With the holiday season nearing and the classic toasts that go with it, I thought it would be the ideal moment to talk about champagne and some of the ‘science’ behind it. This past weekend I made a little guided city trip to Reims to see the process of champagne making in action and, of course, do some tasting as well.
In the many extensive vineyards of the Champagne region, 3 grape varieties are cultivated: 2 blue varieties, Pinot noir and Pinot meunier, and Chardonnay, a white grape variety.
Since this weekend was by chance the harvesting time, I had the chance of witnessing the very first step of the champagne process. The grapes have to be hand-picked to not crush them in order to prevent from both rotting as well as discoloration of the juices. After pressing to juice in big presses, yeast is added to start the primary fermentation for about a week in massive open barrels. During this process, the natural sugars in the grapes are converted into alcohol, hence the name alcoholic fermentation, creating wine.
At this time point, the producers decide on a specific combination of wine from the 3 mentioned grape varieties in order to eventually produce the champagne. The alcoholic fermentation produces still wines. The bubbles as we know in champagne occur during the second fermentation, in the bottle itself. Induced by added yeast together with sugar this sealed fermentation produces CO2, creating the characteristic bubbles. To develop a proper taste and carbonation, the wine has to age over a period of at léast 15 months, as legally imposed.
In a process called ‘remuage’ the remaining yeast is removed from the bottles by rotating the bottles at specific time points and tilting them over during a period of 1 week to slowly carry the debris to the bottle neck and cap.
In this vertical position, the bottle necks are snap-frozen to encapsulate the yeast debris in ice. The bottles are opened and the ice containing the residues is forced out by the pressure of the carbon dioxide, called ‘dégorgement’. To maintain the level of liquid per bottle as well as the sweetness and color, sugar or previously produced (red) wine is now added. In this step the difference between brut (the least amount of sugar) and demi-sec (high levels of added sugar) is determined.
After corking and capping the champagne is ready. The only step left now is, of course, tasting!
A little shout-out: This weekend trip was organized by ‘De Zigeuner’, a bus company offering several guided trips to different cities. This was not the first time I traveled with this company and certainly not the last, since every trip I joined was always nicely organized and I only had very positive experiences with them. For their brochure, you can visit: http://www.dezigeuner.be/