Welcome to Part I of the bubble and flute Making Champagne three part miniseries… an epic journey from Grape to Glass.
It is a tale of romance… the Chef de Caves’ love for grapes and their wines. It has drama and suspense… what will the climate hold? Harsh heat or cold frosts? And how will the winemakers blend the wines to bring us the champagnes we know and love, year in, year out?
Over the three parts, we will watch the grapes undergo a moving transformation… from grape to juice then wine before the champagne starts to sparkle from deep within its deep, dark resting place underground and its bubbles emerge. Finally, many many years later, the champagne gets to meet its destiny…. in your glass.
But now, Part I commences in a lush green vineyard, in early summer, with our little grapes ripening, as much as grapes in this northern, cool region will ever ripen.
It all starts with growing grapes
A lot of history, complexity, regulatory framework, technique, and some luck goes into growing high quality grapes as the foundation for a beautiful champagne.
Luck (and the drama and suspense!) comes with the weather. Very hot, very cold, very frosty, very wet, or very stormy weather affects the grape. The weather, something no one can control, is the main influencing factor in what makes a “good year”.
The Champagne region sits at the northernmost limit of areas suitable for growing grapes for making wine. This creates a surprisingly cool climate for grape growing (or more specifically for grape ripening). Cooler temperatures make for less ripening and ultimately higher acidity in wine. Champagne winemakers embrace the weather and have made this acidity a hallmark of champagne, rather than a drawback. But it can still be a challenge to balance (and bring consistency to the NV wines) especially in extra cool years or extra hot years.
Growing grapes in Champagne – like everything else in champagne – is heavily regulated as a means of quality control. There are many techniques growers employ to achieve the optimal ripening of grapes at harvest which I will save for another day and write more about in another post soon.
And then comes harvest time!
But once the grapes are ripe, it is time to harvest. And harvesting is cool! Champagne harvesting is steeped in tradition and (of course!) regulation.
Here’s the B&F Champagne School Harvesting 101:
- Every house, grower, and vineyard picks during the same window, which is set by the CIVC but it usually around 100 days after flowering which generally falls in September.
- The timing is important to get the right alcohol levels (which is based on the sugar content) balanced with acidity.
- To plan the timing, the CIVC test control plots across the region every two weeks looking for colour, sugar, acidity and any rot.
- All champagne grapes are picked by hand! Because the champagne method is based on grape pulp alone (skins are the enemy!), preserving the grapes during picking is critical to avoid damaging the grape skins or having any contact between the skins and juices (even during pressing). Damaging the grapes during harvesting deems the grapes useless for champagne making… so it remains a delicate, manual process.
- Around 120,000 pickers work in teams of 4 per hectare during a tiny 3 week window to pick the grapes at their peak.
Pressing the grapes to extract the precious juice
And once they are picked, the house quickly transports them for pressing.
I am truly fascinated by the pressing process… not in the least because despite using predominantly red grapes (about 2/3s of the harvest) to make champagne, you end up with a white sparkling wine!
This is achieved thanks to the fine pressing processes which are (you guessed it!) heavily regulated!
Pressing happens immediately after harvesting. The key to pressing is to limit contact between the skins and the grape juice so no red colour taints the wine. It also avoids picking up any tannins and histamines which are contained in the skin and introducing them to the wine (which is highly undesirable).
So how do they get the pressing just right?
There are five key factors…
- Pressing immediately after picking …. And there is actually a standard unit measure for a “press-load”… a 4,000 kg “marc”
- Pressing the grapes when they are still in their clusters and attached to the stems… the stems act like a natural filter for the juices to pass through
- Only a very gentle increase in pressure is applied to the grapes … the presses have very large surface areas for the weight of grapes they press specifically so the juices drain away without picking up too much tannin from the skins of the grapes
- Low juice extraction – houses are limited to extracting 25.5 hectolitres of juice per 4,000kg marc
- Fractionation or separating the juice from the first and second pressings – only 20.5 hl can be taken from the first press (the cuvee) and 5hl from the second pressing (the taille).
- The cuvee is the best quality juice and is richer in sugar and acids which produces a fresh palate and long ageing
- The taille has lower acidity and higher minerality producing more intense wines that are fruitier but won’t age as well
The use of the traditional basket press (shown above) has given way to steel tanks with air filled bladders for the pressing… not as romantic but they are less labour-intensive and still tick all the regulatory boxes.
But how will this story end? How will the juice become a wine? Will the wine-makers conquer the climate with their clever art of blending? And of course – most importantly – when will our still juice blossom and develop its sparkle? Find out in Parts II and III!
Welcome to Part One of the bubble and flute Making Champagne three part miniseries… an epic journey from Grape to Glass.
It is a tale of romance… the Chef de Caves’ love for grapes and their wines. It has drama and suspense… what will the climate hold? Harsh heat or cold frosts? And how will the wine makers blend the wines to bring us the champagnes we know and love, year in, year out?
We left our champagne saga just as our little grapes were crushed! Still very early on in its journey, our champagne isn’t technically a wine yet and it’s missing its all-important bubbles.
But before the end of this chapter in its story, our baby grape juice will blossom into wine and we’ll add the magic ingredient to give it its sparkle.
We left our Making Champagne miniseries just after adding the liqueur de tirage (yeast and sugar) before we sent the bottles to the cellars.
In Part III, we’ll see more geeky science stuff and more fancy French words for ageing champagne. We’ll cover all the cool stuff that happens in the dark, musty underground cellars to turn still wine into beautiful, bubbly champagne!
Bubble & Flute promotes the responsible consumption of alcohol for individuals of legal drinking age in their country. Prices and links correct at time of publication.