Champagne - Part three

ChampagneChampagne The uniqueness of champagne is apparent right from the harvest itself. No harvesting machines are permitted, and everything is picked by hand because it is essential the the grapes get to the press in perfect condition. Rather than the hods used elsewhere, pickers carry small baskets to ensure that the grapes are not too crushed. Presses are set up in the heart of the vineyards to shorten the time the grapes are transported. Why is such care taken? Because champagne is a white wine made for the most part from o black grape, the Pinot Noir, and it is essential that the colorless juice should not be stained by contact with the grape skins.

Pressing has to take place as quickly as possible and in such a way as to collect the juice from different concentric parts of each fruit one after the other. This explains the particular shape of squashing the grapes and to facilitate the circulation of the juice, the grapes are piled over a very wide area but not very deeply. The skins of the harvested grapes must never be damaged.

   The pressing itself is strictly regulated. There are 1,929 pressing centres and each must obtain official registration in order to operate. From 4.000 kg of grapes, only 25.5 hl of must, a unit known as a “marc” , may be extracted in two pressing. The pressing is done in two phases: the first is known as the cuvée, 20.5 hl, and the second as the taille, 5 hl. The grapes can be pressed again, but the resulting juice is of no interest and ha no appellation. The rebeche, or new pressing of the marc, is destined for the distillery. The more you press, the greater the drop in quality, The must is taken from the pressing centres to the wineries by lorry and is then carefully vinfied according to the classic white wine method.

  At the end of winter, in early spring, the cellarmaster proceeds to “assemble” or mix the cuvée. To do so, he tastes all the wines available and blends them in such proportions as to make a wine that reflects the flavour and style of the house. When he make a non-vitange wine, he may call on wines from he reserve, which were produced in previous years. It is legal in Champagne to add a little red wine to the white wine to make a rosé (althouth this is forbidden everywhere else). However, some rosé champagnes are obtained by allowing the color of the skins of “bleed” into the must.

  Once the blending is completed, the real work of making the wine begins. This is to change a still wine into a sparkling wine. A liquer de tirage, made of yeasts, old wines and sugar, is added to the wine, which is the bottled: this is called is added to the wine, which is then bottled: this is called tirage. The yeasts will turn the sugar into alcohol and produce carbon dioxide, which dissolves in the wine. Tis second fermentation in the bottles takes place very slowly, and at low temperatures (11° C), it the famous champagne cellars. After long ageing on the lees (residues left by the second fermentation), which is essential for making small bubbles and producing the aromatic qualities of the wines, the bottles are subjected to dégorgement, a process that gradually drains away the less.

  Each bottle is placed in one of the famous pupitres, or disgorging racks, so that the deposits will settle in the neck of the bottle, beneath the cork. For two or three months the bottle, beneath the cork. For two or three months the bottles will be periodically shaken and tilted, neck down, undil the wine is perfectly clear (automated riddling in a gyropallet is on the increase). To evacuate the deposit, the neck is frozen in a refrigerating bath and the cork is removed; once the deposit is expelled, the bottle is topped up with a wine that may or not may not be sweetened: this is the dosage. If pure wine is added a 100% brut wine is obtained (Brut Sauvage from Piper-Heisieck, Ulta-Brut from Laurent-Perrier, and champagne known as non-doses, or not sweeet-ended, and now called Brut Nature). If only a very small amount (1%) of sweetened wine is added, the champagne is brut; a content of 2% to 5% produces dry champagne ; 5% to 8% produces demi-sec, and 8% to 15% sweet. The bottles are then shaken to blend the wines together and set to again to allow the taste of the yeast to disappear. They are then labeled and released onto the market. From then on the champagne is ready to be appreciated at the top of its form. Allowing it to age for too long can only harm it: serious houses flatter themselves that they put their wines on sale only when they have reached their peak.

  Some excellent wines made from the first pressing, together with numerous “reserve” wines (for the non-vintages), the talent of the cellar-master, with his finely judged, minimal, undetectable dosing, and the long maturing of the champagne on the lees will combine to produce wines of the highest quality. But it is rare for a buyer to be fully informed about all these issues, and certainly there is no guarantee that the information will be accurate.

Read about Champagne - Part four