The 2021 harvest is complete, but the work is just beginning for our winemakers, particularly our sparkling winemaker.
While all Champagne is sparkling wine, not all sparkling wine is Champagne. The process used to make Champagne is referred to as méthode champenoise or méthode traditionelle. This means that the second fermentation occurs in the individual bottle in which the Champagne is later sold. Champagne has been made in this way for over 300 years, and it is an elaborate process in which every single bottle becomes an individual fermentation tank, so to speak.
*You should know that Champagne can legally only be called Champagne if it comes from the Champagne region in northern France. However, some brands in the United States have been ‘grandfathered’ in and continue to use the term Champagne.
Still, the méthode champenoise process follows strict guidelines developed in France and requires the winemaker to handle each individual bottle many times. Prosecco, and some other sparkling wines, including flavored sparkling wines, get their bubbles by having the secondary fermentation occur in a giant wine tank [referred to as the charmat method]. The least expensive sparkling wines have carbon dioxide pumped into the giant tank [much like a soft drink].
But the French style of Champagne is truly a labor of love. Once the wine, in this case 100% Chardonnay, has gone through dry fermentation [or primary fermentation], the winemakers must determine which type of yeast to use for the tirage. Live yeast must be grown approximately 48 hours in advance, and cell counts are monitored throughout this time period. Not enough live yeast cells, and, most likely, you’ll have “flat” sparkling wine, or wine without those beautiful bubbles. And selecting the appropriate yeast will affect the taste, color and quality of the sparkling wine, or Champagne.
The live yeast and sugar [those yeast cells need their nutrition, too] are blended to form a liqueur de tirage, which on the day of bottling is added to the still wine.
Bottling day, my favorite, because the production facility has a ‘heavenly’ aroma, we begin before dawn, and the excitement is energizing. Once that wine goes into the bottle, it is topped with a crown cap [a bottle cap], and then it begins its journey.
Champagne bottles are heavier than traditional wine bottles because of the pressure. Carbon dioxide is a byproduct of the secondary fermentation process [yeast cells eat the sugar, and give off carbon dioxide and alcohol], and the gas remains trapped within the bottle. The trapped gas needs a thicker, heavier vessel to withstand all that pressure caused by the secondary fermentation.
The bottles are then stacked on their sides and placed either in cages or wooden crates. The crates are stored in a light and temperature-controlled environment. As the secondary fermentation proceeds, the yeast cells die, but the “Champagne” continues to age in the cool cellar for a minimum of 18 months, three years, or more. As the yeast cells age with the wine, they split open and spill into the wine, imparting a complex, yeasty flavor to the Champagne. The best and most expensive Champagne spends a great deal of time on the yeast.
For our winemakers, each stage is equally important and until that bottle is disgorged, they wait, watch ‘n worry. Bottle fermentation tends to diminish the fruitiness of the wine that will generally be found in the charmat method of sparkling wines. The changes that occur inside each bottle as they sit in their crates contribute to the beautiful aroma and flavors, often referred to as toastiness, nuttiness, caramel, brioche or, simply yeastiness. A good bottle of méthode champenoise will become smooth and creamy on the palate. The bubbles tend to be tinier, effervescent, and the taste is unique. And as attributed to Dom Pierre Pérignon, “Come quickly, I am tasting the stars!”
We hope that you’ll join us as we begin the process of tirage, so that we, too, may ultimately ‘taste the stars.’