Sparkling wines start as a dry base wine with high acidity and low alcohol. The dry base wine is usually a blend of different vintages, varieties and vineyards.
Typical varieties are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.
Some Champagne can be labelled "Premier Cru" and "Grand Cru" and refer to a more favourable terroir.
Vintage Champagne is made with grapes from a single year.
The Second Fermentation begins when the "Liqueur de Tirage" (a solution of yeast + wine + sugar) is added to the base wine and the bottle is sealed with a crown cap. The Second Fermentation happens within each individual bottle, carefully sealed in order to stop the CO2 (bubbles) from escaping.
Base Wine + Liqueur de Tirage = C02 + 1,5% abv extra alcohol + Autolysis Flavors
The yeasts eat sugar, die and decompose. When fermentation is over, the dead yeasts form a sediment of "lees"(dead yeast cells). Over time lees break down: this process is called Autolysis.
Chemically is Autolysis a reaction where enzymes break down the dead yeast cells, producing amino acids and releasing proteins and carbohydrates into the wine.
Autolitic flavor profile (Secondary Aromas): bread, bread dough, toast, biscuit, brioche.
The number of months or years in contact with the lees will determine the intensity of autolitic flavors.
Riddling is a practice that involves rotating the bottles in order to loosen the deposit of lees and move it into the neck of the bottle.
Initially the bottles are stored on the side, but slowly they are moved to an inverted vertical position, allowing the sediment to slide gradually to the neck. If sediment is left in the bottle, it will stick to the glass, making the bottle unappealing and the wine hazy.
Traditionally done by hand, today riddling has become automated with the use of the gyropalette machine, twisting hundreds of bottles at a time.
The cellar is kept with minimum light, humid and at a constant temperature of 12°C (54°F). Champagne wines must spend at least 15 months in the bottle before release, but most Champagne are cellared longer: 2-3 years (non-vintage), 4-10 years (vintage). The greatest Champagne wines can spend several decades maturing in the cellars.
Disgorgement is the removal of deposit of lees from the neck of the bottle.
Mechanical Disgorgement: the neck is submerged in a -27°C solution, the lees get trapped in a 4cm long ice plug, the frozen plug is ejected under pressure by opening the bottle with minimum amount of wine loss. 2000 to 18000 bottles per hour.
Disgorgement by Hand: traditionally for large bottles or old vintages where a firm hand is needed to waste the smallest amount of wine. An experienced worker can disgorge up to 400 bottles per day.
Yeast and lees have the ability to absorb oxygen for many decades (up to 50 years), holding the wine young and fresh. At disgorgement some oxygen enters the bottle and continues to enter through the cork, starting the aging process. This is the reason why the date of disgorgement on the bottle matters.
General rule: a wine can be kept post-disgorgement for as long as it was kept on the lees. The older, the creamier.
Disgorging (ejection of lees deposit) leaves a little space in the bottle that needs to be filled up. Dosage means to top off (add) with Liqueur d'Expedition.
Liqueur d'Expedition (Shipping Liqueur) is a solution of base wine, sugar and sulfites (preservatives).
To garantee a consistent and recognisable taste, some famous Champagne houses have a secret recipe and they can add cognac, kirsch brandy, edelberry wine, raspberry wine, etc.
Dosage is a necessity due to the cold climate, where grapes stuggle to ripen which results in very acidic wines. Sparkling wines become even more acidic after Bottle (Second) Fermentation and dosage balances the acidity through sugar.
Dosage and residual sugar:
Brut nature: no added sugar, less than 3g/litre of residual sugar
Extra-brut: between 0 and 6g/litre of residual sugar
Brut: between 7 and 12g/litre of residual sugar
Extra-sec: from 12 to 17 g/litre of residual sugar
Sec: from 17 to 32 g/litre of residual sugar
Demi Sec: from 32 to 50 g/litre of residual sugar
Doux: more than 50g/litre of residual sugar
The bottles are thicker and corked with a mushroom shaped cork and a wire cage to withstand a presure of 6 to 8 bars and prevent explosion.
Aging refers to the changes in wine after bottling. Acidity goes down and Tertiary Aromas develop (honey, peach, beeswax, mushroom, spice). A Pinot-based blend will have different aromas than a Blanc de Blanc or Rosé.
Special bottles and biblical names:
Jeroboam (first king of Israel) 3l
Rehoboam (first king of Judah) 4,5l
Methuselah (died at age 969) 6l
Salmanazar (king of Assyria) 9l
Balthazar (one of the 3 Magi) 12l
Nebuchadnezzar (king of Babylon) 15l.
Alcohol can be addictive. Drink in moderation.
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