Exploring the technique and tradition of food and wine through storytelling

How to Make Champagne

Are Champagne and Sparkling wine the same thing? I wanted to start with a note that Champagne is a style of sparkling wine. Champagne refers to sparkling wine made in the Champagne region of France using chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot meunier. One of the agreements included in the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 was that the United States would stop using the word “champagne” to sell Sparkling wine. There is an anecdote that the French were suggesting they sell large jugs of low quality red wine with labels that said things like “Napa Valley Red.” There are a few American producers that were grandfathered in and allowed to call their sparkling wine “California Champagne.” I was once instructed by a 6th generation French wine maker that the only way to handle a bottle of American wine labeled “Champagne” is to dump it down the sink (some people get really worked up about things like that).

There are a few methods employed today to make the various sparkling wines of the world. I want to cover the méthode champenoise. This is the method used to make champagne and produces the highest quality bubbles. In other parts of the world, it is referred to as the traditional method.

Méthode Champenoise. The process begins in the same manner that white wine does. Top quality white or red grapes are pressed. At the beginning, the juice is clear. (If a Rosé sparkling wine is desired, the color will be achieved later in the process). The juice is refrigerated for 24 to 48 hours in order to allow any solid particles to precipitate.

Next, fermentation begins with the addition of yeast. The juice will be fermented until it is bone dry. This means that virtually all existing sugar is fermented to alcohol. If sweet sparkling wine is desired, that sweetness will be added later in the process.

Liqueur de Tirage. The dry wine is put into bottles with a tiny bit of wine, sugar and yeast. The French call this the “Liqueur de Tirage.” This solution induces a secondary fermentation in the bottle. We’ve discussed in the winemaking blog post that there are two byproducts of fermentation: Ethanol Alcohol and Carbon Dioxide. Because the bottle is sealed during this bottle fermentation, all of the carbon dioxide is trapped. This pressure forces bubbles into the wine.

Sur Lie Aging. When the secondary fermentation is complete, The wine must age with the lees (spent yeast cells). This is called Sur Lie aging which literally means, “on the lees.” This process helps develop the bready notes in the flavor profile. Champagne is the northern most French wine region. As mentioned in the factors affecting grape growth article, cool climates produce grapes with high acid content. Sur lie aging helps to tame some of that acidity.

Riddling. The next step is to get the dead yeast particles out of the bottle. This process is called riddling. A wooden A frame ( called a pupitre) is used so that bottles may start in a horizontal position and over a period of 6-8 weeks they are incrementally moved to an upside down position. The result is a layer of sediment accumulated at the cap of the bottle. Large producers will use a gyro palette to gently perform the riddling on multiple bottles in a much shorter timeframe (8 days). The removal of the lees sediment is called disgorgement and its one of my favorite parts of the process.

Disgorgement. The bottles, still upside down, are submerged a few inches into a subfreezing brine. The disc of yeast sediment is frozen solid. The wine is turned upright and the cap is removed. The pressure from the bottle fermentation launches the yeast disc out of the bottle. There is some wine lost in the process, so new wine must be added in.

Dosage. This additional wine, called a dosage, provides the opportunity for the sparkling wine to be dry, sweet, or rosé. For example, a sparkling wine could be made with pinot noir (a red grape). The juice is clear throughout the whole process. When the dosage is added, red pinot noir wine would be added to give the sparkling wine a rosé color. Likewise, when a sweet dosage is added, the sparkling wine becomes sweet. Inversely, when a dry dosage is added, the sparkling wine stays dry.

How do we know if the champagne is dry or sweet? There are specific terms to describe the level of sugar in Champagne.

  • Brut Nature. 0-3 grams of residual sugar per liter. Bone Dry
  • Extra Brut. 0-6 grams of residual sugar per liter. Very Dry
  • Brut. 0-12 grams of residual sugar per liter. Sugar present, but undetectable, so yes, very dry
  • Extra dry. 12-17 grams of residual sugar per liter. Counterintuitive name, this one is noticeably sweet
  • Sec . 17-32 grams of residual sugar per liter. Off dry, meaning it is semisweet
  • Demi Sec. 32-50 grams of residual sugar per liter. Definitely sweet wine
  • Doux. 50 or more grams of residual sugar per liter. Super sweet wine
Vintage 1987

Nonvintage vs Vintage Champagne. Nonvintage Champagne is aged for a minimum of 15 months. Vintage Champagne is aged for a minimum of 36 months. Vintage Champagnes are more rare because the weather varies each season and it is difficult to maintain a consistent product year after year. Sometimes champagne houses will blend harvests from multiple years to create a product that is consistent with their brand. The resulting blend is called a Cuvée. The blending process to create a Cuvée is called “assemblage.” Sometimes, the growing season is exceptional and a “vintage champagne” can be made using grapes from one harvest.

Styles. Blanc De Blanc, white of white, this is 100 percent chardonnay.

Blanc de noir, white of black, made with the red grapes pinot noir and pinot meunier.

Rosé can be made with a blend of all 3 champagne grapes and it is pink in color.

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