In the 1662 the English scientist and physician Christopher Merret described how adding sugar to a finished wine created a second fermentation in a paper presented Royal Society. Not surprisingly, when I visited Champagne, they didn’t mention English contributions to the local brew. Here’s how they told it…
Once upon a time, the French Benedictine monk named Dom Pérignon discovered the secret of putting bubbles into wine, inventing Champagne. Although he didn’t, the French Benedictine monk made important contributions to Champagne’s production. In Champagne, the art of mixing the produce of different vineyards to achieve the perfect blend is of the utmost importance. Ol’ Dom was the first to do this.
In the 19th century, Champagne was sweeter; they added sugar helped disguise flaws and/or poor quality. In 1846, Perrier-Jouët decided not to sweeten his Champagne and it was a hit. Modern Champagne had arrived. Just how do they get the bubbles inside? The “champagne method.” Many other sparkling wines, including Prosecco, use other methods of putting the bubbles in. There is just something special about champagne and it might have something to do with this process.
Like regular wine, champagne starts out with crushed, fermented grapes. In Champagne, they use grapes from different vineyards to produce a neutral, acidic wine. Strong flavor would interfere with the development and final flavor. The acidity is needed for the second fermentation and extended aging. Who knew chemistry could be so tasty?
After the initial fermentation, they add a wine and sugar mixture known as “liqueur de triage” to base wine (which is known as the cuvée) before a second fermentation. They cap it up for the secondary fermentation; this extra fermentation naturally produces the bubbles. Carbon dioxide (aka bubbles) is a byproduct.
Bottles are stored on riding racks, which turn them almost upside down so residue settles in the bottles neck. Even though it’s not in the neck, you can see what the residue (known as lees) looks likes in the picture above.
Bottles are marked with lines so that they can be turned regularly. They are turned incrementally to avoid disrupting the champagne in the bottle. I saw Magnums wrapped in plastic to prevent their breaking and shattering surrounding bottles. Apparently, an exploding bottle of champagne has a dangerous amount of force. You wouldn’t want the entire stockpile below to be damaged, would you?
After 15 months, the bottle necks are quick-frozen, freezing the residue in the neck. When they remove the cap, the frozen sediment shoots out. This process is known as disgorgement.
Before re-corking the bottles, a measured amount of champagne and cane sugar is be added to the finished wine (known as the “liqueur d’expedition”). This mixture (known as “dosage”) determines the sweetness and style of the champagne. The bottles are then sealed with a special sparkling cork with a wire muse let cage (seen in the top photo above). When I heard champagne producers get the best cork in the world, I examined one. It does look a little denser and less fragile than your average wine cork. The cage ensures the roughly six atmospheres of pressure don’t force the cork off.
While I’ve mentioned adding mixtures at a couple of points, I haven’t fully detailed its importance. Champagne is known for blending and it is part of what sets this region apart (Bordeaux is also known for blending). There, master benders are revered. It takes tons of knowledge and balls of steel to hold back stock, mix multiple vintages and blend it in with newer vintages. Cheers!
- I Got A Kick From Champagne (schwingeninswitzerland.wordpress.com)