How do you make Champagne?

How do you make Champagne? Well firstly, you need to be in France – Champagne to be precise – which is situated about 100 miles east of Paris.

Sparkling wine can only be called Champagne if it comes from the actual region of Champagne. Below we highlight the other rules and methods which will help you answer: how do you make Champagne!

Moët & Chandon anyone? Photo taken in Epernay, Champagne.

Grapes are hand picked at the end of the summer, the exact time depends on how ripe the grapes are. The three main grapes for Champagne are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. These three varieties account for about 99% of the region’s plantings. There are however seven permitted varieties that can be grown in Champagne – the other four are Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Petit Meslier and Arbane. After picking the grapes, they are pressed carefully releasing clear juice.

The First Fermentation
The juice is put into a tank and the first fermentation takes place. Primary fermentation is the initial fermentation, in which yeast convert sugars in grape juice to alcohol (wine) and carbon dioxide. Yeasts convert sugar to alcohol and carbon dioxide during the fermentation stage of wine production. The result is an acidic still wine that has been fermented dry completely. Fermentation usually happens in stainless steel tanks, or barrels.

The Assemblage
This is the art of blending. Still white wines combined with some reserve wines to create the base wine for Champagne; Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay are combined together. The assemblage starts in the early spring, about five months after the harvest.

Riddling at the cellar at Leclerc Briant Champagne House

The Second Fermentation
Liquer de Tirage (a mixture of yeast, yeast nutrients and sugar) is added to the wine. The wine is put in the classic Champagne bottle and sealed with a bottle cap (like a beer cap). The wine bottles are placed in a cool cellar to ferment slowly and to produce alcohol and carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide cannot escape from the bottle, otherwise you’ll lose the sparkle!

As the fermentation proceeds yeast cells die which we’ll get to next. After several months, the fermentation process is complete. However, the Champagne continues to age in the cool cellar for several more years resulting in a toasty, yeasty character. During this aging period, the yeast imparts complex flavours often with bread and brioche characteristics. The best and most expensive Champagne is often aged for several years.

The sediment from the dead yeast cells are removed through a process called riddling. The Champagne bottle is placed upside down in a holder at a slight angle. Each day, the riddler gives the bottle a small turn whilst keeping it upside down. This procedure forces the dead yeast cells to float into the bottleneck where they are subsequently removed. The bottles are placed in racks with the bottlenecks facing downwards. Supposedly, Madame Veuve Clicquot is the inventor of the bottle rack in which the bottles are put downwards.

The disgorgement is the final step in the production of Champagne. The Champagne bottle is kept upside down (with the dead yeast cells in it) while the neck is frozen in an ice-salt bath. This procedure results in the formation of a plug of frozen wine containing the dead yeast cells. The bottle cap is removed and the pressure of the carbon dioxide gas in the bottle forces out the plug of frozen wine (“disgorging”) leaving behind clear Champagne. By doing so, a little bit of wine gets spilled out of the bottle, which is why we add the ‘dosage’!

The Dosage
A mixture of white wine, brandy and sugar (Liqueur de tirage) is added to adjust the sweetness level of the wine and to top up the bottle. This is often a house secret and the procedure decides whether the Champagne will be Brut Nature, Extra Brut, Brut, Extra Dry, Dry, Semi Dry or Doux (depending on the level of sugar). Most Champagne’s are ‘Brut’ so less than 12 grams of sugar.

The Corking
The bottle is corked and the cork is wired down to secure the high internal pressure of the carbon dioxide in the Champagne.

Hopefully that answers your question, “How do you make Champagne?”

Want to visit Champagne, check out this article on Epernay, or read more on the buy some here.