Bubbles in the Bottle
To get bubbles in traditional method champagne, we begin with a blend of still wines. This ordinary wine is subjected to a second fermentation. Yeast and sugar are added to the still wine and then it is bottled. This mixture of yeast and wine is called liqueur de tirage. The bottle is sealed with a pop off cap and stored on its side in cellars dug deep into the chalky soils of Champagne.
During the second fermentation the yeast eat the sugar and produce alcohol and carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide is trapped and gives us our coveted bubbles. Over time the yeast die (we call the dead yeast lees). The lees interact with the wine and add yeasty/bready flavors. These flavors are termed “autolytic flavors.” So what started as a dry white wine, now has bubbles – Yay! and dead yeast cells – Yuck!
To remove the lees (the now exhausted yeast cells), the bottles undergo a process called riddling or remeuage. They are given a 1/8 turn and tilted slightly down each day until the bottles are upside down. This takes at least a few weeks and can be done slowly by hand or quickly with expensive machinery. The lees slowly slide to the neck of the bottle. To learn the important figure in wine history who influenced this technique read A Toast to the Ladies.
The bottle necks are frozen, the pop cap removed, and the lees pops out in an icy chunk. This is called disgorging. Quick, quick put a cork in before you lose the bubbles. But before corking, the dosage or liqueur d’expedition is added. This is a blend of wine and sugar that both tops off the bottle and helps determine the final style of the wine. Note the champagne has stayed in the same bottle. This important note will be explained further in our series.
Everything about making sparkling wine, except for disgorging and dosage, happens over an extended time. There are waiting periods between each step that allow the wine to develop and give champagne its distinct flavors. Non-vintage and vintage champagnes must be kept on lees 15 months and 3 years respectively. Four to six years is more common and finer wines may remain on lees for ten or more years.
Remember the mushroom, attic, yeasty, mineral flavors we discussed in Santa Prefers Bubbles? Those flavors come from the chalky soil, the long aging process, the extended lees contact, and the fact that the barely ripe grapes would not have been fruity. Further aging before release and in your cellar leads to interesting changes in the best champagnes. Bubbles become creamier; yeasty flavors turn to toast and biscuit; and sugar from dosage becomes honeyed. And while attic may not be high on your list of favorite flavors it is a part of this complex wine and can be great with food. Think about the way you might describe your favorite stinky cheese. Doesn’t sound so appetizing but you love it anyway.
You can also begin to understand the price of some champagne. Slow hand labor or expensive machines are required for this process. The aging process delays release and takes up storage space.