Champagne: Wine Celebrity of the World

Jean François de Troy, The Oyster Lunch, 1735. The first time Champagne was seen in a painting

The full article was published in Bartender Magazine’s September issue.
By Edward Washington

Champagne Culture:

Champagne is the quintessential drink of celebration and, according to Kolleen Guy, has “oiled the wheels of social lubrication for generations. No single wine from the Rhone to Bordeaux is more French. In 1671, when the wine loving St. Evremond could not get access to the still wines of Champagne he lamented: “Oh sad and pitiable fate! Must we drink the wines of the Loire…or Bordeaux?”

The jubilance over a recent deep sea discovery of a cache of Champagne believed to pre-date phylloxera and possibly the French revolution is proof that no other wine is held in such high esteem.  Rumors abound that the cargo was the personal property of King Louis XVI destined for the Russian Tsar – if so the bottles could be auctioned for millions. Described as noticeably sweet by experts, scientific testing should reveal its place in history.


Despite the high esteem that the wines of Champagne are held in the area is a marginal wine growing region – it suffers from low rainfall and an average temperature of 16 degrees throughout the growing season. So what happens in the cellars of chalk and Kimmeridgean clay deep below that turns undistinguished still wines into wines of such quality, finesse and demand? A little bit of magic inside the bottle...

Some further reading on Champagne:

  • The Widow Cliquot by Talar J. Mazzeo
  • When Champagne became French by Kolleen M. Guy
  • History of Champagne Trade In England (1905) by Andre Louis Simon
  • Krug: House of Champagne by John Arlott
  • In Praise of Wine by Alec Waugh

Champagne’s  two step fermentation:

Three grape varietals are permitted in the making of Champagne: Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir. Pinot Meunier is best suited to the region and gives fruitiness to the wine. Pinot Noir produces gives distinct body and often serves as the backbone and Chardonnay gives a lighter style wine bringing fruity, floral notes as well as acidity and light, delicate bubbles.

Initially the winemaker aims to make a still wine from these varietals through the first fermentation. In the Champagne region these wines will usually be crisp and lean with marked acidity owing to the cool climate. Most of the first fermentation will occur in temperature controlled steel tanks; however some producers may use large old oak barrels for a proportion of their base wines. Depending on the style of wine that the winemaker is trying to achieve some of the base wine may be allowed to continue through malolactic fermentation. This process converts harsh malic acids in the wine into softer lactic acids.

Once the first process is completed the wine maker will have a range of still wines made up from the different varietals. The next step is to blend these base wines together to create a well balanced wine that will eventually become sparkling. For a producer’s standard non-vintage sparkling wine the aim every year is to create something that is consistent to their chosen style and quality- no different to a whisky blender. Whilst non-vintage wines may use base wines from previous vintages, storing these wines is expensive and so it is not widely practiced

Once the wine is blended a small proportion of liquid known as liquer de triage is added and the wine is bottled and closed with a temporary seal. This mixture is a cocktail of sugar, yeast nutrients and a clarifying agent that will begin the secondary fermentation inside the bottle. The bottle is then laid on its side in a temperature controlled storage area and a little more magic happens. As the secondary fermentation continues alcohol and CO2 are produced and as the yeast cells slowly die they fall down and form a deposit on the side of the bottle called lees. The temperature that the wine is stored at this stage is extremely important to the wines ultimate flavour. Lower storage temperatures will slow down the secondary fermentation and allow more delicate and complex flavours to develop.

The role of Maturation:

As the wine matures in the bottle the dead yeast cell deposit breaks down and their enzymes react with the wine. This process is called yeast autolysis and explains the nutty, biscuity, yeasty flavours you will often find in good quality sparkling wine.  For Champagne there are specific requirements for aging different wines. For a non-vintage wine the bottle must be aged for at least 15 months ‘on lees’, whilst for a vintage wine the minimum is 36 months – many Champagne houses may choose to mature both their wines for longer. Schramsberg winery in the Napa Valley has stock from the 1999 vintage still ‘on lees’. Visit for a more detailed look at one of America’s pioneering sparkling houses.

The next two processes following maturation are riddling and disgorgement. Riddling or remuage is the process through which the angle of the bottle is gradually altered so the deposit of sediment that has developed falls down toward the neck of the bottle. Using special racks called pupitre the wines are slowly inverted by hand until the sediment sits in the neck. More modern day machines called gryopalettes can also be used, controlling the riddling of hundreds of bottles at a time, however many champagne houses retain their specialist teams of remueurs.

Once the bottles are inverted they can be left for a further period of aging. If not, disgorgement then takes place. The neck of the bottle is frozen in a brine solution and the bottles are turned the right way up. The temporary cap is removed ejecting the sediment whilst keeping the wine clear. As a small amount of wine will naturally be lost the bottle is topped with wine and a mixture called liqueur d’expedition. This last addition is a mix of wine and cane sugar and will determine the wines sweetness – or dryness.

Once completed the bottle is sealed and will more than likely be rested for a period so the dosage can integrate with the wine, forming more complex flavours. This period of further rest can also allow the wine to recover from the violent process of disgorgement- otherwise known as ‘bottle shock’.

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