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Saturday, May 11, 2013

How is Champagne Really Made?

Many of Champagne's complexities are a result of aging with yeasts
There are several ways to actually make a sparkling wine.  One is to simply add carbon dioxide to a regular wine….voila, you have instant bubbles.  But, for true French Champagne there is only one way to make it.   It’s called the “Methode Champenoise.”   Here’s an overview of the process and why this technique creates a much more complex wine.
In the Méthode Champenoise non-bubbly wine that has already gone through fermentation is placed in a bottle along with some yeasts and a small amount of sugar.  Like in making bread, yeasts need sugar to jump-start their activity.  And, exactly like in bread-making the yeasts’ action gives off carbon dioxide bubbles as they work.  As the wine is in a bottle secured with a cap, this carbon dioxide is trapped and becomes the coveted bubbles we all look forward to appreciating in a glass of Champagne.  This process is a secondary fermentation, as the wine undergoes a second fermentation in the bottle due to the added yeasts and sugar.

Wines produced by the Méthode Champenoise must remain in contact with the yeasts for at least 15 months by law.  This means that wine is stored in the bottle long after the yeasts have stopped working.  It is this resting period that allows for Champagne to develop complexity from its interaction with the dead yeasts.  Many of flavor nuances in Champagne (e.g. aromas of baked bread & nuttiness) are a direct result of their contact with the remains of the yeast cells.  Moreover, the creamy mouth texture is also related to interaction with the yeast.  Now, the challenge is to remove the yeast debris which causes cloudiness.  Here’s how that is done.

First, the dead yeasts are slowly by gravity moved to the neck of the bottle.  This act is called riddling.  Painstaking each bottle is rotated by hand, little-by-little, over a period of several months so that it stands almost vertical.  With each labor intensive rotation, the cellular debris of the dead yeasts is moved closer to the tapered end.   Once all the yeast fragments are at the end of the bottle, the next step in the process occurs.  The neck of the bottle (still in its upside down position) is dipped in a frozen bath.  The dead cells, attached to the cork, become frozen.  Very quickly, the cork with the attached  “ ice cube of dead yeasts,”  is removed and a new cork inserted.  This freezing process and cork removal is called disgorgement.”
No other sparkling wine in the European Union  may use the word Champagne or the Méthode Champenoise on their labels or any advertising material.   The word Champagne is carefully guarded by law and can be used  only by the sparkling winemakers of the Champagne district.  On this September’s tour we’ll learn all about these super-stringent laws prohibiting the unlawful use of the word Champagne, we’ll observe the riddling process as well as view the cellular debris of yeasts as the Champagne is aging, and if we’re lucky, we’ll be able to watch disgorgement.  For sure, we’ll be have ample opportunities to drink the world’s most famous bubbly.

A votre santé!  (to your health!)


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