unit of world famous Champagne brand ‘’Moet & Chandon’’ and some more wineries in Avenue de Champagne, France. There I happened to meet Moet & Chandon’s officials and visited their wine cellars deep down the earth.
Being a Champagne lover I was very curious to know about the champagne making procedure always.
In this story I will give you information about the whole champagne making process and some facts related to Champagne.
In whole world Champagne is enjoyed as the ultimate celebratory drink. It is used to celebrate newlyweds, applaud achievements and acknowledge milestones. A large part of its appeal is due to the bubbles that spill forth, when the bottle is uncorked. These bubbles are caused by tiny drops of liquid disturbed by the escaping carbon dioxide or carbonic acid gas, that is a natural by product of double fermentation process unique to Champagne.
Today fine Champagne is considered a mark of sophistication but this was not always so. Initially wine connoisseurs were disdainful of the sparkling wine. Further more in 1688 Dom Perignon, the French monk whose name is synonymous with the best vintages from the house Moet & Chandon. He worked very hard to reduce the bubbles from the white wine he produced as Cellarer of the Benedictine Abbey of Haut-Villers in Champagne region of France. Ironically his efforts were hampered by his preference for fermenting wine in bottles instead of casks, since bottling adds to the build-up of carbonic acid gas.
HARVESTING OF GRAPES FOR CHAMPAGNE
Harvest in Champagne generally occurs around mid October. Although 8 varieties are permitted in the production of Champagne, the most widely used are: Pinot Meunier, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
Generally the Pinot Meunier is the first variety to be harvested followed by Chardonnay and then Pinot Noir. Grapes will be hand harvested in order to ensure that the grapes are brought in clean and undamaged.
PRESSING OF GRAPES
Grapes will be pressed as soon as possible, especially with Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, as skin contact with these dark skinned varieties will soon begin to taint the juice if left on the skins.
A traditional basket press often used, the idea begin to extract the juice slowly and methodically. Two pressings are utilized here. The first press is called the “cuvee” which is considered the finer, more high quality juice. The second pressing is called the “tailles” and considered of lesser quality. Appellation regulations strictly regulate the volume of juice from each pressing that can included in the final product. For example, if 100 hectolitres of Champagne were to be produced, Champagne AOC (Appellation d’origine Contrōlēe) stipulates that 80 hectolitres would need to be from the first “cuvee” press and 20 hectolitres from the second “tailles” press.
FIRST FERMENTATION OF GRAPES FOR CHAMPAGNE
Next, the first of two fermentations takes place. A key factor in this first fermentation is that it be relatively quick and warm. The emphasis here is to produce a relatively neutral wine that is high in acidity. Why a neutral wine? Because the formation of fruity esters will interfere with the flavour and autolytic development that will largely occur during the secondary fermentation and ageing process.
A second fermentation and extended less ageing requires that such a wine have the acidic structure to engage such a process. Most often this first fermentation takes place in stainless steel, and most do not go through malolactic fermentation.
However some producers will use a combination of wood and stainless steel in this first fermentation.
BLENDING AFTER FIRST FERMENTATION
The blending process in Champagne is what sets this region apart from just about any other wine producing region in the world. Whereas most wine regions produce a new vintage of a particular wine every year, the Champenoise are master blenders.
Although in a good year many domains will produce a vintage champagne, Champenoise pride themselves on their masterful skills of blending multiple vintages to create a signature “house style”. Perhaps the epitome of this artful skill is evidenced in the wines of Krug, where up to 7 different vintages are blended to create their multi-vintage cuvee. Maintaining a supply of multiple vintages of reserve wine in stock to blend in with newer vintages also implies holding back stock, which in turn adds to the cost of producing Champagne.
SECOND FERMENTATION OF GRAPES
Once a blend has been created, a mixture of still wine, sugar and yeast will be added to the blended wine. This mixture is known as the “liqueur de triage”.
The wine is then bottled with a crown cap and left to begin a secondary fermentation in bottle. Here, active yeast will begin consuming the available sugar, resulting in the anaerobic production of alcohol within this sealed bottle. A by-product of this fermentation is carbon dioxide, which if not allowed to escape into the atmosphere, results CO2 which is dissolved into the wine a.k.a., bubbles! This second fermentation generally takes between 4-8 weeks.
Following the completion of the secondary fermentation, the wine will then begin a period of ageing in bottle where the wine will interact with the dead yeast cells (lees) and which will greatly influence the flavour and texture of the finished champagne.
This process is known as “autolysis”. Flavour characteristics relative to this bio-chemical process incudes nuances of baked bread, roasted nuts and salty cheese.
Chardonnay in particular is a variety that benefits greatly from this lengthy autolytic ageing process. By law, non-vintage Champagne must age a minimum of 15 months on their lees, although most age between 18-24 months.
Once the champagne has completed its extended lees ageing and is ready to be bottled it will go through a process known as “remuage”. This procedure is aimed at loosening the dead yeast cells and sediments that has formed at the bottom of bottle, and slowly moving it towards the neck of the bottle which it will be removed or disgorged. This process invented by the Veuve Cliquot in early 19th century.
This process must be done methodically and over time so as not to disrupt the champagne in bottle. Remuage can either be done by hand, by slowly turning the bottle a bit everyday till it is vertically upside down, or done automatically by machine. By hand the process can take 2 months, by machine or gyro-palette the entire process can be accomplished in about 1 week.
Once the wines are positioned vertically upside down with the yeast in the neck of the bottle the champagne is ready to be disgorged.
This process involves removing the dead yeast/sediments in the neck of the bottle. Most often this is achieved by submerging the neck f the champagne bottle into a cold brine, thus quickly freezing the dead yeast matter that has collected in the neck. Once the crown cap is removed, pressure from the dissolved Co2 expediently pushes out this yeast plug, and voila, the champagne has been disgorged.
Before the champagne is re-corked, a measured amount of champagne and cane sugar will be added to the finished wine. This is known as the “liqueur d’expedition”. The amount of this mixture, known as “dosage” will in effect determine the final sweetness level and style of champagne. In certain instances, no liqueur d’expedition will be added, resulting in a wine with zero dosage. Brut style champagnes are next on the dryness level with residual sugar falling between 5-15 grams per litre.
RE-CORKING OF THE CHAMPAGNE
Now the fermented, blended, fermented, aged, riddled, disgorged and dosage sparkling wine is finally ready to be bottled and manipulated for the last time. After a cork is inserted, a protective wire cap is placed over the bottle to help secure the cork and bottle.
The wine is then shaken vigorously, in order to help integrate the wine with the liqueur d’expedition.
The finished champagne will now rest anywhere from several weeks to several months to years before it is sent out into the big world of wine shops, restaurants and connoisseurs.
If you are looking for a help to pair your champagne with your food, following is my recommendation about which champagne from Moet & Chandon to pair with what food.
Sea food, white meat and fruits.
MOET ROSE IMPERIAL
Fruits, red meat, cheeses, appetizer and spicy food.
MOET ICE IMPERIAL
Fruits and spicy food.
MOET NECTAR IMPERIAL
Seafood, fruits, cheeses, appetizer and spicy food.
MOET RESERVE IMPERIAL
White meat, fruits, red meat and spicy food.
Here are some more pictures from my Champagne trip: