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Producing the Wines of Champagne

Champagne production is a complex, highly regulated process that transforms grapes from specific regions of France into the world-famous sparkling wine known as Champagne.


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The process is governed by strict rules set out by the Comité Champagne (formerly known as the Comité Interprofessionnel du vin de Champagne), ensuring that all bottles labeled as Champagne adhere to precise standards. The production involves several key stages, from grape selection to bottling, each contributing to the unique characteristics of Champagne.




“Too much of anything is bad, but too much Champagne is just right.” - Mark Twain


Grape Growing and Harvesting

Champagne can only be made from grapes grown in the Champagne region of France, specifically from designated areas within the departments of Marne, Aube, Aisne, Haute-Marne, and Seine-et-Marne. The primary grape varieties used are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. The climate and chalky soil of the region are crucial to the quality of the grapes, contributing to the distinctiveness of the wine.


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The harvest, or "vendange," is a critical part of the process. Grapes must be picked at the optimal time to ensure the right balance of sugar and acidity, essential for fermentation. The timing of the harvest varies each year, depending on weather conditions. The grapes are usually hand-picked to maintain their integrity.



Pressing and Fermentation

After harvesting, the grapes are quickly transported to the press houses. Champagne production requires a gentle pressing to extract the juice without releasing tannins from the skins. The first pressing yields the highest quality juice, known as the "cuvée," while the second pressing produces the "taille," which has different characteristics.

The juice is then placed in tanks for the first fermentation, which can last anywhere from a week to several weeks. This initial fermentation transforms the grape juice into a still wine by converting sugars into alcohol. Multiple still wines may be produced, each varying slightly in flavor and character.



Blending (Assemblage)

Blending is a critical and highly skilled part of making Champagne, known as "assemblage." It involves combining different still wines from various grape varieties, vineyards, and even vintages to create a base wine. The goal is to maintain a consistent house style for non-vintage Champagnes or to best express the particular qualities of a vintage year. Master blenders, or "chefs de cave," taste and select from hundreds of wines to achieve the desired blend.


 


A Story about a Benedictine Monk

Dom Pierre Pérignon, a 17th-century Benedictine monk, is often celebrated for his pivotal contributions to the development of Champagne as we know it today. Serving as the cellar master at the Abbey of Hautvillers from 1668 until his death in 1715, Dom Pérignon is credited with implementing a series of innovative winemaking techniques that significantly improved the quality and production methods of sparkling wine in the Champagne region. Among his most notable contributions are the practices of blending grapes from different vineyards to improve the balance of the wine, introducing corks (borrowed from Spain) to seal bottles instead of wood, which helped to preserve effervescence, and improving the clarity and color of the wine by pioneering the method of gentle pressing to separate the juice from the skins.


While the myth that he invented Champagne's méthode champenoise (the traditional method of making Champagne) is not accurate—he actually sought to avoid the wine's natural tendency to bubble—his efforts to enhance the quality and reputation of the wine produced in the region have led to him being regarded as one of the fathers of Champagne. His name, Dom Pérignon, has since become synonymous with one of the world's most prestigious Champagne brands, epitomizing excellence in winemaking.


 


Second Fermentation and Aging

The blended wine is bottled with the addition of a mixture called "liqueur de tirage," consisting of sugar and yeast. This initiates the second fermentation inside the bottle, which produces carbon dioxide, leading to the sparkling effect. The bottles are sealed with a crown cap.

Champagne must age on its lees (the dead yeast cells) for at least 15 months for non-vintage and 3 years for vintage Champagne. This aging process contributes to the complexity, texture, and flavors of the wine.


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Riddling (Remuage)

After aging, the sediment formed by the dead yeast cells must be removed. The bottles are gradually tilted and rotated in a process called "riddling" or "remuage," encouraging the sediment to move toward the bottle's neck.



Disgorging (Dégorgement)

In the disgorging process, the bottle neck is frozen, trapping the sediment in a small ice plug. The cap is removed, and the pressure inside the bottle forces the ice plug out, leaving the wine clear.



Dosage

After disgorging, a "liqueur d'expédition," a mixture of wine and sugar, is added to adjust the sweetness level of the Champagne. The amount of sugar varies, resulting in different styles from "Brut Nature" (no added sugar) to "Doux" (very sweet).



Corking, Labeling, and Finished!

Finally, the bottles are corked, wired, labeled, and packaged for sale. The cork and wire cage (muselet) are essential for containing the high pressure inside the bottle.



Throughout the production process, Champagne undergoes rigorous quality control to ensure that the final product reflects the prestige and standards associated with the Champagne name. The result is a sparkling wine celebrated worldwide for its quality, tradition, and elegance.



Need something to read for later? Here is a staff handout on Champagne!


Intro to Champagne
.pdf
Download PDF • 13.41MB


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