Welcome to Champagne 101! Today’s lesson? How to bottle the stars. We’re deep diving into the bubbles and the lengthy process of making them, otherwise known as Méthode Champenoise.
What is Méthode Champenoise?
Established in 17th century France, the Méthode Champenoise is wine’s starmaker. Known by many names (méthode traditionnelle, traditional method, and Champagne method), méthode Champenoise is the process by which Champagne and many other sparkling wines have been made for centuries, characterized by the second fermentation process that occurs within the bottle (mis en bouteille).
The process is labor-intensive, historically done completely by-hand. Méthode Champenoise is law in the Champagne region, but the same process is used by sparkling wine makers from all over the world.
When shopping for bubbles, you can trust that all Champagnes are made with the traditional method, and most high-quality sparklers are, too. This includes cava, Franciacorta, and most quality California bubblies. To be sure, always check the label. Sparkling wines crafted outside of Champagne will usually note that they are made with the méthode champenoise.
If a bottle o’ bubbly was not made with the traditional method, it was likely produced with the Charmat (tank) method. With the Charmat method, the second fermentation process occurs in a stainless steel tank instead of the bottle it is sold in. This method offers a cheaper and faster production, and is commonly associated with Prosecco and other inexpensive sparklers.
The Steps to Méthode Champenoise
So, how does the magic happen? We’re covering every step of the traditional method, from the vineyards all the way to your taste buds.
In the Vineyard
It all begins with fruit. Champagne makers have strict regulations on what varietals can go into their bubbly– the big three Champagne grapes are pinot noir, chardonnay, and pinot meunier– these make up for about 97.7% of plantings. The remaining 0.3% are pinot blanc, arbane, petit meslier, and pinot gris.
Growers outside of the Champagne region tend to have a bit more freedom when it comes to their plantings, but each and every sparkling wine style has its own varietal standards.
For instance, Prosecco must be made with at least 85% glera and Franciacorta is usually made with 100% chardonnay, though some pinot bianco is permitted.
Harvest time is a celebration– it kicks off and sets the tone for the winemaking process. Grapes grown for Champagne and sparkling wine are typically the first to be picked of the season to preserve their fresh acidity and ensure that sugars aren’t too high. Unless extreme weather necessitates haste, Champagne harvest time is usually in September, though it can be much earlier in other regions (Oftentimes July for California sparkling wines!)
In the traditional method, grapes are harvested by hand– it’s a precise process. Delicacy is the key, especially when producing white wine with black grapes. The goal of hand picking is to keep grapes intact– growers want to avoid prolonged contact between broken berry skin and the juice, bulky harvest machines can crush the fruit which impacts the color of the finished product.
Once the grapes are off of the vine, they’re sent to the presses as soon as possible.
Grapes are usually pressed immediately after harvest in whole clusters. Every variety is pressed separately in a dedicated machine to ensure that every last grape is pressed as gently and evenly as possible. The press must be delicate to avoid any releasing of pigment from the skins into the clear or lightly golden juice – as most rosés are first fermented as a colorless vin clair. An exception would be the rare rosé de saignée, where the finished wine is colored straight away by the skins and juice macerating together for a time – with the bleeding off of the slightly pinkish/red juice after a few hours together.
The first press yields the highest quality juice, called the cuvée. The second and third press results in the taille, which has less acid and more tannins than the cuvée.
The fresh juice is fermented right away, usually in stainless steel tanks, though oak barrels or vats are more traditional. At this stage, yeast consumes natural sugar in the juice and converts it into alcohol. During primary fermentation, the resulting carbon dioxide is allowed to escape into the atmosphere. By the end of the primary fermentation stage, the base wine should have an alcohol level around 11-13%.
Each vineyard’s harvest is kept separate until the fateful day of assemblage. Assemblage is the act of blending base wines to create a unique blend – this is where the art of winemaking is at its most creative.
Winemakers taste hundreds of different base wines to craft their vision of bubbly out of thousands of possible combinations.
Bottle Fermentation & En Tirage
After the blend has been established – it’s time to bottle! In the traditional method, sparkling wine gets its bubbles in the same exact bottle you toast from. Some Champagne producers will have control of the product much earlier than this stage though, corks labeled “mis en bouteille” indicate that the wine was bottled at the source. But nonetheless, this is where the journey of your bottle begins regardless of where the fruit is grown, and most importantly, where the bubbles are captured.
Once the blend hits the bottle, it receives a liqueur de tirage, which is a solution of yeast and sugar in a small amount of juice. Then, the bottle is sealed with a crown cap (like a beer bottle) as the second fermentation process starts bubbling.
After it has been sealed, the wine is set to mature on its side. The process of forming bubbles is called prise de mousse, which translates to “capturing the sparkle.” Yeasts eat up all the sugar, and expend heat (which dissipates), alcohol, and carbon dioxide (which dissolves into the liquid until the time of the cork-pop!)
Once the yeast has run out of sugar (it’s food source) it dies and is now know as “lees.” The bottles aren’t released to the market yet, however! The next stage is a maturation process is called time on lees– the longer a wine is in this stage, the more rich, creamy, and complex it will be. The minimum time on lees for Champagne is 15 months, but it is often aged for much longer, especially for vintage Champagne.
Also referred to as riddling, remuage is the slow process winemakers use to remove yeast sediment from every bottle. It involves incrementally rotating a bottle and gradually tilting its neck down, so the sediment can slide down to the base of the bottleneck and collect in the bottle cap. Lees are naturally sticky, and this method ensures they travel up into the top of the neck for collection.
Historically, this process was completed over several weeks or months by hand – with a specific worker solely trained in the art of riddling (funnily enough, this person was called the riddler!) Today, remuage at most wineries is completed with a machine called a gyropalette that can riddle up to 500 bottles at a time (watch that magic happen here!) When automated, remuage is completed in as little as seven days.
When all of the sediment is settled at the base of the bottleneck, it’s time for dégorgement, which is the sediment removal process.
Before machine automation, this was done by hand, (shocker, right?) and in rare cases the traditional “à la volée” is still practiced wherein a disgorger will hold the base of the bottle in the crook of their arm and tilt the bottleneck to the floor as the cap is opened and sediment is quickly and forcibly expelled (it takes a master, people!) This is a messy process, to say the least.
Nowadays, it’s mostly done by machine– with the exception of supremely special bottles. The disgorgement machine submerges the bottle neck into a below-freezing solution, causing an icy plug of sediment to form. Then, the bottle is opened just quickly enough for built-up gasses to eject the frozen plug, leaving behind the crystal clear bubbly you know and love!
So, you might be wondering: shouldn’t the bottle be a bit empty? Dosage is the answer to that. It’s the mix of sugar and reserve wine that’s added to the bottle– the final creative touch. The type of dosage added to each bottle depends on the style of Champagne or sparkling wine you’re making – are you highlighting the wine’s inherent fruitiness? Polishing some sharp edges? Adding depth to an otherwise linear bottling? The dosage is your final touch as a winemaker… and last chance to put your signature stamp on the finished wine.
Styles range from bone dry brut nature (no sugar added), all the way to the extra sweet doux (more than 50 grams per liter) – though the vast majority of Champagne falls into the brut category (a range of 6-12 g/l).
Cork and Cage
After dosage, a unique, extra-wide cork – shaped like a button mushroom – is added and topped with a wire metal cage. Once the bottle is sealed, Champagne makers will vigorously shake the bottle to ensure the wine and dosage is evenly mixed, a process known as “poignettage.”
Then, the bottles are put to a well-deserved rest, oftentimes for several months or years before they are prepared for shipment out into the wide world.
Pop the Bottle and Enjoy
After all of this, somehow, miraculously, the bottle lands in your hands (Who knows? Maybe you got it from us…) All there’s left to do is pop the bottle and raise a toast to the astounding craftsmanship behind every sip– we’ll drink to that.
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