WRITTEN BY PHILLIP SILVERSTONE
Since we’re entering the wedding season, I thought I’d give you a quick primer on French Champagne this week, so when you’re shopping for the French version or any sparkling wines made in the “French Method,” you will have an idea about the process that went into the nectar you’ll be using to toast the bride and groom.
Champagne tends to be more expensive than other wines simply because it is harder to make. Methode Champenoise, the traditional French champagne method for producing sparkling wines, is an intricate, labor intensive procedure which involves a series of stringent regulations which bring the grape from the vine to the bottle.
The grapes, mainly Pinot Noir, with varying percentages of Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay, are picked in late summer or early fall and then quickly pressed to yield a juice with minimal color. This juice, or “must,” is stored in large vats where the first fermentation occurs. During this primary fermentation, the yeast feeds on the natural sugar present in the must and converts it to alcohol and carbon dioxide gas. The wine is then filtered to remove sediment, and blended with reserve wine from previous years. An exception to this process in France, occurs in certain years when the grapes produce an extraordinary wine which the winemaker decides to call “vintage.” One hundred percent of the grapes from one year go into a vintage release, with absolutely no blending from previous years.
The second fermentation takes place right in the bottle, after sugar and yeast are added to the wine. The bottle is temporarily capped and stored to mature, which can vary from a few months to six years or more. When the wine has aged satisfactorily, the bottles are placed in racks, necks pointing downward, to be twisted by hand or machines, so the sediment (dead yeast cells deposited on the sides of the bottles) will dislodge and settle on the crown cup. In the early 19th century Madame “the Widow” Cliquot, took over her late husband’s Champagne house where she invented a process, called “riddling.” Before her intervention, champagne was a cloudy drink, full of sediment. Madame Cliquot discovered a way to get rid of the sediment by making holes in a table so the bottles could stand on their heads after aging, nudging the sediment to slide down the neck to the cork. Since some sediment still clung to the sides of the bottle, she gave the bottle a slight twist, just enough to ease the sediment on its way to the cork where it could then be removed. Riddlers have used this technique ever since.
The final step in champagne making is “dégorgement.” Here the neck of the bottle is chilled in a brine solution so the sediment coagulates as a frozen plug resting behind the cap. It is popped out when the cap is removed quickly and skillfully. Before the final cork is inserted, a small amount of sugar dissolved in still wine is added. The precise amount determines how dry the bubbly will be and whether the champagne will be brut, extra sec, or sec. Fermentation ceases at this stage of dégorgement, and no further activity occurs in the bottle. This is why champagne does not improve — as many still wines do — with age. And that’s the story of French fizz.
Phillip Silverstone’s column appears each week in this newspaper. “Time Out With Phillip Silverstone” is a weekly two-hour podcast heard exclusively on TuneIn radio anytime and anywhere worldwide either on the free TuneIn app for all smart phones and tablets (Search: Phillip Silverstone) or online on Tunein at: http://bit.ly/1gY2Ht4. “Follow” the show for weekly updates. You can also LIKE Phillip on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Phillipsilverstone and follow him on Twitter: @wining