This takes places immediately following the grape harvest. During the pressing the juice drips into vats called "belons". The juice is left to settle (this process is called the "débourbage"). The "sulfitage du moût" takes place at the same time. The "sulfitage" consists of adding sulphourous anhydride, both to protect the wine from oxidation and to facilitate 'la décantation' (the settling). The must layer is then pumped out from the top. The mire ("les bourbes") and the foam stay at the bottom of the 'belon'. The must is stored in stainless steel vats for the fermentation.
As the pressing takes place the skeen and seeds have the greatest impact on the must. With a traditional press 4000 kg of grapes are pressed several times, this operation takes 4 hours :
1st press - "la cuvée" - creates 2050 l of must,
2nd press - "la taille" - creates 450 l of juice. (the term "taille" (sharpening) is used because previously the "pressurers" (workers) "sharpened" "le marc" with sharp spades. The "marc" being the 4000 kg of grapes which make up each pressing).
The authorized vinification level is 1600 kg of grapes per 1000 l of must. Therefore 4000 kg of pressed grapes makes 2550 l of juice.
The alcoholic fermentation takes place in vats, occasionally in oak barrels. This process takes about 3 weeks. The sugar transforms into alcohol by yeast action. This reaction is accompanied by an emission of carbon dioxide gas. During this process the wine bubbles and makes a noise; it's the "bouillage" (bubbling). The vats are not completely filled in order to avoid overflowing. Little by little they are later filled by a process called "ouillage". Once this fermentation is completed there is the "soutirage". By this process the biggest sediments are extracted.
Then, in some instances, there is malolactic fermentation, especially in years where the musts are particularly acidic. This fermentation can be spontaneous or provoked. It is the transformation of malic acid to lactic acid by the action of certain bacteria. Through this process the acidic character of the wine is eliminated.
After these fermentations the winemaker must clarify the wine; that is eliminate the suspended particles which could be harmful to the flavour. Previously the wine was mixed to a certain consistency with fish glue, gelatin, blood, egg whites, chalk, etc. followed by another "soutirage" (extraction).
Nowadays, the wine is filtered by 2 methods : it is strained through a mixture of marine micro-organisms or through a plate filter fitted with special paper.
L'assemblage de la cuvée - The creation of the vintage
"L'assemblage" is the careful blending of light wines from different soils, vines, and years. The wines are created in this manner, especially by the "grandes maisons de Champagne" who must maintain a characteristic flavour. However, it is not necessary to mix all 3 :
"un Millésime" is created with wines from the same year,
if the wine is created with grapes from the same vine...
ex. Chardonnay - creates a Champagne Blanc de Blancs (white wine made from white grapes),
ex. Pinot Noir or Meunier- Champagne Blanc de Noirs (white wine made from dark grapes).
These Champagne have distinctive flavours.
finally, a Champagne can be created using one growth from a specific area, district, or parcel.
"L'assemblage" (or mixing of wines) is not only done when making Champagne. To creates a "Châteauneuf du Pape", for example, it takes grapes from 12 different vines. Most often winemakers try to create millésimes (they try not to mix wines from different years). An interesting note, in certain "grandes maisons de Champagne" (great Champagne producing houses) they use a palette of about 50 wines to makes their Champagne. In Champagne "l'art d'assembler" is highly developed.
This operation takes place between February and April and can go on for up to 5 months during which the winemakers taste and familiarize themselves with the wines in order to determine which would best go together.
Le tirage - The bottling
It takes place in the spring. They add : a liqueur which as 24g of sugar/litre which permits the development of a pressure of 6 atmospheres, yeasts which ferment the sugar and emit carbon dioxide causing the formation of bubbles.
The bottles are closed with a "capsule-couronne" or a "capsule de tirage".
La prise de mousse (production of carbon dioxide)
The bottles are put down in the cellar to be "entreillées", that is to be laid down horizontally on wood boards. It's the beginning of the 2nd fermentation. The bottles are kept flat to maintain the contact between the sediment and the wine.
The duration of "la prise de mousse" depends up on the temperature which must be low and constant. Generally it takes 6 months. The slower and more consistent the fermentation, the finer the bubbles.
The ageing of the Champagne
The yeasts provoke "la prise de mousse" and continue to play an important role after their death. They release the nitrogenous substances which enhance the flavour.
The fact that the bottles are laid down is very important. The wine stays in contact with the deposit which has formed along the length of the bottle.
Le remuage (the riddling of the bottles)
Once the aging of the wine is finished, the goal is to make the deposit slide into the neck of the bottle. During 4 to 5 weeks the bottles, stored on "pupitres" (racks) are handled about 40 times. They are regularly turned (an eigth of a turn) and progressively brought back up to a vertical position.
Le dégorgement (removal of the sediment)
Nowadays the sediment is removed "à la glace". The tip of the bottleneck is dipped into a freezing bath (-20°C). The cap is taken off and the ice is expelled by the pressure inside the bottle. 1 kg of pressure is lost during this process.
Le dosage (the measuring out)
The volume inside the bottle is adjusted by adding "une liqueur de dosage" (a measuring out liqueur) and a Champagne from the same vintage. The liqueur is usually made from sugar cane. The dose varies in amount and quality depending on the type of Champagne desired :
* Brut - sugar content less than 15 g/l,
* Extra-Dry - sugar content between 12-20 g/l,
* Sec - sugar content between 17-35 g/l,
* Demi-sec - sugar content between 33-50 g/l,
* Doux - sugar content over 50 g/l.
Le Champagne Rosé is usually made by adding "AOC" red wine (Champagne) during the bottling. Only "AOC" can be used to make a Champagne Rosé. It can also be made (although rarely) by the vinification of rosé. The grapes from "cépages noirs" are subjected to partial maceration before the pressing. In the past there was only Champagne Brut Rosé, however "la maison Mercier" recently created a Chmpagne Rosé Demi-sec.
After "le dosage" a final cork is placed and secured by a little "muzzle" to keep it from being blown off by the gas.
The wine must rest 3 or 4 months before moving on to the "dresing" of the bottle. It must "relax a bit" after being subjected to "le dégorgement", and the liqueur must mix well with the wine.
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