This is a fun albeit heated subject that still make some people angry and lots of ink to be spilled. I’ll try to be succint in this introductory article about how to make Champagne, or how champagne is made.
The Champagne Method or Méthode Champenoise
In order for a wine to be considered real champagne, it has to follow the rules of production codified in an official specifications document (Cahier des charges
), and has to abide to the French AOC
Law (law of food origins). Using simple terms, the wine is made with some specific kinds of grapes grown in the Champagne region, it becomes sparkling in a glass bottle during a second alcoholic fermentation and ages a minimum of time before being finished and sold. Some 300 million bottles, or 225 million liters, or even yet 60 million gallons of champagne wines are currently produced (as of 2022) every year, submitting to these rules and laws.
Although champagne wine can be made from Pinot noir, Chardonnay, Meunier, Pinot blanc, Pinot gris, Petit meslier and Arbanne, the first 3 varietals in the list roughly represent a third of the total vineyards.
Pinot noir makes up around 38% of the total, notoriously planted around the eastern Mountain of Reims and in the Côte des Bars. As a varietal it most probably originated in Burgundy where it’s used at least since the 1300s. It was introduced in Champagne a long time ago, where it adapted well. It brings red fruit notes and body to the blend.
Meunier covers 32% of the vineyards, and is now recognized as a mutation from the Pinot noir in the Valley of the Marne river, where it is the most planted varietal. It comes with yellow and tropical fruit notes, adding a velvety texture to the mix.
Finally, Chardonnay is planted in 30% of the area, having also been brought from Burgundy a while back. It really likes chalky soils so it’s the only grape found in Grand cru villages in the Côte des Blancs south of Épernay. Vitry-le-François and Sézanne are two other areas where this is the main grape.
After almost 2000 years of grape growing in Champagne, the 85.000 acres where they grow best are already known and are regulated for the champagne making. That means you can’t just start a new vineyard: you have to either buy, inherit or be gifted an already existing vineyard.
Only 319 cities or villages have land regulated for champagne grape growing, and you could roughly drive from north to south, or east to west, in about 1,5 hours and still see clusters of vineyards. They are mostly divided by small plots and owned by small grape growers, who then sell the produce to the big champagne Houses.
AOC Champagne map – Comité Champagne
The viti-vinicultural practices are also in the Cahier des charges, and include: no irrigation; the height, distancing, manual pruning, budding of the vines; kinds of grapes; harvest dates fixed by a committee, whole bunch picking only, transport in crates with drains; among other conditions.
After machines and automation, much less people is needed for grape growing and wine making, with one exception: the picking. Because you want to preserve the integrity of the skins, and you want to pick the grapes at the best ratio of sugar and acidity, lots of grapes have to be picked at the same time, so lots of extra hands are hired during the vendanges which happen typically during August and September. Most of the 100.000 temporary pickers are French, but many come from the Eastern Europe, and will stay the weeks needed to do the job, staying in different sleeping conditions regulated by law. If you are curious, they earn the equivalent of the French minimum wage, or about 9€ the hour. You can earn more if you are really good at it and work longer hours, making it worth your while.
The last sections of the Cahier deal with the wine making and finishing, and are very strict. I’ll just outline the main steps. The bunches are thrown into presses of generally 4 or 8 tons capacity, taking around 3 hours to extract some 63% of the weight in liquid juice, trying the best not to break the berries that have to be whole and firm, otherwise giving a bitter taste and unwanted color.
Juices will be fractioned into 2 or 3 levels of quality and vinified separately, by grape, and by village or plot. The alcoholic fermentation takes around 2 weeks, and can happen in many kinds of materials, stainless steel being the most common, and oak barrels being often used for extra taste and texture. The CO2 generated is not kept at this point. Then, some of the wines keep their malic acid while some will have it turned into lactic acid for a milder acidity after some weeks.
Blending is not authorized until next year, and most producers wait at least until March when temperatures go up again. The new and the old wines are tasted, blends are imagined and tested, and the chosen ones will be reproduced in larger quantities in big tanks. New sugar and new yeast are thus added, starting a secondary fermentation, while the mix goes into new glass bottles closed with a metal crown cap. The bottles are taken to the cellars where the temperature is around 50 F, perfect for the wine to age.
It takes about a month for the new yeast to eat the new sugar and the oxygen bubble, turning them into more alcohol and CO2 gas, which is trapped inside, diluted in the liquid, raising the pressure to more than 6 bars. Champagne wines mature slowly, minimum 15 months for non-vintages but generally 24, and 36 for vintages but generally 5 years, while the yeast decomposes and give complexity to the wine, imparting notes of brioche and pastry.
Photo Epernay Tourisme
When the producer deems the champagne ready to be sold and consumed, the bottles will be turned, or riddled, to lead the remaining yeast to the neck, and the necks will be dipped into a freezing solution. This way the bottles can be turned up again where the disgorging machine will open the cap to have the frozen yeast be shot off into a collector because of the internal pressure. Without the yeast, and losing more gas, the champagne wine receives an amount of sugar to sweeten it (or not), the bottle is topped, and quickly corked and muzzled.
Photo Alexandre Couvreux – Epernay Tourisme
A minimum of 3 months have to pass between the final sweetening and the consumption, so the bottles return to the bottles for this period of time, before being washed, dried, labeled, packed and shipped. From the harvest to your table it won’t have passed less than 2 years, generally 3. Imagine the space they need to store the year’s harvest in tanks, the reserve wines in more tanks, and 3 years of bottles aging in the cellar, without mentioning the machines and tractors!
It is not coincidence that champagne is in average the most expensive sparkling wine in the world, and most people in the business of ranking wines will agree that in average it has the highest quality. Some champagne reached mythical status, like Salon and Cristal, and you can read another introductory post of mine about What is the best champagne to get more information.
Prosecco, Cava and Sekt are other kinds of sparkling wine that are not made in Champagne, and follow more lax rules and laws. Don’t get me wrong, I love those wines, I love Crémant from Alsace, Jura, Loire, and some English, German and Swiss sparkling wines impressed me recently. It’s just that they are still finding their identity, while Champagne has long centuries of experience in creating and making it perfect.