Friday, October 21, 2005

Visiting Champagne No. 7: La Methode Champenoise

Having seen all the previous steps in the creation of champagne, from picking to pressing, from fermenting to mixing, we finally come to the real secret in the making of champagne, the process of fermentation in the bottle (called 'La Methode Champenoise) which produces bubbles, without leaving any trace of the yeast that initiates the process...

The bottles used are particularly strong to withstand the pressure produced inside them. They are filled with blends of wine created from the different types of grapes that I have mentioned before. A quantity of sugar solution and yeast called the 'liqueur de tirage' are added to the wine in the bottle, and then the bottle is sealed with a metal cap. At this stage of bottling, the wine that goes into the bottles is checked and rubber stamped by an inspector from the Institut National des Appelations d'Origine in order to certify the quality and source of the wine.

Once inside the bottle, the yeast ferments the added sugar to create more alcohol. The by-product of this process is carbon dioxide. As the gas cannot escape, it dissolves in the wine until the moment when the cork is popped, at which moment it comes out of solution as bubbles. The pressure inside the bottle is 80-90psi, four times the pressure of a car tyre.

The wine is now stored for several years in the large, underground storage depot which you see below. M. Mobillion, our guide, is proudly pointing out his personal stock, but this is a co-operative and so will include bottles belonging to a number of different champagne producers.

The dead yeast cells (called lees) impart a particular flavour to the wine, but they must also be removed before the champagne is sold. To do this, the bottles are 'riddled' (called 'remuage' in French) by turning, tapping and slowly up-ending the bottle over a period of weeks or months until eventually it is facing neck downwards in a specially designed rack. The dead yeast cells are now sitting in the neck of the bottle.

The neck of the bottle is now dipped in freezing glycol or brine in order to create a plug of frozen wine in the neck of the bottle in which the dead yeast cells are trapped. The metal cap is popped and the frozen plug flies out. This is known as 'degorgement'.

The bottle is then topped up with a sweetish wine liqueur and sealed with a cork and wire in order to withstand the pressure that will continue to build up in the bottle.

A number of sites on the web claim that an Englishman, Christopher Merret, described the process of creating sparkling wine to the newly formed Royal Society in 1662, some 70 years before the first Champagne houses were created. He didn't invent the practice, however, because it seems it was already quite a well known procedure at the time. While the celebrated Champagne houses of the Reims region may not have been the originators of sparkling wine, they are certainly the ones to have made the biggest success from perfecting this product.


Andrea said...

Its all in the yeast and that is why I can not drink champagne of wine - allergic to yeast. I feel left out. (snif)

Jonathan Wonham said...

That's a shame.