Patience is a key element of success – Bill Gates
Champagne making requires patience, nerves of steel and a huge amount of skill. Patience, because champagne can’t be hurried! From harvest to the delivery of the bottle the time scale is, at the very minimum, twenty months. Most champagne houses take longer. Nerves of steel, because the grapes can be ruined by the unpredictable weather in Northern France before they get anywhere near the winery; also wine fermentation presents many challenges! Skill? It takes a long time to train to be a winemaker.
A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor – Franklin D Roosevelt
The first ingredient is of course grapes and the harvest is usually September. The grapes used are Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. Every single grape destined to end up in a bottle of champagne must be picked by hand to prevent damage to the skins which can cause problems later in the production process and the colour of the champagne. They are transported in 50kg crates (the yellow crates in the picture above) straight to the press and they have to be weighed on arrival.
Champagne presses range from being able to press between 2,000kg and 12,000kg of grapes at once. Only one variety is pressed each time. There are very strict rules about how much juice can be extracted from the grapes and customs officials carry out spot checks during harvesting and pressing. Anyone over-pressing is in big bother!
Huge stainless steel collection troughs sit below the press and channel the juice to waiting tanks via pumps and tubes. The first juice to run is usually discarded and sent for alcoholic distillation, the second section called the cuvée is the best juice. The ‘taille’ is the final juice from the pressing, it is intense in flavour but can be bitter as a result of longer time in contact with grape skins. Some houses choose not to use this and sell it on.
The juice is then left to settle in tanks, the sediment sinks to the bottom of the tank and the pure juice is pumped to another tank for fermentation. Sugar and yeast are added and after approximately 2-3 weeks a still wine is produced. This is known as ‘vin clair’ and is extremely acidic and sour. The wines are left in tanks over winter until blending in spring of the following year. More on that in the next blog!