The Champagne Diaries

Methode champenoise, champagne method, sparkling wine is made in the manner employed in the Champagne region of France. Here in Michigan we use the same techniques to produce our own bottle fermented sparkling wines: this is how it is done.

October 9, 1994 – Picking and pressing the pinot noir on a cool, clear fall day. Small clusters, blue/black grapes, clipped from the vine, placed in the shallow yellow plastic lug box, carried down the row out from the vineyard to the winery. Into the press, whole, uncrushed, the clusters are gently pressed, yielding a pale pink juice which is pumped into a stainless steel tank.

A juice sample is drawn off for laboratory analysis: 18 degrees brix [18 percent sugar], 10.2 grams per liter of acid, and 2.9 ph – ideal for sparkling wine. Yeast is added to the juice in the tank; by tomorrow the yeast will be actively fermenting and a culture of malo-lactic bacteria will be added to the tank. The yeasts convert the grape sugars into alcohol and the malo-lactic bacteria convert the tart malic acid of the grape juice into the softer lactic acid desired in the wine. After a day in the large tank, the fermenting must will be pumped into oak barrels, there to stay for the fermentation and through the fall and winter. The barrel is attended to monthly, with a stirring of the lees [the sediments of spent yeast that settle to the bottom of the barrel] and an addition of about a bottle’s worth of wine to replace the angel’s share that evaporates from the barrel each month. By July, the pigments that made the juice light pink will have fallen out of the wine, and the wine in the barrels will be pale, coppery, nearly white.

November 20, 1994 – Remuage, riddling, begins on the cuvee placed en tirage in August of 1992, 27 months ago. During this time, the yeast has released into the wine marvelous flavors and aromas, changing the way the wine tastes and smells. And now is the time to collect the yeast in the bidule in the neck of the bottle. We begin by placing each bottle in a wooden rack, called a riddling rack, that holds the bottle at an angle with the neck down. After a day of resting in the rack, the yeast lies along the side of the bottle closest to the floor in a line from the neck to the base of the bottle. The bottle is lifted from the rack slightly, given a quick one quarter turn and firmly placed back into the rack with a thump. The line of yeast slides down the side of the bottle, moving closer to the neck. Once each day for over a month, this turning will be repeated, until the line of yeast on the side of the bottle has become a clump of yeast resting in the neck of the bottle, in the bidule. Then the bottle is removed from the riddling rack, and returned to the cellar, stored sur pointes, neck down, to await the degorgement.

July 23, 1995 – Today’s task for the cellarmaster, the chef de caves: assemble the cuvee, the blend of wines that will be bottled, fermented and aged to produce the Blanc de Blancs methode champenoise sparkling wine.

We have tasted various lots of wines over the past months, mentally doing the assemblage, assembling bits of this wine and that wine, attempting to produce a harmonious blending of flavors, aromas, textures. Today we have three final trial blends, each with varying proportions of seyval, vignoles, and chardonnay wines. After another round of smelling and tasting and contemplating, the decision is made. This cuvee will be 66 percent seyval from 1994, 19 percent vignoles from 1994, and 15 percent chardonnay that is itself a blend of wines from 1992 and 1993. The vignoles and chardonnay in the cuvee were fermented in oak barrels, the seyval was fermented in stainless steel tanks. The oak barrel fermented wines give the blend body and richness, the stainless steel fermented wines provide a lean crispness. The combination is what we desire.

August 8, 1995 – Tirage bottling: today the wine goes into the bottle. It has just begun to ferment, yeast having been added to the sugared wine yesterday. Now the wine is pumped to the bottle filler; champagne bottles are filled with the fermenting wine. A bidule, a plastic cup-like stopper, is driven into the neck of the bottle; then a crown cap is crimped over the top to finish sealing the heavy glass bottle. The filled bottles are placed on their side in large metal boxes. This blend, this cuvee, will rest in the bottles in the cool dark wine cellar for at least 18 months. In the first few weeks, the yeast will consume the sugar, producing carbon dioxide gas which, being trapped in the sealed bottle, will dissolve in the wine, carbonating it, giving it the effervescence we desire. After all of the sugar has been consumed the yeast dies; with the bottles lying on their side, the yeast settles along the side of the bottle, there to rest. This aging in the bottle with the yeast present is the tirage; the wine is said to be en tirage during this time.

January 12, 1996 – The final act of the methode champenoise: the degorgement, the disgorging, in which the yeast is removed from the bottles. The sur pointes bottles are brought from the cellar to the disgorging area. There with a deft flick of the wrist, the bottle is turned upright and the crown cap removed at just the right point in the turning. The pressure within the bottle blows the bidule out, and carries away the yeast, leaving the bottle nearly full of clear, sparkling wine, foaming out the neck. This is the a la volee method of degorgement, distinguished from the a la glace method wherein the neck of the bottle is frozen, making a plug of icy yeast sediment, which is blown out when the crown cap is removed. In either case, immediately the bottle is placed on the dosing machine, which meters into each bottle an identical dose of sweetened wine, called the dosage, and then tops each bottle up with more of the same sparkling wine drawn off from another bottle. This wine gets very little dosage, making it a brut; greater amount of dosage addition would make the wine extra dry, even more dosage would make a demi-sec. The bottle is removed from the dosing machine and placed in the corker, where a champagne cork is inserted partway into the neck. Then to the wirehooder, where a wirehood is pressed down over the cork, mushrooming it out, and the wire tightened to grip the neck of the bottle just below the ring of glass that prevents the wirehood from sliding off. Finally the bottle is washed and set in a case to await the dressing with the label and capsule.

In a month or so, the dosage married with the wine, the bottle of sparkling wine whose transformation began over two years ago will be ready to chill, open, and enjoy. Salute!

-Copyright 1996 L. Mawby