The Romans mined Champagne’s chalky soil in the 3rd and 4th centuries BCE. All of the quarries were dug in same shape: vertical to get to the chalk beneath the topsoil, then pyramidal to avoid collapse.
The chalky soil of Champagne helps the wines develop characteristic flavors (and the old quarries work as great temperature-stable wine storage.)
Keeping Reserve Wines on Hand for Blending
The core wine that defines each Champagne house is its non-vintage, which is really made of wines from multiple years. The winemakers use reserve wine to make sure the taste comes out the same year after year. Here, you can see barrel after barrel of the reserve wine used to make Louis Roederer’s Brut Premier: Up to 10% of every bottle is reserve wine.
Secondary Fermentation & Aging Champagne Sur Lie
What makes Champagne so unique is that the wines, once blended and bottled, are laid to rest for years. As the yeast eats the sugar in a secondary fermentation, carbon dioxide is formed and trapped, creating Champagne’s signature bubbles, and then the gas-filled wine is left to age sur lie, or on the yeast cells, which provides it with rich, deep flavor. The investment of time and space before the wine gets to market is no small expense.
Traditional Riddling Method
Once the winemakers decide the wine has spent enough time sur lie, the yeast must be removed. Traditionally, wines were put into A-frames called pupitres and rotated by hand until the bottles were almost vertical and the yeast had gathered in the neck. High-end wines, like Cristal (pictured here), and small production wines from the growers are still handled in this way.
A Look Inside the Bottle
A skilled riddler can hand-turn up to 40,000 bottles a day, a process which slowly rotates the bottles of Champagne so that the dead yeast cells move up to the neck of the bottle. Here, a light behind the wine shows that the process is about halfway finished, with the yeast gathered in the bottle’s shoulder.
The Modern Method
Today, only about 25% of Champagne is hand-riddled. The invention of gyropalettes, the machines pictured here, allows for crates of wines to be riddled automatically.
Getting Rid of the Yeast
Once the bottles are fully upside down, or sur pointe, the top of the bottle is then submerged in a freezing liquid brine solution. The yeast in the neck is frozen in one clump and is then removed in a process called disgorgement, which shoots or sucks out the plug of yeast.
Champagne’s Special Corks
The corks used in Champagne are different than those used for the average still wine, as they must be able to withstand the immense pressure of the gas trapped inside the bottle. Some houses, like Louis Roederer, use a double layer cork: top quality cork remains in contact with the wine on the bottom, while a more elastic and durable cork is used on top, where it must be able to conform to the shape of the bottle.
Dosage Decides Final Flavor
Immediately after the frozen yeast is removed, the space is filled with a liquid called the dosage, a mixture of sugar and wine. The dosage is what determines the ultimate sweetness or dryness of the final product. Once the new liquid is added, the cork is added immediately by force.
If bone dry is your preference, look for brut or extra-brut on the label. Contrary to your intuition, extra-dry Champagne has some residual sugar, although it’s not as sweet as a demi-sec or doux.
The Final Touches
After the Champagne has been topped off and closed up, the cork is caged with wire in order to keep the pressure in the bottle contained. The bottles are then checked for any problems and shaken up to make sure the original wine and dosage are mixed. Some houses allow the wines to age a little longer to make sure the Champagne is well integrated, then the bottles are foiled, labeled, and shipped out.
The Grower-Producer Revolution
Much of the Champagne production is concentrated in well-known major houses like Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin and Perrier-Jouët, but Champagne's grape growers are increasingly making and exporting their own wines. These grower-producers, like Pierre and Sophie Larmandier of Larmandier-Bernier (pictured above), don’t have as much aged reserve wine as the major brands (nor the storage facilities for it), and they're not allowed to purchase grapes for their own wine production if they want to keep their labels marked RM (for Récoltant-Manipulant). So, many seek a better expression of terroir as a means of setting themselves apart from the houses, and the resulting wines can have focus, minerality, and searing acidity that is quite unlike any other Champagne you’ve ever tasted.
The Wine of Kings
Champagne’s reputation as a wine of kings isn't just because bubbly is luxurious. Instead, the relationship stems from the fact that the Cathedral of Reims, in the heart of Champagne, was the coronation site for almost every French king, marking the site of the baptism of Clovis I, first king of the Franks, in 496 BCE.