The 'Chef in the Cellar' – an extract from The Champagne Guide 2018-2019 »

Tyson Stelzer explains the extraordinary process to create Champagne

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Australian wine author, presenter and judge Tyson Stelzer

Australian wine author, presenter and judge Tyson Stelzer

<i>The Champagne Guide 2018-2019 </i> by Tyson Stelzer

 

Wine critic, author and judge Tyson Stelzer has released the fifth edition of The Champagne Guide 2018-2019 and between the covers you'll find assessments of over 600 cuvées, details on the top 100 producers and a wealth of background information on  both the region and the wine.

In the first extract from the Guide, Down to Earth, Tyson describes the landscape that somehow manages to grow the grapes to produce this celebrated drop.  In this extract, he goes through the meticulous process that turns the less-than-inspiring resulting grape juice into the elegant, indulgent sparkling drop we love to sip on at special occasions.

Tyson writes:

Champagne must be the most successfully processed creation in all of agricultural history, through a convoluted, painstaking method designed expressly to transform an insipidly austere and undrinkably acidic juice into the most celebrated beverage in the world.

Every element of the Champagne process is geared towards making its searing acidity less challenging – bubbles, yeast, chaptalisation, dosage, blending and ageing.

The genius of Champagne production calls on more tricks than any other wine style to create flavour, complexity, texture and balance. The traditional method by which this is achieved is known as Méthode Traditionnelle.

Pressing

How can white wine be made from the dark-skinned grapes of pinot noir and meunier? The secret is careful, selective harvesting and immediate, gentle pressing, to avoid staining the clear juice. All grapes in Champagne are handpicked and gently pressed nearby as whole bunches in four-tonne lots. By law, only the first 2550 litres of juice from every four tonnes of grapes may be used. On current yields, this equates to an average production of 10,000 bottles per hectare.

The coeur de la cuvée, the ‘heart of the cuvée’, is the middle of the pressing, yielding the purest juice.

The tailles – coarser, inferior juice that flows last from the press – is used in varying levels according to the house style, and rarely at all in the finest cuvées.
 

Settling

Débourbage is the settling of solids and impurities from the must (pressed grape juice), allowing clear juice to be drawn off from the top.

This process is taken to another level by the houses of Billecart-Salmon and Pol Roger, who perform a second settling of the must at cold temperature, producing particularly exquisite and fresh Champagnes.
 

First fermentation

The ‘alcoholic’ fermentation of Champagne takes place in stainless steel tanks. Traditional oak barrels are coming back into vogue for fermentation and/or maturation, to increase suppleness, texture, power and complexity. The ‘degrees potential’ ripeness at which grapes are picked roughly equates to the potential alcohol of the finished wine.

Most Champagne producers ‘chaptalise’ prior to fermentation by adding sugar or concentrated grape juice to increase the alcoholic strength. Some makers ‘inoculate’ the ferment with cultured yeasts, while others rely on wild yeasts.
 

Malolactic fermentation

Malolactic fermentation converts tart ‘malic’ (green apple) acid into softer ‘lactic’ (dairy) acid. This process is practised by most houses to soften their wines. Notable exceptions include Gosset, Lanson and Salon. With the advent of warmer vintages, an increasing number of houses are experimenting with blocking malolactic fermentation.
 

Assemblage

Skilful blending is Champagne’s answer to its erratic seasons. Challenging vintages are handled by blending wines from different vineyards, different vintages (reserve wines) and different grapes.

Champagne is usually a blend of chardonnay (for structure, elegance and finesse), pinot noir (for per fume, body and richness) and meunier (for plump fruitiness).

Blanc de blancs (‘white wine from white grapes’) is usually chardonnay, and blanc de noirs (‘white wine from red grapes’) usually pinot noir/meunier.

The key distinguishing factor between Champagne houses lies in the cuvée – the blend created in assembling different wines. There is no skill in the winemaking world that I envy more than that of the chef de cave in blending a fine Champagne, uniting different ingredients according to each harvest in a blend today that must be consistent with the house style when it emerges from the cellar in years to come.
 

Reserve wines (for NV blends)

Non-vintage wines are deepened by a portion of older vintage ‘reserve’ wines stored in tank, barrel or bottle. These are crucial for maintaining consistency in Champagne’s wildly fluctuating seasons.
 

Tirage

Prior to bottling, a liqueur de tirage of sugar and wine is added (see ‘Second fermentation’, further down).
 

Bottling

Wines are bottled and sealed under crown seal, or occasionally cork. They may be filtered and cold stabilised at this time to remove any solids.
 

Second fermentation

The sugar added to Champagne prior to bottling induces a secondary fermentation in the bottle known as the prise de mousse. Under the pressure of a sealed bottle, the carbon dioxide produced dissolves in the wine, creating sparkling wine.

The finer the still wine and the cooler the cellar in which this fermentation occurs, the smaller the bubbles. Larger bottles ferment more slowly – one reason why magnums are superior and half bottles are inferior to standard bottles. A finer bead is an indicator of quality.
 

Maturation

Acidity is the key to Champagne, but its astringency makes these wines unapproachable in their youth. The mellowing, softening effect of age is crucial to the Champagne style. Dead yeast cells (‘lees’) from the second fermentation remain in the bottle and contribute subtly to Champagne’s complexity.

The longer this process of ‘autolysis’ persists the better, improving mouthfeel and longevity, and adding biscuity, bready nuances to the flavour profile.

The mandatory minimum in Champagne is 15 months for non-vintage and three years for vintage wines, but reputable producers always far exceed these minima, typically ageing non-vintage cuvees 3-4 years, vintage cuvées 7-8 years, and prestige cuvées sometimes 10 years or more.
 

Riddling (remuage)

In the early 19th century, Antoine Mu¨ller, cellar master of the widow Clicquot (Veuve Clicquot), invented a method of cleaning the wine of the sediment created when it ferments in bottle, without losing its bubbles. A wooden desk (pupitre) pierced with holes holds the mature bottles sideways. Each bottle is given a quarter rotation every day, and slowly tilted from horizontal to up side down. The lees sediment collects in the neck of the bottle. This process of ‘remuage’ is performed by a ‘riddler’, who can turn 50,000–60,000 bottles every day!

In modern times, the riddling process has been taken over by gyropalettes in most Champagne houses. These giant robotic arms slowly rotate large cages of bottles. The effect is the same, perhaps even more consistent, albeit without the romance.

A gyro can riddle a cage of bottles in as little as three days, but many estates use a longer cycle of a week or more.
 

Disgorgement (dégorgement)

After riddling, the sediment is settled on the inside ofthe cork or crown cap. The neck of the bottle is then frozen, the cap released, and the plug of sediment shot out (dégorgement), leaving perfectly clear wine behind.
 

Dosage (the final addition)

To replace the volume lost through disgorgement, the bottle is topped up with sweetened wine (liqueurd’ expédition) and a new cork is inserted. ‘Zero dosage’ champagnes are topped up with dry wine. See page 19 for dosage trends.
 

Making rosé Champagne

About 10% of Champagne production is rosé, growing every year in response to global demand. It is made in the same manner as white Champagne, with a subtle difference. Colour is achieved in one of three ways:

Most commonly, a ‘blending method’ (roséd’ assemblage) is used, in which a tiny quantity of pinot noir or meunier (made as a table wine) is added – often only 5–10%, but sometimes as much as 20%. A rapid increase in demand for rosé has recently put pressure on supplies of quality red wine for blending in Champagne.

The saignée method adds free-run juice from just crushed red grapes, producing the finest, palest wines.

A ‘limited maceration’ method produces darker, heavier wines through a quick soak on red grape skins.

Rosé production is tricky, not only in marrying Champagne’s acidity with red wine tannin, but in determining the desired depth of colour long before it is set. Yeast is a highly effective fining agent, leaching colour during both primary and secondary fermentations.

 

This extract from The Champagne Guide 2018-2019 by Tyson Stelzer is reproduced with the kind permission of the publisher and author.

Read more in the press release »

See links below for more information on the guide.
 

The Champagne Guide by Tyson Stelzer is published by Hardie Grant (Sydney, NSW; Nov 2017; Hb; 368pp, RRP A$49.99). Available at all good bookstores or directly from the author »

It can also be purchased online via booko.com.au »

 

Regions

  • France - all (FR)

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January 09th, 2018
 
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