Friday, October 07, 2005

Visiting Champagne No. 6: Going Underground

Well, as you can see from my last blog, I am now in serious food-writing mode. Any French food producer interested in having their gastronomic delights reviewed and celebrated, please contact me via the e-mail at the top of the page. All items of cheese, wine, foie gras, truffles etc. will be gratefully received, consumed and acknowledged in these pages...

However, for now there is still the story of Champagne to finish...

After watching the grapes being loaded into the pressoir, we headed down some narrow stairs and emerged into an ultra-modern wine-producing complex. This really wasn't what I was expecting. I was thinking along the lines of large oak barrels, mechanical presses, old pipes running this way and that, but no, nothing like that, just polished steel, quality control (see the man working at his desk with samples and siphons) and rigorous hygiene.

The first stage of champagne production is to ferment the grape juice into wine. Champagne is a mix of different wines produced from the different types of grapes. The wines are blended in different quantities to alter the resulting Champagne. If it is to be sweeter, more Chardonnay is used, while Pinot Noir grapes will produce a drier taste. M. Mobillion poured us a glass of juice from the vat of liquid that had just descended from the press. It was very sweet and cloying with a brownish-yellow colour. Yeast is added to the juice and then it passes into temperature controlled vats like those in the picture below. There are several rows of vats like this one. Each vat is monitored to keep the temperature at a constant 18 degrees C, ideal for fermentation.

Inside other vats are piled the remains of pressed red grapes. These will be fermented into a red wine liqeuer used to create rosé champagne.

Once the juice has fermented into wine, it is transferred into much larger vats where the yeast is allowed to filter out. It is tapped off at the bottom of the vat. The wine is given a cold-shock to decrease the acidity and hasten the settling.

I liked this. It's a valve on top of one of the large vats. It's exactly like the one I used to have on top of a demijohn when I made home-brew during my student days. Only much bigger. The valve allows carbon dioxide, a byproduct of the conversion of sugar to alcohol, to escape, without letting air enter the vat. Hygiene is very important in the fabrication of wine. If you ever make wine at home and it tastes acidic or vinegary, that's probably because the equipment wasn't thoroughly clean.

From the large vats, the next stop is blending and bottling, and that's where the real secret of champagne starts...

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