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The Champagne method, which must legally be called the traditional method outside the Champagne region, is the classic sparkling vinification process. It is generally believed to make the highest-quality, longest-lived, most complex sparkling wines in the world. It is also generally the most expensive, labor-intensive, and time-consuming.
Midalidare Sparkling wines are made under the Traditional sparkling winemaking - Midalidare Sparkling Gold, Midalidare Sparkling Brut, Midalidare Sparkling Blanc de Blancs.
On arrival at the pressing centre, each delivery of grapes is weighed and recorded. The grapes are also tested for compliance with the minimum alcohol content by volume that is specified for the vintage in question.
Juice extraction is strictly limited, separating the first pressing juice (the cuvee) from the second (the taille). Each has quite specific characteristics. The cuvee is the purest juice of the pulp, rich in sugar and acid (tartaric and malic). This produces wines with great finesse, subtle aromas, a refreshing palate and good aging potential. The taille is also rich in sugar, but acid content is lower while mineral content (especially potassium salts) and pigment concentrations are higher. Taille musts produce intensely aromatic wines – fruitier in youth than those made from the cuvee but less age-worthy.
- Pressing immediately after picking,
- Whole-cluster pressing,
- A gentle, gradual increase in pressure,
- Low juice extraction,
- Separating the juice into fractions.
Rose Champagne is made by maceration: leaving destalked black skinned grapes to macerate in a tank prior to pressing until the desired colour is achieved (24-72 hours).
Debourbage is the settling of the freshly pressed grape juice prior to fermentation, so as to produce wines with the purest expression of fruit. Literally ‘de-sludging’, this is the process of allowing solids (particles of skin, pips, etc.) to settle to the bottom of the juice. Naturally occurring enzymes or enzyme additives cause the suspended particles to clump together in flocs, which are eliminated 12-24 hours later when the wine is racked. After racking, the clarified juice is transferred to the fermentation room to begin the winemaking process
Primary (alcoholic) fermentation
Primary (alcoholic) fermentation is the starting point for each individual style of wine. The primary, or alcoholic, fermentation of Champagne wines is the process that transforms the grape musts into wine: the yeast consumes the natural grape sugars, producing alcohol and carbon dioxide (CO2) along with other by-products that contribute to the sensory characteristics of the wine.
Malolactic fermentation (MLF) is the process that transforms malic acid into lactic acid. Like all forms of fermentation, MLF influences wine aroma development, in this case making for softer, riper, generally creamier sensations. MLF is an optional process.
Clarification may involve fining, filtering (using kieselguhr earth, membrane/cartridge-type filters or pad filters) cross-flow filtration or centrifuging. The aim is to eliminate the lees and other impurities, producing clear, natural base wines (known locally as ‘vins clairs’) that are ready for blending as a ‘cuvee’ (local term for a blended Champagne). Base wines are classified by varietal, vintage, vineyard (or sometimes the individual vineyard plot) and pressing fraction (whether cuvee or taille).
The blending process at the heart of Champagne winemaking plays on the diversity of nature, combining wines from different crus (growths), different grape varieties and different years.
Blending wines from different crus
There are so many subtle differences between the crus that no two blends are ever the same. The result is an array of wines that capture the multifaceted character of their appellation
Blending wines from different but complementary grape varieties
Marrying different grape varieties brings contrasting and complementary qualities to Champagne wines.
- The Pinot Noir contributes aromas of red fruits and adds strength and body to the blend,
- The Pinot Meunier, the fastest-maturing component in Champagne, contributes supple body, intense fruit and roundness,
- The Chardonnay gives the blend finesse. As a young wine, it brings floral notes, sometimes with a mineral edge. It is the slowest to mature of the three Champagne varietals and the longest-lived.
Blending wines from different years
The annual weather variations in Champagne affect the quality of the grapes, making for very different vintages depending on how cold, hot, wet, etc. it was in the year in question.
Bottle fermentation transforms still wine to sparkling wine – hence the name «prise de mousse», literally ‘capturing the sparkle’.
Once filled, the bottles are hermetically sealed with a polyethylene stopper known as a ‘bidule’, held in place by a wire cage/metal cap. A few producers still use cork for the ‘tirage’ (bottling) stopper. The bottles are then transferred to the cellar and stacked ‘sur lattes’: horizontally, row upon row, these days mostly in steel crates on a palette.
Inside the bottle, the wine undergoes a second fermentation that continues for 6-8 weeks. The yeasts consume the sugar, releasing alcohol and carbon dioxide, along with esters and other superior alcohols that contribute to the wine’s sensory profile.
Maturation on lees
Deep inside the cellars, the bottles embark on a long period of maturation – a key phase in Champagne making in which the cellar play a critical role by keeping the wines at a relatively constant temperature of 12°C (54°F).
The lees mainly consist of yeasts that have multiplied in the bottle and formed a deposit. By the end of second fermentation, all of the sugars have been consumed and the yeasts gradually die and decompose. This process is known as autolysis, releasing molecules that are slowly transformed as they interact with those in the wine.
The special tirage stopper meanwhile allows minute quantities of oxygen to enter the bottle and small amounts of carbon dioxide to escape - in other words, the seal is not perfectly airtight. The choice of stopper is critical in determining the speed of the Champagne’s development.
Maturation on lees therefore involves two processes that occur simultaneously:
- Yeast autolysis,
- Slow oxidation via the stopper.
These processes complement each other especially well in Champagne, due to the delicate structure of the wines themselves. Maturation on lees is essential to encourage the gradual development of the so-called ‘tertiary aromas’ associated with graceful aging. Maturation on lees is a continuous process. The greatest Champagne wines can spend several decades maturing in the Champagne cellars.
All Champagne wines must spend at least 15 months in the bottle before release, of which 12 months maturation on lees is required for non-vintage cuvees. The minimum for vintage cuvees is three years.
The minimum aging periods required by law for Champagne wines are much longer than for any other sparklings. European wine regulations specify a minimum of just 90 days for effervescent wines in general.
Towards the end of their long resting period, the bottles must be moved and rotated to loosen the sediment (a mixture of dead yeasts and riddling aids) thrown off by second fermentation.
Known as ‘remuage’ (ridding), this process causes the sediment to collect in the neck of the bottle in preparation for disgorgement: the ejecting of the sediment under pressure that then leaves the wine perfectly clear.
Riddling involves the gradual tilting of the bottle neck-down (‘sur pointe’), meanwhile rotating it by small increments, clockwise and anti-clockwise. As the angle of tilt increases, the forces of gravity draw the sediment into the neck.
Remuage is still sometimes done manually, using a shaking and twisting technique practised over the centuries by skilled cellar masters. A good ‘remueur’ (bottle turner) can handle roughly 40,000 bottles a day, with the bottles placed neck down in a wooden ‘pupitre’ (A-frame-shaped riddling rack).
The bottles are rotated by stages, 1/8 or 1/4 of a turn at a time, to the right or left, with a chalk mark on the bottom of the bottle for reference. The objective is to consolidate the sediments and leave the wine crystal clear. Manual remuage takes 4-6 weeks and involves on average 25 turns per bottle.
The purpose of disgorgement is to eliminate the deposit that has collected in the neck of the bottle as a result of the remuage process.
Disgorgement is a critical point in the life of Champagne wine, the grand finale after many months and sometimes years of peaceful maturation on lees.
The neck of the bottle is plunged into a refrigerating solution at – 27°C. The sediment (in the form of a frozen plug) is then ejected under pressure when the bottle is opened, with minimum loss of wine and pressure.
Disgorgement triggers a short, sharp intake of oxygen, which together with dosage (see below) will have a significant impact on aroma development.
Bottles with metal caps are generally disgorged by machine.
Certain cuvees are still disgorged by hand (‘a la volee’), holding the bottle upside down, opening it and then quickly tilting it back upwards so that only enough wine is forced out to take the sediment with it. This traditional technique is still used today for very small or large bottles and very old vintages.
‘Dosage’ is the last step before final corking. This is the addition of a small quantity of ‘liqueur de dosage’ to the wine – also known as the ‘liqueur d’expédition’
Dosage liqueur generally contains 500-750 grams of sugar per litre. The quantity added varies according to the style of Champagne:
- Doux more than 50 grams of sugar per litre
- Demi-sec 32-50 grams of sugar per litre
- Sec 17-32 grams of sugar per litre
- Extra dry 12-17 grams of sugar per litre
- Brut less than 12 grams of sugar per litre
- Extra brut 0-6 grams of sugar per litre
- Brut nature, "Pas dose" or "Dosage zero" contains zero dosage and less than 3 grams sugar per litre.
After dosage comes final corking, followed by ‘poignettage’ (vigorous shaking of the bottle) and ‘mirage’ (inspection to check the wine’s limpidity). The wine is then returned to the cellar to age in bottle for several months before release.
The bottle is sent for corking immediately after dosage. Today’s corks have a base section made of reconstituted cork granules, topped by two slices of natural cork. The section that comes into contact with the wine is known as the ‘miroir’ (mirror). The cork must display the name of the Champagne Appellation and state the vintage where relevant.
The cork is squeezed into the neck of the bottle, covered with a protective metal cap (capsule), then held in place with a ‘muselet’ (wire cage) to make an airtight seal.
This new cork, like its plastic predecessor, does allow for some exchange with the outside air, which is why the wine continues to age over the years.
The bottle is then shaken vigorously (what is known as ‘poignettage’) so that the dosage liqueur marries perfectly with the wine.
The last procedure prior to further cellaring in preparation for release is ‘mirage’: a final check on the limpidity of the wine.
Other articles on "Sparkling Wine Guide":
Sparkling Wine Guide - Sparkling winemaking
Sparkling Wine Guide - Food pairing
Other articles on "Wine Guide":
Wine & Glass Pairing - Sparkling wine glasses
Midalidare's Grape Varietes - Chardonnay
Sources: Champagne.fr, Midalidare