Over the last two weeks, we covered what exactly Champagne is, and the legendary story of Dom Perignon. You can find both articles here.
Champagne is one of the more famous examples of the wonders you can achieve with wine. That being said, in order to fully appreciate it, one requires a little bit of knowledge as to how it finds its way into those shapely bottles we love to admire.
There’s a fair bit of science-y stuff involved here, but I’ve simplified it as much as I can, and by the end of it, the idea of understanding Champagne should be no more intimidating than tying a shoelace.
For a small brief onto how wine is made, check out my article – Wine 101 – Exploring The How.
I like to think of Champagne as the Meryl Streep of the wine world – strong, beautiful, classy with a bit of fun, and a fantastic example of aging with beauty.
Correspondingly, the grapes used to make Champagne – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier, generally mature very slowly and beautifully, due to the colder weather in the region.
The interesting part about the wine is what happens after most of the work in the vineyard is done – the aging process. During this time, the wine undergoes a second fermentation, which actually happens inside the bottle itself.
It’s a genius process. The wine is originally fermented till all the sugar is converted to alcohol by the yeast (producing a dry wine), and pumped into bottles. There’s no bubbles or fizz at all. Then they add this concoction known as a liquer de tirage (just a fancy name for yeast and sugar) into the bottle, and seal it with a simple crown cap.
Then the real magic happens. The yeast performs its singular function of eating the sugar, and producing alcohol and carbon dioxide, all while sealed inside the bottle. It’s this CO2 that’s responsible for the fizz and bubbles in the wine.
A fun bit of trivia – there’s a lot of pressure in a bottle of Champagne – nearly three times that of a car tire. To prevent the bottle from spontaneously exploding in your face, sparkling wine bottles are intentionally thicker and heavier than other bottles, to withstand the internal pressure of the CO2 gas.
So how long does it take until the yeast finishes its job? Hardly any time at all. In fact, it’s very efficient. It eats, realises all the food is over, and promptly dies of starvation.
However, the bottles are intentionally left undisturbed, even once all the yeast is dead. It forms a sediment in the bottle (you can see it in the picture above) and is actually aged on it for upwards of 18 months.
The dead yeast (known as LEES) imparts a pleasant bread-like, nutty aroma to the wine. That’s what it means when you hear that a wine is “aged on lees”.
But all said and done, nobody wants to buy a wine with things floating around in it. So how do they get rid of it?
Fixing this problem led to the advent of this radical invention called the Riddling Rack. It’s basically a shelf with a large number of slots to hold wine bottles. They are stored at an angle, with the mouth facing downwards, so all the sediment collects at the neck.
However, if left alone like that, the yeast will tend to stick permanently, either to the mouth or the sides of the bottles. So it’s one guy’s job to manually turn every bottle in the rack to disturb or agitate the yeast, so it doesn’t happen. That’s generally around 50,000 bottles a day. Sometimes more. And they take this job very, very seriously.
Modern, computerised Riddling Racks (known as Gyropalettes) also have a mechanism where the entire rack tilts a few degrees every day, so that the bottles are eventually vertical, and all the yeast collects at the mouth or neck of the bottle, because of gravity.
At this point, every bottle is dipped into a superchilled solution, from the mouth to the neck. This freezes the whole sediment deposit in the sealed bottle. The crown cap is then removed, and the pressure causes the frozen deposit in the bottle to fly out, along with a bit of wine and fizz. That’s the disgorgement.
In this tiny window of time, the producers add another concoction known as a dosage into the bottle, consisting of a bit of white wine to compensate the loss, and just enough sugar solution to offset the acidity of the wine a little. Depending on the style they’re producing, they can choose to adjust the proportion of sugar. Brut is the driest style, followed by Seco, Demi-Sec, and Doux, in increasing levels of sweetness.
The bottle is then corked, the wire cage fixed to prevent it from flying out, and the whole arrangement is made nice and pretty by the foil around it. Then they stick a label on it, and it’s ready to be sold.
And it’s really as simple as that. A bit of simple science – fermentation, pressure, and gravity – and you have the most amazing sparkling wine to ever grace the earth. This process took a long time to perfect, and is called the Methode Champenoise.
Winemakers all over the world have great respect for this method, and often follow it to make their own sparkling wines. Since they’re not allowed to call the wine itself “Champagne” due to legal reasons, they usually use the words “Methode Traditionelle” or “Methode Classique” as a tribute to the great wine.
These tend to be a little on the expensive side, but I’ve found one that’s pretty cheap.
Sula Seco will set you back about Rs. 550 in Mumbai, and it’s a great option if you want to celebrate on a budget.
There are, of course, less grandiose ways of producing sparkling wines. One of them involves fizzing it up in bulk, in massive stainless steel tanks – known as the Charmat method. Wines like Prosecco are made in this way.
And then there’s some winemakers who just pump the wine with a CO2 injection, as if it were a common cola. I have reservations against this method, but I can understand why it exists. Needless to say, the bubbles are huge (a sign of inferior quality), and don’t last long. So it’s a sparkling wine for about ten seconds.
Till the next post, adieu!