Tuesday, December 15, 2020

The Wine Science Behind Champagne

With only a few more days to Christmas in what became the craziest of years! I decided that I was not going to allow COVID19 to ruin my holiday spirit. And with this thought in mind I dedicated a few posts to sparkling wines. 

One question that my students ask quite often, is how do producers create the fancy bubbles? So, let’s start from there, there are three basic ways to create bubbles in sparkling wines:

A)The Method Champenoise or Traditional (where the bubbles are created by a second fermentation that happens inside the bottle). This is the method used for the best quality sparkling wines: Champagne, Cava, Crémants, etc. B)The Charmat Method (with the second fermentation that creates the bubbles takes place in a tank, then the sparkling wine is transferred to the bottles), like in Prosecco and Sekt. and C) by the addition/injection of C02 like they do with commercial sodas (also happening in a tank).

Today’s post is about one of my favorite wines in the world: Champagne! where the second fermentation takes place inside the bottle.  The Traditional or Champenoise method, is a sparkling wine method created by an English man called Christopher Merret, but perfected by a French monk named Dom Pérignon…. Yep! the same name, as in the super expensive Champagne by Moët Chandon. See in wine, most things happen by accident, the truth is, wine itself was an accident. History tells us that monks in the past, besides praying all day, made a lot of wine for sacramental purposes. Dom Pérignon’s intention was to make a dry still wine, but it seems his wines were not very chemically stable, and soon he discovered that his wines started refermenting again, after being bottled.  What probably happened was that, in the cold cellars of Champagne, fermentations stopped before the yeasts had an opportunity to eat all the sugar. 

Dom Pérignon must have believed that the fermentation had finished and went ahead with the bottling of what he thought to be a finished still wine. Later on, when temperatures rose up again in the cellars, the yeasts inside the bottles became active once more, generating CO2 that was now trapped in the bottle, and voila! we had sparkling wine. Poor Dom Pérignon! He tried to prevent these from happening several times, but didn’t have the technology, winemakers have today to halt and control fermentation. So, after many tries, he tasted the wine and liked it. Dom Pérignon was also a very skilled wine blender and the first to make white wine from black grape varieties. Later on, Champagne became so popular that was the drink of choice in Louis XV’s court, and a staple in many French coronations that happened in the city of Reims (located in the very heart of the Champagne AOP). 

Now, according to European regulations, true Champagne may come only from one place in the whole world, from the Champagne AOP district in France, located about an hour NE of Paris. This appellation comprises the following 4 subzones: The Montagne de Reims,The Côte des Blancs et the Côte de Sézanne, The Vallée de la Marne and The Côte des Bar. 

See map above, courtesy of CIVC, regulatory council that controls all production of Champagne.

A whopping 34,000 hectares are dedicated to vineyards for Champagne production. These are distributed within 319 villages/crus, among them 17 Grand Cru and 42 Premier Cru. Like in Burgundy, location is very important here, but in Champagne, this is tied to the village and not to the vineyard. Yet, a Champagne made solely with fruit from a Grand Cru village, not only will have the best quality fruit in it, it should also say so on the label. 

Now, what makes this appellation so special? Of course and like in every region, the viti and the vini. The viticulture which includes climate, soils and topography, all of which will provide optimal fruit, and then the vinification, the winemaking intent and the process, which is very special in Champagne, as I will explain in detail below. So, let’s start by saying that the Champagne appellation is located very northerly, exactly between the 48º and 49º parallels, in what we know is a marginal climate for growing grapes. The climate of the region is continental with an average temperature in the summer of 51º Fh (or 11º Celsius), this translates into cool summers. Frosts in winter and spring can be a problem, as well as the freezing of the vines, uneven pollination and flowering too. Most vineyards are planted on hillsides/gentle slopes to increase sunlight exposure, altitudes here average 300 m. The soils are rich in porous limestone (chalk) which will provide minerality to the wines, and at the same time good drainage, some of this limestone contains clay, marl, sand and marine fossils from the mesozoic era.

Seven grape varieties are allowed in the region, including Arbanne, Petit Meslier, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris, yet the most important are the basic 3, all key elements of NV Champagne, which are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Pinot Noir, covers 38% of all plantings, and is mostly found in the Montagne de Reims and the Côte des Bar subzones. Pinot Meunier, covers 32 % of the plantings, mostly located in the Valley de Marne and Chardonnay covers 30% of the plantings, mostly located in the Côte des Blancs and Sézanne. 

Now, every Champagne starts its life as a light table, high acid white wine. So, once the grapes achieve the correct levels of sugar and acidity, the grapes are harvested, by hand to prevent crushing and accidental early fermentation. The date of the harvest will be decided each year by the CIVC or Comité Interprofessionnel du vin de Champagne, who will also determine the amount of grapes allowed to be used for AOP production, the minimum alcohol of the wines and yields (10 hl/ha for 2019) all of which vary every year. 

Upon harvesting, the wines will be pressed immediately. The pressing of the grapes must be fine and gradual, in full clusters with stems, avoiding any skin contact, unless you are making Rosé Champagne (we will see how we get the color for this special type later on). Producers can only extract a maximum of 102 liters of must per 160 kg of fruit. Usually fruit from different villages are pressed, kept and fermented separately, according to the village, and also by variety. Juice extraction is measured in marcs or press loads, each marc is the equivalent to 4,000 kg of fruit. 

The pressings are divided in fractions, the best juice is known as the cuvée, and represents 2,050 L and the second is known as the taille or tails, representing 500 L. Each one is different. The cuvée is the free run juice, rich in sugar and  tartaric and malic acids. The taille or tails is also rich in sugar, but with less acid and more mineral content. The leftovers from the pressing (pomace) are sent to distilleries to make a spirit similar to Italian grappa. Earlier on, all pressing used to be done manually in vertical presses, nowadays, these are being replaced by pneumatic presses that are controlled via computer. After the Débourbage or settling/clarification of particles and pulp of the fresh must. The wine is then transferred to stainless steel vats or used oak vats (depending on the producer), protected with S02 to avoid oxidation and inoculated with special yeasts to start fermentation. If necessary, producers may decide to chaptalize by adding sugar from beets or sugarcane. They may decide whether to allow malolactic fermentation to happen or not, depending if they want a rounder, less acid wine or not. 

Up until here, this process is similar to any white wine fermentation, then comes two important parts in Champagne, one is the blending of the wines and the other is the creation of the fine bubbles. See, Champagne is not only a blend of grapes but also of wines from different vintages, the idea here is for the master blender to keep the house style year after year. Any NV Champagne is usually a blend of at least 3 different vintages, some producers can even include up to 10 vintages of reserved wines. In a typical NV Champagne, each grape variety will contribute something different to the blend, Pinot Noir will provide backbone and structure, Pinot Meunier will provide roundness and fruitiness and Chardonnay will provide elegance, minerality, floral notes and acidity. Once we have the base wines, they will be transferred to the bottles where they will be sold (which means, the second fermentation will happen there, no matter the size of the bottle). Here, the magic of creating the bubbles will take place with the addition of the liqueur de tirage, a blend of wine, yeast, sugar (about 20-24 grams/litre, enough to obtain a pressure of up to six bars/ atm) and additives that will assist with the remuage process (riddling). 

The bottle will be then sealed with a crown cap. During the next to 6-8 weeks, the yeasts will eat all the sugar, causing the second fermentation inside the bottle and creating the bubbles. Because they don’t have anywhere to go, the bubbles will “marry”  or integrate with our wine. Here it is important to note the size of the vessel where the second fermentation takes place, since the tinier the vessel, the finer the resulting beads, and the more elegant the wine. But the creation of the bubbles is one part of the process, the other important part is the aging with the lees or autolysis. Once the yeasts eat all the sugars, they die, creating a white sediment that producers will need to remove to have a bright, clear looking product. The autolysis is the process where the dead yeasts break inside and give the wine their bready typical aromas, you know, the notes of brioche, croissant, biscuit, that we find in most champagnes. This maturation happens in the cellars underneath the appellation of Champagne, usually at 12º Celsius or 53º fh for a minimum of 15 months for NV wines and 3 years for Vintage wines. Remember, that most producers usually age wines for much longer than that. Extra time on the lees will also give the wines more complexity and cremosity. 

Now, when the time for bottling has arrived, it will be time to remove the dead sediments first, this is known as degorgement. In order to do this, producers used to put, the bottles in a pupitre, see picture on your left, where the bottles are tilted neck down and are rotated by a remuager (a riddler) that normally can rotate 40,000 bottles per day. The bottles are rotated in little increments to force the sediments gently into the neck. This process can be accelerated by using machines called gyro palettes. Now, once you have all the dead yeasts at the neck, comes the actual degorge or expelling of the sediments. Producers will freeze the neck of the bottle to -37º Celsius and with the pressure of the bubbles, the yeast pellet will fly out, and with it some of the wine. Next, the producer will add more wine to top up the bottle, known as dosage. At this moment, he /she will decide to add sugar to the wine, depending on the style of sweetness he/she wants to create. And these could be:Brut Nature (driest of all styles) will contain 0-2 gr of sugar, Extra Brut 0-6 gr, Brut 0-12 gr, Extra Dry 12-17 gr,Dry 17-32 gr, Demi Sec 32-50 gr or Doux (sweetest of all) with more than 50 gr.

Once we added the dosage, the final step is to cork the wine with closures capable of tolerating the pressure inside the bottles.  This pressure could get up to 6 atm or 70 to 90 pounds per square inch, equaling two to three times the pressure of a car tire.  Also note, that to withstand the pressure inside, we will need thicker and heavier bottles than those used for still wines, normally most Champagne bottles can withstand 20 atms of pressure.

Most NV Champagne is an equal blend of the basic 3: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier.  But there are other styles of Champagne, the Blanc de Blancs for example, it’s  a Champagne made only from white grapes (Chardonnay).  The Blanc de Noirs, it’s a Champagne made from black varieties such as Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes. There’s of course, Rosé Champagne, that can be made with the Saignée method, or by blending white and red wines. In the case of Saignée, a short contact with the skins is what will give the light salmon color to these wines. Then, we have the Prestige Cuvées, these are the best Champagnes in the world, normally they are also vintage Champagnes (made with fruit from a single vintage/ harvest).  Usually produced by the Big Champagne houses, with the best quality fruit. Here are some of them: Pol Roger Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill, Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame, Moët Chandon Dom Pérignon, Louis Roederer Cristal, Krug Clos de Mesnil, Taittinger Comtes de Champagne. (If you have the money, I strongly advise to spend your bucks here, at least for a special occasion). 

Remember to serve your champagne in a tulip glass, where you can see and can keep the fine beads that have required so much work to achieve. Champagne should be served chilled at 8-10º C 46-50º fh. Depending on the styles, Champagne can show different aromas, showcasing white flowers, citrus (grapefruit, lemon), tropical fruits (litchi, pineapple). Also a flinty, chalky character that is typical of wines from these terroirs. Black de Noirs featuring Pinot Noir and Meunier grapes will showcase notes of yellow fruits (peach, apricot, plum), soft berry fruits (strawberry, cherry, sometimes with a hint of blackberry or blueberry), citrus (mandarin, orange) and exotic fruits (mango and passion fruit).  Rosé Champagne may offer fresh aromas of red fruits such as wild strawberries, ripe red berries, and with age, dried fruits and spices.

My Champagne recommendations: many thanks to Vineyard BrandsEuropvinPalm Bay Imports and Taub Family Selections for this beautiful selection of Champagnes. 

Pommery NV, $45.99

The perfect blend of 33% Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, aged for 3 years on the lees. Classy and refined.

Champagne Boizel Brut Reserve NV $49.99

A blend of 55% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay and 15% Pinot Meunier. White peach,

apricots and brioche. Delish with a full body.

Champagne Vollereaux Rosé de Saignee Brut NV $54.99

Made from 100% Pinot Noir and aged for 3 years on the lees. Ripe strawberry, pastry and vanilla nose. Rich and mineral champagne.

Pommery Rosé Brut NV $65.99

Slightly fermented with the Pinot Noir skins to obtain its beautiful color. Also a blend of equal parts Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. It features the perfect balance of berry and spice. Well knitted and superb.

Delamotte Champagne NV $65.99

A blend of 55% Chardonnay, 35% Pinot Noir and 10% Pinot Meunier. Impressive nose full of citrus,white flowers and green apples. Delicate and elegant.

#thoughtsoflawina #winewednesday #champagne 

Happy New Year!, My Dear Winos! Cheers, Silvina. 

As always, remember to subscribe to continue receiving Thoughts of La Wina in your inbox. For more wine recommendations, follow me on Instagram @silvinalawina and Linkedin.