Friday, February 16, 2007


Ever wonder why champagne is expensive, or how it gets its bubbles? It’s costly because it is the most complicated wine in the world to make, and the bubbles get into it by way of those complications.

What turns “still” wines into festive bubbly is called the methode champenoise, a labor-intensive, multi-step process that takes years to complete. And this does not include the effort of first making out of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier the three separate dry wines that go into it. When a normal wine makers job is done, the champagne maker’s is just beginning.

Step 1: The assemblage, or mixing of the cuvee. Each “house,” as producers are called in Champagne, tries to achieve a distinctive style or taste. In order to achieve consistency year-in and year-out, they blend up to a dozen wines made from the three permitted grape varieties. The grapes are harvested from multiple vineyards and the wines made from them are often from different years, having been held in reserve for blending purposes. This “house blend” is referred to as its cuvee. (This
is true for standard, non-vintage Champagne; for vintage Champagne the steps remain the same, but all the separate wines must be made from grapes harvested in the specified year.)

Step 2: Dosage d’tirage. Once the winemaker finishes adding a bit of this and a bit of that to produce the desired cuvee, the wine is then put in to bottles (the tirage) and a carefully calibrated dose of a syrupy mixture of cane sugar, wine, and sometimes brandy, together with special strains of yeast, is added. This is the dosage. Crown caps, like the ones on beer or Coke bottles, are then fitted onto the bottles and they are placed in underground caves.

Step 3: Fermentation. The yeast that was added begins to digest the sugar, causing a second fermentation. This produces a small amount of alcohol and a good bit of carbon dioxide gas. However, in this case the gas has nowhere to go -- it is trapped and can’t fizz away as it does in open vats -- so it is absorbed into the wine. This in-bottle fermentation is the essence of the methode champenoise, the magic that turns “still" wine into a “sparkling” one.

Step 4: The remuage, or riddling. During bottle fermentation yeast cells slowly die off and fall out of the wine, forming a fine sediment that must somehow be removed. Not an easy trick. The first step in this process is to get the sediment into position where it can be extracted. But how?

Enter the remuer, or riddler. When the bottles are stored in the cellar they are put neck-first into pupitres, special “A” frame wooden racks with holes in them (see left-hand picture above). The bottles are placed at a slight angle, with their crown caps facing down. Then every 4 or 5 days the remuer come along and puts his thumbs in the cup-like depressions in the bottom of the bottles (called the “punt’), lifts them slightly, taps them gently on the pupitre, and then gives them a quarter-turn before setting them back in place (see right-hand picture above). As the days pass, the remuer increases the angle of the bottle in the rack and the sediment slowly slides down the glass. The process is complete when the bottles are standing upright and all the sediment is resting on the cap. A skilled remuer can riddle over 30,000 bottles a day.

Step 5: The degorgement, or disgorging. Now for the fun part. Once the sediment is in place, the bottles are plunged cap-first into a super cold bath that freezes a bit of wine and the wad of sediment at the neck. The bottles are then turned right-side-up and the crown caps quickly popped off. What happens next is just what you would expect to happen -- the pressure inside the bottle blows the frozen wad of wine and sediment out of the bottle. If you happen to be visiting, or near, a Champagne house during degorgement, it sounds like either a raging battle or the biggest party you’ve every known.

Historical Note: The processes of riddling and disgorging were invented by Madame Clicquot, a young, intelligent, and energetic widow (veuve in French) who took over the running of her husband’s Champagne house when he died in 1805. Today that house is one of the most famous and prestigious, Veuve Clicquot, and is a personal favorite.

Step 6: Dosage d’expedition, or shipping dosage. The little bit of wine that is blasted out of the bottle must be replaced, and it’s here that the winemaker produces Champagnes of the varying degrees of sweetness, from dry (brut or sec), to medium dry (demi-sec), to medium sweet (demi-doux), to sweet (doux). He or she does this by again adding a syrupy liquor of cane sugar mixed with wine from the cuvee that was held aside expressly for this purpose. For a brut Champagne, virtually no sugar is added to the dosage, while for a doux a very sweet mix is used.

Step 7: Final corking: Here the bottles receive their cork and the wire “basket” is put over it to help hold it in place. A great deal of force is needed to jam a Champagne cork in place. I’m sure you’ve noticed how they” mushroom out” when you remove them. All that has to be squeezed into the neck of the bottle. At one time it was done by hand, but now there are corking machines that make quick work of it.

Step 8: Aging. The bottles are ready to be put back in the cellar for more aging. Some of the great house will hold their premium cuvees for five years or more before releasing them. Moët et Chandon, for example does this with their Dom Perignon.

Step 9: Labeling and placement of the foil. Once they are ready to leave home, the bottles receive their final dressing-up. The house label is now applied and the metal wrapping, called the foil, is placed over the cork and around the neck. The bottles are ready to go forth and bring joy, and a touch of class, to everything from weddings to NASCAR victory celebrations.

A note on basic types. Champagne made by blending wines from different years is called non-vintage Champagne, and this makes up the majority of what is produced. If it is made exclusively from grapes harvested in a specific year, it can be labeled as Vintage Champagne. If only wine made from Chardonnay grapes is used, it is called blanc-de-blanc. If only Pinot Noir of Pinot Meunier is used, it is called a blanc-de-noir. If neither is stated on the label, then the Champagne is a blend of both white and red grapes. Blanc-de-blanc is normally drier, lighter, and more elegant, and has greater acidity, than blanc-de-noir. Rose Champagnes are also produced, and they offer extra taste and fragrance. Because of the range of types and degrees of sweetness, Champagne is one of the few wines that can accompany a meal from appetizers right through dessert.

So, this is how the bubbles get into the bottle. Is Champagne worth the price? I would say it is. There are, however, excellent sparkling wines made outside of the Champagne region and outside of France. If you want real value, a top-flight wine at a very reasonable price, try the sparkling wines made by Gruet. You will be amazed by their quality and cost (around $15 for the non-vintage regular cuvee) and rather astounded by where they come from: Albuquerque, New Mexico.


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