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A little on Champagne and sparkling wine made by the Traditional or Champenoise Methode… I’m sure you’ve heard – Dom Perignon invented it, right?  Wrong.  We owe some viticulture techniques and artful assemblage or blending techniques to him, but otherwise, he thought the sparkles were bad and spent many of his years at Abbey of Hautvillers trying to rid of the bubbles.  What about Widow (Veuve) Clicquot?  The mother of the bubs, right? While we can thank her for the likes of remuage, the technique of riddling, she and some of the other Champagne widows likely poisoned or suffocated their husbands in the early 1800s.  At least that’s the vibe that I get…

Anyway…

When it comes to wine style, terroir, single vineyards, obviously single vintages, cuvees, etc are prized across the world.  Champagne is greatly different, unless we’re talking about growers that have changed the last 20 years – many a Champagne houses made (and make) their reputation upon their house style.  Non-vintage champagnes are the most prevalent style of Champagnes and they are a blend of grapes (one, two or all three of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay & Pinot Meunier), blend of vineyard areas and blend of vintages.  Champagne is one area of the old world where the process and decisions of the producers has as much to do with and is as important as where the grapes hail from.  Let’s break it down…

The Champenoise Methode or Methode Traditionnelle are the same save for the fact that Champagne can only come from eh ehm… Champagne.  Some of the ageing requirements vary also.  Otherwise, here’s my go at explaining this complicated process in an uncomplicated way:

– pick the grapes
– press very soon after, especially the black grapes to avoid that the juice acquire any color
– the first 2,050 liters is the vin de cuvée
– the following 500 l is the vin de taille and tends be richer in color and tannin
– allow the juice to settle for between eight and 15 hours, sediment will fall, then rack
– the must may or may not be chaptalized at this point
– primary fermentation occurs and results in a high acid wine that we’ll refer to as the base wine. Its abv is approximately 11%.  It takes place in either stainless steel or used barrels, some growers experiment with a percentage of new oak
– clarify the base wine by fining, filtering or centrifuge
– keep the base wine in the stainless steel or barrel until the following February or March
– blend. I’m talking grapes, vineyard areas, vintages. Some don’t do this.  Notably, Cedric Bouchard – he does single vintage, single varietal, single vineyards Champagnes.  But for those producing wines with a “house style” this is where the art of blending comes in.
– cold stabilize. maybe.
–  rack & bottle, add a mixture of wine, yeast & sugar called liqeuer de tirage to ignite the secondary fermentation that occurs in the bottle.
– secondary fermentation takes place for up eight weeks. Abv rises by 1.2 to 1.3%. About 5 to 6 atmospheres of pressure develops as a result of the CO2.
– while secondary ferm is happening, autolysis also occurs.  That’s the breakdown of dead yeast cells.
– age on the lees for a minimum (in Champagne ) of 12 months for non-vintage
– there’s all kinds of yeast cells in there now; we want to trap them in the neck and expel them. So…
remuage or “riddling” = if old school or elite cuvee, lay the bottles sur latte (horizontal) in a pupitre. That’s a thing that looks like two doors leaning against one another in an “A” shape, holes in the side for all the bottles.  Over the course of 8 weeks or so, someone (with patience) rotates the bottles and tilts downward each bottle ever so delicately and precisely so that the yeast slowly gathers and falls into the neck. OR, use the Spanish-invented gyropallette: a machine that does the same thing over the course of I think 24 hours with 504 bottles at a time.

Patient French men.

– when the bottle is totally upside down it’s sur point.  Bollinger’s “RD” champagne is left like that for a long, long time, not moved into the next step of disgorgement until order. That’s cool.
degorgement or “disgorgement”: dip the tip of the bottle into frozen brine solution to freeze the yeast cells. pop off the crown cap and the frozen portion will expel itself. some wine is lost during that step, so more is added.
– that’s called dosage.  It’s a combo of wine and sugar syrup.  here’s the chance of the house to further define their style and level of sugar.  There’s a big move for “non-dosage” wines these days.  I’ll touch on that in a sec.  Anyway, the level of dosage and grams of sugar that might be added determines the level of Champagne it is (extra brut, brut, extra dry, sec, demi-sec or doux). Brut is most common and the grams of sugar can be between 0 and 12.
– then put a cork and cage on it. The cage wire is twisted 6 times.
– non-vintage Champagnes must age 15 months in the bottle (this includes time sur lie)
– vintage must age 36 months

I quote below, one of my favorite wine writers yet again, Terry Theise, from his 2011 Champagne sales catalog in regards to the issue of dosage.  I can’t say it any better than him, and he cites a great example / experience:

“I opened my existing Champagne catalogue and saw I’d written a desperate note; ‘Must we talk about residual sugar any more?’  This is the inevitable downside of the Champenoise entering the current.’  In 2008 I detailed a revelatory tasting we did with Hebrart in which we looked at six different dosage options for his 2004 club, and learned what you always learn when you taste through different sweetness levels.  Sugar acts upon every other facet of the wine in unpredictable ways.  More sugar doesn’t invariably mean a greater sense of sweetness.  Sometimes the “sweeter” option tastes drier than the less sweet wine.

Among the trendy young growers there’s a sad tendency to see this question in obtusely broad strokes.  Less dosage is not always better.  It doesn’t make your wine more honest, more pure, more transparent, more sophisticated or more honorable; it just makes it more dry.  Among the many dubious things we owe the big Champagne houses is that they’ve poisoned the well by making their commercial bottlings treacly-sweet in order to mask the deficiencies of the base product, or because they presume their “market” wants the wines sweet.  And so we all beleive that less sweetness is more desirable.  First we let them dupe us, and then we duped ourselves.”

My tasting group’s bubbles tasting was great, we ended up with a good variety of styles and it prompted me to look further into bubble-related topics like decanting Champagne; more on that later.

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