Our experience at a French Champagne Factory. Not every small farmer can afford to buy an expensive automatic grape press. So between a few producers they share the contraption. Of course the big boys like Bollinger and Pol Roger posses their own presses. Having been delivered, the grapes are weighed and of course an official supervising lady is present to make sure that Jean does not deliver too many grapes. In the event of Jean exceeding the allowed amount Jean’s brother or any other person that happens to pass by will wheel the grapes in and, lo and behold, the French bookkeeping is once again totally kosher…
The grapes are put in the press within the hour. In the old days they used a wooden vat, in which a lid was pressed. These are still to be seen when visiting touristy Champagne houses. Nowadays they are hardly in use any more.
The modern press is a funny device that turns around and contains a balloon. The balloon is slowly inflated and as a result the grapes are pressed against the sides with strength comparable with the force one can exert between thumb and forefinger. There are small and big presses and different pressing techniques. But in the end it all boils down to the principle of the horizontal press,the invention of our jolly monk Dom Perignon.The first pressing yields 2050 liters of juice from 4000 kg of grapes. This liquid is called the ‘premier taille’.
Subsequently the press is opened, the contents are thoroughly mixed and the second pressing is started. This procedure gives another 500 litres of juice, the ‘deuxieme taille’. The premier taille is the best quality so many producers exclusively use premier taille for their top Champagnes. The deuxieme taille exists of the last juice that was next to the skins and therefore has a slightly bitter taste. Years ago the grapes were even pressed for a third time but currently the Wise Men with the Red Noses have forbidden this procedure. The price of the grapes depends on the quality and the variety. juices from the second pressing of expensive grapes (grapes from a grand Cru region for instance) will be used more often than those obtained from cheaper grapes.
Each load of grapes that is delivered at the pressing centre is pressed separately. The juices are stored in stainless steel tanks per supplier, per taille and per vineyard. After 12 hours, during the so-called ‘debourage process’, the first impurities have sunk to the bottom. In the evening when Jeans mercenary force is indulging in a delicious French supper as well as in a number of joints, Jean is on his way with a tanker to the pressing centre to collect his juices. The contents of the tanker are then pumped into the tanks in Jean’s cellar (or in that of his brother, cousin or any other convenient mate’s.)
Read more in the book “Champagne [Boxed Book & Map Set]: The Essential Guide to the Wines, Producers, and Terroirs of the Iconic Region“
Jean is curious about the acidity- and sugar content of the juice. So immediately he starts measuring. He uses all kinds of gauges and schedules to qualify his Champagne wine. Depending on his finds he will add a certain amount of yeast and chemicals to help the first fermentation (lactic acid/malaloctic fermentation) on its way. During this process dextrose is converted into carbonic acid and alcohol, the carbonic acid escapes from the tank.
During the first fermentation that lasts for approximately one month, the juice is intended to be kept at a temperature of 17 degrees centigrade. Some producers will allow a slightly higher temperature (to obtain a more intense taste). Some others will deliberately maintain a lower temperature (to preserve the acids). No need to emphasize the importance of controlling the temperature during the first fermentation. No minor achievement with outside temperatures soaring to 30 or 33 degrees centigrade. That is why sometimes you will spot spirals winding around the tanks. These can be filled with coolants (Ice water, freon, nitrogen or something like it). Smaller houses often lack these facilities,so hot weather during the harvest can cause quality problems later on.
After a month impurities and sediment are removed. This is what is called the clarification of the wine. The result is a still wine. Except for the maturing process in the vat, a normal wine would now be ready. For making Champagne a lot of work has to be done yet.
The important houses employ a celler master and his team. Aided by sophisticated devices and very sensitive noses they determine how to make the ideal mix out of some 70 different still wines that are lying in the vats. What makes this such a work of art is that not only they assess the market, the taste and aroma of the moment but also take into consideration the further process that will last for another four to eight years.
One mixes, fiddles, tastes, measures the back- up supplies and tries to anticipate the market once more. As a matter of fact the cellar master has to make do with what is available. Of course he can make a super Champagne from 100% Grand Cru Pinot Noir grapes of a good year. However if his supply thereof is limited he will certainly get problems volume wise. So he had better make a mix from a slightly lesser quality, but yielding sufficient quantity to meet the demand. The cellar master also has to anticipate the buyers demand at the time that the Champagne is ready for consumption. The latter brings about some rather amusing side effects. Ten years ago no one could foresee that youngsters who turned to drinking breezers on a grand scale now all of a sudden want pink Champagne.
After the mix is determined in the laboratory the final recipe of a Champagne is sent to the factory and the process of mixing still wines on a grand scale is started.(the assemblage).In large stainless steel tanks bottle- liquid (consisting of wine and cane sugar) is added and the whole lot is carefully mixed. In general the mix is put into 0.75 l or 1.5 l bottles. Almost 90% of the bottles are 0.75 l. Some producers also fill larger bottles. More commonly though these large bottles are filled with the content of 1.5 l bottles at a later stage. The bottles are provided with a plastic bidule (Literal translation: “thingie”) and a crown cap. Formerly a temporary cork was used. For economical reasons this practice was terminated round 1970. So if you spot a corked bottle in the cellar it surely is an oldie.
The Champagne houses needed storage space, so massive cellars were dug underground, or limestone quarries were converted into cellars. Since Roman times the quarries have been exploited to obtain limestone to build sturdy walls with or beautiful houses. Anyway, a cellar is below the ground and in the Champagne region the soil often consists of chalk. Therefore extending a cellar used to be reasonably easy: You simply hacked out a big lump of chalk, trimmed away the rough ends of the hole levelled the floor and Bob was your uncle. In that way long corridors came into being. A bit helter- skelter at first but soon in a neat parallel pattern, connected by side streets. The biggest street in the cellars is often called “Champs Elysees” by many a Champagne house. Other streets are often named after a staff member who has worked in that cellar for some thirty years.
This digging has been going on for ages and the end of the storage capacity is near. Especially in the more densely populated areas of Reims and Epernay. Underneath the hill near Epernay for instance you can hardly drill a hole in the wall without arriving at neighbour. So some of the Champagne houses chose for digging deeper. They now own cellars consisting of several stories. Hold on a moment folks! Watch out for too week ceilings that might collapse, causing a few million bottles to be smashed to smithereens. The total length of the streets amounts to approximately 200 kilometres and all of that below ground level….
The bottles are taken to the cellars where in the streets they are stacked on top of each other on slats (sur lattes). A lot of bottles can be stashed away in 200 kilometres of streets, last year 980 million bottles lay underneath the ground in the Champagne region.
The temperature in the cellars is agreeably cool (Depending on the depth of course but in general some 12 degrees centigrade). As chance will have it this is exactly the right temperature for the wine to mature. The time for maturing depends on the grape mix and the taste of the producer. The relatively cheap Champagnes containing a lot of Pinot Meunier are due for further processing after three years. Quality Champagnes are sometimes kept in the cellars for more than nine years before any further processing takes place. Extreme exceptions are also possible. I know a couple of producers that still Have Champagnes dating from the last century. Some are still suitable for consumption but the bulk of the oldies are used for technical studies and to watch the effects of extreme lengthy fermentation.
During the second fermentation in the bottle, sugar and yeast are converted into carbonic acid and alcohol. The carbonic acid cannot escape from the bottle and dissolves in the wine. The wine becomes sparkling wine. After a short time the yeast has more or less served its purpose in the process and settles in the bottle. However the remains of the yeast maintain to give off extra aromas during the years that the bottles stay on the slats.
After a number of years it is time to start doing something sensible with the matured mix. Remains of yeast and other residues don’t taste good and are unwished for. If not removed before sending the bottles off, the Champagne will gently go on fermenting, just enough to make the bottle explode (on a moment and in a place not of the new owners choosing.)
All kinds of characters pondered the question of how to stop the process. It did not take long (a mere twenty years) for somebody to discover that no matter what, you had to remove the bottles from the slats and do a bit of fiddling around with the stuff. The monks put the bottles upside down in the sand. The widow Barbe Clicquot drilled holes in her oak wood table in which she placed the bottles upside down. Some others thought up cunning devices to place the bottles in upside down. They all agreed on one thing. The sediment needed to be forced to the neck of the bottle.
Some years later The widow Barbe Clicquot ( the old crone on the bottles with the yellow label) found out that the most intelligent solution lay in a slanted oakwood rack with oval holes in it, (the so called remuage racks or Pupitres). The bottles were stuck in the holes upside down. Oakwood was used because it is warp-resistant. Other kinds of wood very quickly showed deformations because of the humidity level in the cellars and that was not not exactly beneficial to a consistent quality. The pupitre gimmick was a success and for two centuries pupitres were used.
Every day the bottles in the pupitre were gently shaken, turned for about a quarter of a round and at the same time put a bit more vertical. These proceedings are called remuage. A little bloke with double-quick hands, day in day out was fiddling with the bottles in the cellars. A super bloke could handle up to 30.000 bottles per day. If a remueur managed to persevere for 30 to 40 years he had a street in the cellar named after him.
The remains that have settled on the sides of the bottle are slowly loosened by the remuage process (without dissolving once more in the wine). With this kind of remuage procedure the bottles will after a period of twelve weeks stand almost up right again (upside down to be exact) and will show a lump of residue under the temporary cork that subsequently will have to be removed from the bottleneck.
But technology went its course. The little bloke and his heavy oakwood racks have been replaced by an automatic shaking machine, a so called Gyropalette, and metal crates. The principle is roughly similar. The bottles are regularly shaken, turned and put a little more upright. Large crates of bottles are placed on the gyropalette. These crates are also used in the continuing process. The gyropalette can shake more often and in a more intelligent way than the little bloke and is controlled by cunningly smart computer programs. Cellar masters are often tinkering with their programs to achieve a satisfying result even more quickly. A fast working traditional remueur needs 12 weeks whereas the gyropalette only requires 4 to 5 weeks for the same result. The bidule (the little thing as you will remember) prevents the yeast lump from sticking to the inside of the bottleneck.
These days when visiting a cellar you are often given the impression that pupitres and remueurs are still employed. Also the suggestion is made that oaken vats are still used. These are not downright lies. On a small scale oak wood vats are used indeed and many of the bigger houses continue to have a few remueurs, working part time. These are often pleasant red nosed little men sporting typical French hats. They shake the larger bottles that won’t fit in the gyropalettes and also the very special bottles of Champagne that have the reputation of faring better by hand operated remuage. ( in my mind this is just a matter of shrewd marketing.) The average visitor finds a computer controlled machine a lot less romantic than the little bloke and his wooden rack. Not being an average visitor but belonging to the new generation, I think the world of these wondrously sophisticated computerised specimens of shaking technology. I suppose that in the long run remuage by hand can only be witnessed in the cellars of small Champagne producers who cannot yet afford an expensive gyropalette and a mass of metal crates.
These days the bottles are taken from the cellars after the remuage.They are transported to a sterile(meaning hygienically approved) factory hall. Then the bottles enter the production line. A little robot (the picture on the right is not a very recent one) takes the bottles from the crate and puts them upside down in the holes of a conveyor belt. The bottleneck sticks out from under the belt. The moving belt is guided through a bath filled with an ice cold salt solution. The bottleneck is immersed in the liquid and freezes with its contents. The next robot takes the bottles from the belt and puts them in the next piece of ingenuity: the degorgement machine.
This machine removes the crown cap from the bottle. The pressure within the bottle shoots away the ice lump and bidule .The same machine adds the dosage liquid. This being the same wine as the Champagne itself but with an added dosage of sugar. With this ‘liqueur de tirage’ the producer tops the bottle off and at the same time doses the sugar content. This is actually the moment in which is determined what type of Champagne will be obtained.
|Type of Champagne
|Extra-Brut, Brut Integral of Brut Zero
|For the experienced Champagne drinker and/or the person who likes very dry Champagne
|For the majority of the Champagne lovers
|A compromise between sweet and dry
|For the lovers of sweet Champagne, often preferred by ladies
|For lovers of very sweet Champagne
Then a cork is applied. Before it is put in the bottle it is a normal cylindrical one. The cork is punched out of several layers of cork that have been glued together. The side of the cork that meets the Champagne is meant to prevent the bubbles from escaping between cork and bottle. Therefore one or more layers of expensive Portuguese cork are used. The top of the cork is made of cheaper cork agglomerate. In the machine the cork is pressed together and subsequently forced into the bottle.
After the degorgement the cork stays put, but this cannot possibly last. So it is kept in place with a clever little wire shaped as a muzzle (that’s why probably the French call it a muselet). To make sure that the wire does not cut into the cork and stays in place a little metal plate (plaque is placed on top of the cork then the muselet is slid over the plaque and the cork in three full turns and closed tightly just under the rim of the bottle, while leaving a little tongue that is needed to open the bottle. What a brilliant idea…
Just to mention a charming detail: With a close look at the plaque you can already make a rather apt assessment of what’s in your glass or bottle. When you are holding a cork consisting of three thin or two thick layers of cork you may assume that the maker took in consideration that you wanted to keep the champagne in the cellar for a couple of years before serving it. This is good. With Champagne that is not meant for keeping (Cheap rubbish containing a lot of Pinot Meunier) even a good cork cannot save the wine from the unavoidable rapid aging. On the other hand the skin flint, who puts a cheap cork on quality Champagne meant for keeping, does not have a clue either. You have carefully kept your bottle on the shelf for a couple of years and are looking forward to a pleasant evening while enjoying a good bottle of Champagne. You open the bottle and what happens: you find most of the bubbles gone…In short: cheap cork = Oh-Oh.
Anyway there are a few producers that still apply the cork in a traditional way. A cunning little machine simply ties the cork on the bottle. No plaque is used. To prevent the wires from cutting into the cork the top of the cork is dipped into red sealing wax which will later become hard. With Champagnes that were corked in this way comes a cute little pair of scissors especially designed for opening the bottle. What more can you do to please the customer?
Finally a machine is employed to adorn the bottle with the glittering trimmings such as a cuff around the bottleneck, sometimes a little label round the neck and a label on the bottle itself, box around the bottle and that was that.