Making Champagne

Alison Napjus
Issue: December 15, 2013

Champagne production is one of the most technically challenging and detailed versions of winemaking. Perhaps because of this, the men and women who oversee its production are referred to as the chef de cave instead of the winemaker—a nod to the craftsmanship that goes into blending and bottling Champagne.

Like all wine, Champagne begins with harvested grapes that are crushed and fermented, resulting in a highly acidic still wine known as a vin clair, or base wine. These base wines—typically made from one of Champagne's three grapes (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier)—are themselves blended together to create a final still wine that will become the Champagne. Larger producers will sometimes vinify and blend hundreds of base wines, each produced from fruit sourced from different areas throughout the region.

The final blend is then bottled along with a mix of yeast and sugar, known as the liqueur de tirage. The yeast and sugar fuel a second alcoholic fermentation and the creation of the bubbles. Next the wines are aged: non-vintage Champagne for at least 15 months before release and vintage bottlings for at least three years, though many producers significantly increase these aging times.

After aging, any lees or sediment left over from the liqueur de tirage are slowly moved to the neck of the bottle, a process known as riddling. Riddling was traditionally conducted by hand, but now most producers rely on large machines called gyropalettes for this labor-intensive process.

The final stage of Champagne production is disgorgement and dosage. In disgorgement, the neck of the bottle is frozen, and the frozen sediment, galvanized by the bottle's pressure, is shot out of the bottle. The bottle is then quickly topped off and a small quantity of sugar, known as the dosage, may be added to balance the finished wine.

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