Champagne is an enigma, a white wine made from primarily red grapes. The actual invention of champagne is often attributed to a Benedictine Monk by the name of Dom Pérignon. Which is not exactly accurate, he didn’t invent Champagne, he refined it. Among his many refinements was the perfect stopper for the wine previously known as “devil’s brew” since it kept exploding and sending the rags flying. You see, before the cork and bale, the monks used rags to stopper the wine, hence the flying rags.
As in most regions in France, the Champagne region was first planted to the vine by the Romans. Later the monks took over the vineyards, the winemaking and nursing the community with wine – a healthier option than water at the time. Wine and beer for that matter, were drunk by everyone, kings and commoners.
Champagne’s glamorous lifestyle began back in 1429. That’s when the first French king was crowned in Rheims Cathedral. Of course, Champagne was served as part of festivities and for every coronation thereafter. Other rulers saw the stars, Czar Nicholas ordered his Roederer Cristal by the boatload and we all know that Napoleon would arrive at Moet y Chandon for a tipple of Dom Pérignon before riding off to his next military campaign.
Today, there are 86,500 acres of vineyards producing 200 million bottles of Champagne every year. The increased demand for Champagne, combined with the meticulous process of production, from véraison to aging in vast cellars, has resulted in Champagne as a symbol of prestige and celebration all over the world.
It’s the attention to detail that makes Champagne one of the world’s most sought after beverages. That and the soil, the grapes, the climate and the labor intensive winemaking that make this wine so fine.
The method of making Champagne or Méthode Champenoise is complicated and long. And starts with the usual alcoholic fermentation. The wine then undergoes a second fermentation inside the bottle. Making the wine sparkling is the primary reason for this but along the way aromatics develop in concert with those tiny bubbles.
By law, the harvested grapes must have enough sugar to produce 10 to 11 percent alcohol. Champagne is the only region that does not permit mechanical harvesting. Every single grape is picked by hand. Thousands of hands from all over France descend upon Champagne at harvest time. Picking starts at dawn and avoids the excessive sun at midday to avoid spontaneous fermentation.
Then the grapes are brought to the press room which is usually very close to the vineyards. This first pressing is, of course, the best. It’s the cleanest with no color or tannins from the skin or seeds. The statutory level for the first press is 8,800 pounds of grapes, with a maximum 670 gallons collected. A second compression is allowed and provides 130 gallons.
Fermentation vats are predominantly stainless steel with a few oak barrels of various sizes scattered here and there around the region. When the wine has finished the first fermentation, sometime in March or April, the assemblage begins. This is the winemaker’s most challenging task, tasting the blends of the different wines from different vats to find the ones that will make up that final house blend.
To the final blend, a liqueur de tirage is added. The tirage is a blend of carefully constructed wine, sugar and yeast. This is the stuff that will ensure those tiny bubbles. Once the tirage is added, the bottle is capped, and taken to the cellar and placed in pupitres which are wooden racks with holes in them. The bottles are placed at an angle so the top is down and the punt end is up.
A remuer rotates every bottle with a quick one quarter turn at least four times a day to shake the spent yeast down into the neck of the bottle. Remuers are being replaced by machines in the larger cellars but the technique is important to the making of Champagne. This goes on for about 18 months.
The last major step is disgorgement and corking the bottle. To disgorge the dead yeast cells in the bottle, the top of the bottle neck is frozen and the bottle cap removed. All the pressure that has built up sends the plug of spent yeast cells flying.
The next step, the wine has its final dosage, another sugar and wine solution, and then it is corked. The bale holds the cork in place. The label goes on, it’s boxed up and distributed throughout the world to celebrate births, weddings, birthdays, Mother’s Day, promotions, ship launches, the Seahawks repeating, and ringing in every New Year.
As you’ve read, Champagne is complex and celebratory. Many books have been written about its deliciousness. My favorite is by Don & Petie Kaldstrup, Champagne, How the world’s most glamorous wine triumphed over war and hard times. It’s highly entertaining and solves the mystery of why there are so many Champagne houses with German and Dutch surnames.
Cheers to you! May your New Year be bright and bubbly!