The processes of making champagne are particularly intricate and precise, refined throughout the entire history of the wine. All winemaking is complex, though the specific properties of champagne, coupled with various other external factors, dictate that the fermentation and overall production of champagne require devotion, close attention and a strong respect for the craft of winemaking.
Beginning of the Champagne Fermentation Process
Once the best grapes of the Champagne-Ardenne region’s vineyards have been harvested, collected and pressed into ‘must’–the winemaking term for raw grape juice– after which the fermentation can begin. The must will be stored either in stainless steel vats or oak casks.
The often-airtight containment vessels will cause the must to naturally ferment, and alcohol will begin to develop. The resulting product is referred to as a ‘still’, or a wine with some of the basic properties of champagne but lacking other elements, particularly carbonation.
The Blending and Second Fermentation of Champagne
Usually, the still wine created in the first fermentation will be blended with other still wines, except in the case of a single-vintage champagne. Blends may be created from as many as 70 different individual still (or “base”) wines. Blending is an essential step for many reasons, specifically because it determines the final product. For example, in a rose champagne, a red wine will be blended with a still white vintage to create the rose’s signature pink color.
Once blended, the wine will be placed in a champagne bottle for the second fermentation. This bottle is made of particularly thick glass, to ensure that the resulting carbonation won’t cause the bottle to explode. Three months or more will pass while carbon dioxide and yeast cells, called “lees,” take form.
Aging and Finals Steps of the Methode Champenoise
Champagne is typically aged for two to three years, and in some cases as long as six years. The carbon dioxide and lees will react with the wine’s other characteristics and eventually result in the unique and distinct finished champagne.
The fermentation process isn’t complete until it has gone through the full methode champenoise, the term used to describe the entire unique champagne process. The second-to-last step, called riddling, involves turning, shaking and angling individual champagne bottles to bring about a final fermentation. If done by machine, this will take eight days, while hand riddling can take as long as three months. As a final touch, a small amount of sugar will be added to counter the dry taste of the champagne.