How is Champagne different from still wine and other sparkling wines? In my last post, I wrote about the vineyards and the effect of terroir on the grapes. Now let’s move into the cave (“kaaav”) or chai (not like chai tea; say “shay”), where the winemaker waves a magic wand over the grapes and makes our favorite beverage—wine.
The hand-picked grapes (another strict regulation) are first weighed, as each stage in champagne production is meticulously overseen from start to finish. The CIVC keeps track of how many kilos of grapes are harvested from each plot of land, how many hectoliters of juice are pressed, how many bottles are made, and how many are sold each year. These rules are in place to prevent unscrupulous people from buying grapes, juice, or wine from outside the legally designated Champagne region and passing it off as champagne. It requires a lot of extra paperwork, frequent reporting, costs and headaches for all the winemakers, as well as administrative staff on the CIVC side, and is one reason why real champagne is more expensive than other sparkling wines. The intention is to provide you–the champagne lover–with a guarantee of quality, living up to the worldwide image of CHAMPAGNE as a luxury product.
Once weighed and recorded, the grapes are gently pressed, encouraged to give up their juices for the good of mankind. The first pressing (the cuvée) is separated. The purer juice, rich in both acid and sugar, it makes elegant and fine wines which age well. The second pressing (the taille) has less acid and more minerality, and produces fruitier wines meant to be enjoyed young.
The grapes from each plot of land are usually pressed separately, which allows the winemaker better control when blending (to be explained in my next post), as are each varietal. The big three are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier; the other permitted varietals are Arbane, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, and Petit Meslier, all four of which make up less than 1% of the vineyards in Champagne. There are special pressing centers (pressoirs) where the growers bring their grapes if they don’t have their own winepress. In olden days, they sometimes used mobile pressoirs, such as the one shown here. The grapes should be pressed as soon as possible after picking, to best preserve their aromas and flavors.
If two of the big three varietals are dark-skinned grapes, why are most champagnes white? Peel me a grape.
There are basically three different types of grapes:
- light-skinned with light juice
- dark-skinned with light juice
- dark-skinned with dark juice
Both Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier fall into the second category, and all the other varietals listed above fall into the first. That means that if the juice is allowed to “run free” when the grapes are pressed, and not kept in contact with the skins, seeds, and stems, the juice will be light in color. When Pinot Noir is made into red wine, such as Bourgogne’s claim to fame, the juice is left in contact with these solids for a long time in a process called maceration, in order to extract color, flavors and tannins.
What about rosé champagnes? There are two main ways rosé champagnes can be made: saignée or assemblage.
Saignée, which means “bleeding” (ugh!), is a process by which the juice is kept in contact with the skins for a short period of time, usually 1-3 days, then bled off, leaving the solids behind. The resulting rosé champagnes are unpredictable in color, which can range from pink to ruby red, depending upon a number of factors including the particular year of harvest (more on that in Part 3). A favorite of rosé champagne lovers for the complex aromas and flavors imparted by the skins, well-integrated into the resulting wine.
In assemblage, the juice is allowed to run free, and later a small quantity of red wine made from champagne grapes is added to the white. Some wine snobs turn up their noses at rosés made in this method, but there are plenty of fantastic assemblage wines out there, such as Taittinger’s delicious Prestige Rosé, including 15% red wine from Pinot Noir grapes grown in Champagne. This method also ensures consistency of color from year to year.
To further confuse the issue, there is another process called “carbonic maceration” in which the grape bunches undergo maceration in an oxygen-deprived atmosphere, such as on the moon. Too far to haul their harvest in a timely manner, winemakers here on earth use sealed tanks to get the same effect. This results in primary fermentation inside each grape, reducing the resulting tannins in the wine. A common practice in Beaujolais to make light, fruity wines, this is rarely done by champagne winemakers, except for a few young rebels. There is a lot of experimentation going on among young champagne makers, especially in the Aube. For more info, check out this interesting article by Wine & Spirits Magazine.
The next step is fermentation, for the vast majority not using the method above. In champagne making, it is referred to as “primary fermentation.” Often carried out at low temperature to allow the fullest expression of the wine, this can take anywhere from a few days to two weeks. The winemaker can choose to ferment in stainless steel tanks, used oak barrels, concrete cuves, or a combination thereof.
During fermentation, the yeast eats the natural sugar in the grapes, and the by-products are alcohol and carbon dioxide (CO2). The CO2 is allowed to escape, and grape juice becomes wine. Yes, that’s an oversimplification, but if you want a detailed analysis of the process, pick up a chemistry book. This is a wine blog, after all.
The still wine may undergo malolactic fermentation (MLF), when tart malic acid (think of Granny Smith apples) is converted into softer lactic acid (think of yummy cheeeeeeese). This can occur naturally, but is also at the discretion of the winemaker, who can choose to allow partial, full or no MLF at all. Most red wines and certain white wines will go through MLF, but when it comes to champagne it can be all over the board, depending upon the style desired by the winemaker. Champagnes made without MLF can be quite strict and tart, as MLF creates a softer, rounder mouthfeel in wine. If MLF occurs after a still wine has been bottled, it creates a slight effervescence and is generally considered a fault.
At this point the champagne-to-be is like any other wine, except these still wines are referred to as vins clairs and have tooth-stripping acidity. There are some special champagne-tasting events to which the producers also bring some of their vins clairs for other wine professionals to try, such as Terres et Vins de Champagne. If you’re a serious champagne lover who wants to learn and experience more, sometimes a producer will let you sample the vins clairs right from the tanks. But don’t say I didn’t warn you!
Up next: Part 3 – The Bubbles