Known for its bubbles and its dry, acidic flavour, champagne is the wine of celebrations, toasts and decadence.
Over 300 million bottles of champagne are produced annually, all deriving from the one province in France by the same name. In fact, there are laws that say if it’s not produced in Champagne, then it cannot be called champagne. And, while there are some notable countries or regions that do not subscribe to these laws, the vast majority do.
What’s more, it’s not just the geographical provenance that’s controlled in this highly regulated corner of the wine industry. How champagne is made is subject to a very strict set of rules. With that in mind, let’s find out how champagne is made step-by-step.
Champagne: A Short History
Before learning all about champagne production in a factory or otherwise, it’s worth looking at its history.
It’s believed the Romans were the first to plant vineyards in northern France in around the 5th century, including in the region of Champagne. However, in its earlier forms, the wine from the region was pale, pink and still.
In the early 17th century, red wines were envogue. However, the climate in Champagne was not conducive to making it. Therefore, the winemakers of Champagne found a way to make white wine from black grapes. The bubbles were introduced not by design, but were caused by the cold winters affecting the fermentation process. In France, where still wine was preferred, they were seen as a fault, not an asset. What’s more, the gassy wine often caused bottles to explode.
One of the pioneers in champagne production was the Benedictine monk, Dom Pierre Pérignon. He overhauled winemaking practices, putting in place standards and processes.
The first country to embrace the bubbliness was England, which they did from the mid-17th century. France would follow in the mid-18th century. From there, champagne went from strength to strength.
While rulings defining champagne had been made as early as 1887, it was from 1919 onwards that the framework for the regulation of Champagne began to form. This paved the way for modern industry standards. And champagne has been a protected name under European law since 1973. So, how is champagne made today?
How Champagne is Made Step-By-Step
Champagne can be made from different types of grapes, but the most common are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. It’s usually dry, but there are also sweet Champagnes, known as demi-secs, that contain a higher amount of sugar. Champagne is typically aged for a minimum of one year before it is released, but some producers will age their wines for longer. The longer a Champagne is aged, the more complex its flavour will be. If you’re interested in learning more about Champagne, or if you’re just curious about how this famous sparkling wine is made, read on for a step-by-step guide.
Cultivating and Harvesting the Grapes
There are very strict rules regarding how champagne is produced. For instance, the only three types of grapes that can be used to produce champagne are:
- Black pinot noir
- Pinot Meunier
- White chardonnay
These must be grown within the Champagne territory and growers must abide by regulations about everything from planting density to plucking and pruning. Harvesting takes place in the autumn on dates set out by prefectoral decree. All picking must be done by hand and the grape clusters kept intact. The grapes are transported to the press house by tractor, in perforated containers.
At the pressing house, the grapes are pressed no more than six to eight hours after picking. Whole clusters are fed into the presses at once, but different varieties are pressed separately. Once pressed, the juice is immediately filtered out. This is done to ensure the grape skins and pulp do not impact the taste or look of the wine. Everything from the machinery used to the yield of juice is regulated. As it’s extracted, the juice is split into the cuvée, which is the lighter juice drawn at the beginning, and the taille, being the last five hectolitres.
The extracted juice flows into open tanks or ‘belons’ and is treated with sulfites. This aids in the preservation of the juices.
Clarification or ‘débourbage’ is the settling stage. The grape juice sits for up to 24 hours, allowing any sediment to collect at the bottom and be removed.
The First Fermentation: Alcoholic and Malolactic Fermentation
The first fermentation takes place in a room called the ‘cuverie’ and is usually done in two stages. The first stage is alcoholic fermentation, in which the juice is stored in special containers with certain additives, usually sugar and yeast. The sugar helps to control the alcohol levels, while the yeast aids in fermentation. The juice will be stored with these ingredients for about two weeks. Traditionally, it would be held in oak casks and some specialist vintage varieties still are. However, when it comes to how champagne is produced today, most winemakers now use stainless-steel vats with thermostatic controls.
Not all winemakers undertake the second phase, known as malolactic fermentation, in how they produce champagne. This uses freeze-dried bacteria to break down malic acid in the wine, converting it to lactic acid. It also lowers the acidity of the wine. For this, the wine is stored at 18 degrees centigrade with the added bacteria for a period of four to six weeks. The drawn off wine is then refined and filtered to create ‘vins clairs’, essentially clear base wine.
The process of blending – or ‘assemblage’ – blends wines, not just from different grapes, but also different vineyards and vintages, to achieve their unique flavour of champagne.
Bottling and Second Fermentation
The second fermentation of champagne takes place once it’s bottled. It is this which converts the still wine to a sparkling one. The blended wine is thus placed in a glass bottle that fulfils requirements as to strength and durability. Along with the wine, the following is added:
- A liquor of wine and sugar known as ‘liqueur de tirage’: this acts as a catalyst for the fermentation
- acclimatised yeast cultures: to convert the sugar to alcohol and carbon dioxide
- bentonite or bentonite alginate: to aid riddling or ‘remuage’, which means encouraging any sediment to settle near the cork
The filled bottles, with five centilitres of headspace left empty, are hermetically sealed, usually with a polyethylene stopper or ‘bidule’ or, less commonly, a cork. This is secured with a crown cap.
These are then stored in a cellar, stacked horizontally in rows. The conditions in the cellar are vitally important to the question of ‘how is champagne made’. These include a lack of natural light and draughts as well as strict temperature control kept between 9 and 12 degrees centigrade. The fermentation takes six to eight weeks.
The wine is then left to mature. The prescribed minimum periods of maturation run from the date of bottling and range from 15 months for non-vintage to three years for vintage varieties. However, most wineries will mature their champagne for much longer.
After their long stint in the cellar, the bottles are washed and checked for damage or deformities. They then undergo a labelling process in several stages. First, the neck is wrapped in a gold foil label bearing the name of the winery. This is compressed to fit snugly. Then adhesive labels are added to the neck and body. This is the final step in the process of champagne production.