How To Make Champagne

How to make champagne - champagne vines

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 even longer to make their champagne! Nerves of steel are needed to make champagne, because the grapes can be ruined by the unpredictable weather in northern France before they get anywhere near the winery; wine fermentation also presents many challenges!

How to make champagne - pinot noir grapes

The Champagne Grapes

The first ingredient is of course grapes and the harvest is usually September. The grapes used are Pinot Noir, (Left) 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.

How to make champagne - the champagne press

The Champagne Press

Champagne presses range from being able to press between 2,000kg and 12,000kg of grapes at once. Only one grape 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.

How to make champagne, the tanks

The First Fermentation – Making Still Wine

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. (This process converts the grapes juice into still wine). Sugar and yeast are added to the grape juice and after approximately 2-3 weeks the still wine is made. 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

How to make champagne - the blending process

Blending ‘Assemblage’

Around March each year the winemaker and usually several staff from the Champagne House gather together for  blending (known as ‘assemblage’). This involves tasting and testing all the separate vats of wine in the winery and deciding which ones to mix together to make a champagne as consistent with the ‘House’ style as possible. It’s not much fun because the wine  is very tart and acidic at this stage of the process. Bottles are filled from each individual tank and the process of deciding can take several days. It’s perhaps the most complex part of the whole champagne making process; a key part in how the champagne will eventually taste.

How to make champagne - the second fermentation

Second Fermentation – making the bubbles

Once the blends have been chosen, the selected wines from the individual tanks are blended together into one tank and more sugar and yeast are added. This final blend is then bottled and the wine inside is left to go through a second fermentation in the bottle in the cellar during which time the bubbles form. The bottles then remain ‘on the lees’ for at least 13 months (which means the champagne stays in contact with the sediment left from fermentation). As the champagne develops, so do baked fruit flavours, jammy notes and ‘biscuity’ and toasty notes.

How to make champagne - riddling

Remuage – working the sediment into the bottle neck

Once the second fermentation is finished, the sediment has to be removed from the bottle. This is known as remuage and it can be carried out in one of two ways, by hand or automatically. It takes 4-6 weeks to work the sediment into the neck of the bottle by hand. The bottles are placed in a wooden frame called a pupitre and turned daily. Automatic remuage is carried out in a ‘gyropallete’ – the process is 100% mechanised and take only a week to complete.

How to make champagne- disgorgement.

Disgorgement – removing the sediment

Once the sediment that has been worked into the neck of the bottle, it has to be removed. In order to do this, the bottle is submerged into a freezing brine solution. This solution freezes the sediment into a small ice cube.  When the bottle is turned back the right way the ice cube containing the sediment is ejected due to the internal pressure in the bottle. The picture shows the ice cube immediately before removal.

Liqueur d’expedition or ‘dosage’

Immediately after the disgorgement process, a mix of wine and sugar is added to the champagne. This is called the ‘dosage’. The amount of sugar added in the dosage defines the final level of sweetness of the champagne. The sugar content varies depending on the desired style, ranging from bone dry to sweet:

  • Brut Nature – zero dosage or less than 3/g litre of added sugar.
  • Extra brut – 0-6g/litre of added sugar.
  • Brut – less than 12g/litre of added sugar.
  • Extra Dry – 12-17g/litre of added sugar.
  • Sec – 17-32g/litre of added sugar.
  • Demi-Sec – 32-50g/litre of added sugar.
  • Doux – more than 50g/litre of added sugar.

How to make champagne , corking

Corking, poignettage and mariage

As soon as the dosage has been added a cork is applied and then the wire cage (muselet) which holds the cork in place. The bottle is then shaken (poignettage) to mix the dosage well. The bottles are then usually take to the cellar for a month or two, to allow the dosage to fully integrate into the champagne.

How to make champagne - bottle image of a dressed bottle

Labelling and Sale

Once the champagne maker is happy the champagne is ready for sale, it’s labelled and the the foil is added to the neck. Champagne is sold ready to be enjoyed straight away. You can keep up but make sure you store it on its side somewhere dark and cool and for a non- vintage (no year on the label) drink within a couple of years of purchase.