When we last saw our valiant heroine, she was in the form of a vin clair, a very acidic still wine either white or rosé in color. She may be in a stainless steel tank or an old oak barrel. Now we move on to the next step, which is the blending of the reserve wines. Unlike the vast majority of still wines on the market, which are made from grapes harvested in a single year clearly stated on the label, the majority of champagnes are blends of several different harvests. Thus most are non-vintage (NV), and will not have a year stated on the label.
Why do champagne makers blend wines from different years?
As the Champagne region is among the very northernmost areas where wine grapes can be grown, Mother Nature is rarely kind. Some years are warmer than normal, some are colder, some have too much rain or not enough, hail, frost, sunburn…the list goes on. And that doesn’t even take into account those pesky pests! Forming a kind of “savings account” is the practice of keeping reserve wines, so even after a series of bad years, there will be a cushion to protect the producers from declaring bankruptcy. The amount of wine required to be held back in reserve is also regulated by our old friend, the CIVC.
Which came first, the reserve wine system or the NV blend? The large champagne houses (think Moët et Chandon, Veuve Cliquot, Roederer, etc.) have developed a particular style for their NV standard-bearer. The average consumer is looking for the same taste when they buy the same NV champagne, and the big houses have a master blender whose job it is to take one from Column A and two from Column B and create approximately the same taste year after year, despite any variances in the grapes. The big houses buy grapes from dozens of individual growers, and if pressed and vinified separately, the master blender will have many vins clairs available to use to create the blend. This is not an easy job, as there can be huge variances in flavor, aroma, acidity and natural sugar level from one year to the next. It is exactly these differences which create the “vintage of the decade” in the still wine world.
Exceptional years allow for vintage champagnes, and for the cynical among us, yes, there is greater market pressure on the producers to make more vintage champagnes. In order to be labeled as vintage champagne, it must age in the bottle for a minimum of 3 years, although most producers age theirs for a minimum of 5 years, often much longer.
The acidity of the wine, determined by the coolness of the year and the primary grape used, allows for slower maturity and thus longer aging potential. That’s why most of the champagnes aged in excess of 10 or 20 years are mostly or exclusively composed of Chardonnay, which has a higher level of acidity than its fellow approved grapes.
When blending, the goal of the winemaker or master blender is to create a wine which is greater than the sum of its parts.
Many independent champagne producers prefer to celebrate the differences brought by each harvest, or even each vineyard plot. You will find some “single vineyard designate” champagnes on the market, mostly by the smaller producers but also, rarely, from the big houses such as Krug’s Clos de Mesnil, always a vintage expression of that particular plot of land. If the year isn’t exceptional, the vin clair from that vineyard gets added to other blends.
Once the blend is made, or the vin clair is declared a vintage year and bottled on its own, the liqueur de tirage is added to the wine to produce secondary fermentation. Well, it’s really tertiary if you count MLF, but it’s usually just called secondary. This liqueur de tirage is made up of yeast and beet or cane sugar (not the white stuff on your kitchen shelf). After it’s added to the bottle, a crown cap (like a beer bottle cap) is used to keep all that goodness inside. The yeast eats the sugar, and again the by-products are alcohol and carbon dioxide, just like in primary fermentation. The process takes up to two months.
This time, however, those CO2 bubbles are trapped inside, patiently waiting for their turn to tickle your nose or wash the hair of a Formula 1 Grand Prix winner. This is referred to as prise de mousse, or capturing the sparkle. Sparkling wines which are not champagne are sometimes labeled vin mousseux. Champagne lovers may refer to the mousse of a given wine, meaning the volume of bubbles in your mouth when you take a sip or a gulp, as light, medium, or heavy. If you’ve ever taken a sip and found a sudden explosion of nice-tasting soap bubbles in your mouth, which your cheeks could barely contain, you know what a heavy mousse is like. However, the elegant, tiny bubbles we love to watch trailing their way up a flute are called bulles.
Now back to the alchemy in the bottle. Once the sugar has been eaten, the yeast cells die. The dead yeast cells are called “the lees” and are still very important, giving additional complexity of flavors and aromas to the champagne, which may rest sur lie (on the lees) for several years. They are stored horizontally in caves or, less romantically, in temperature-controlled warehouses, until the winemaker decides that their maturity and complexity fit the desired profile.
To remove the lees and sediment in the wine, the bottles are gently shaken and turned ¼ rotation at a time, as they are gradually moved from horizontal into an upside-down position. This process, called remuage or riddling, takes from one month to six weeks, and can be done by hand or gyropalette. The solids are thus encouraged to move into the neck of the bottle and rest against the cork, leaving clear wine in the bottle.
The next step is dégorgement, when the necks of the bottles are frozen to solidify the plug of dead yeast and sediment, then the bottles are righted and the crown caps are removed. This used to be done by hand, and as the pressure in the bottle inevitably causes some of the wine to be expelled along with the plug, it required skilled men with large thumbs to stop the loss of the precious champagne. No longer requiring an army of big-thumbed men, this step is now done by machine.
Finally, the liqueur d’expédition or “dosage” is added, comprised of a small amount of the original wine and usually some more sugar. This replenishes the wine lost through disgorgement, and adjusts the level of sweetness to that desired by the winemaker.
We’ll explore the styles of champagne, from brut to doux, and some fun historical facts in my next post.
So now that you’ve read all 3 posts on how to make a great bottle of champagne, here’s the quiz:
1) Can champagne be made anywhere in the world?
2) Name 5 out of the 7 permitted grape varietals for making champagne
3) What determines the final sweetness of a champagne?
4) What’s the difference between the bulles and the mousse?
Leave your answers in the comments below. Don’t worry, I grade on a scale!
Hope your glass is full of something bubbly!