There is something about champagne that will never quite let my heart be still. As much as I loathe cheap sparkling wine, I love quality sparkling and of course, champagne itself. And what do I love the most, I hear you, oh Attentive Reader, plea to hear? Well, the magic of the fizz, of course. There really is something truly amazing in the beauty of the bubbling pour, the satisfaction of seeing a cork arcing gracefully through grateful air, the fizzing energy exciting the atmosphere of a party diving through waves of golden champagne.
But what is the secret to this magic? Well, that’s a lot more than one late-night post can handle. But I will introduce you to three of my favourite parts of the myth-ridden traditional technique, now regulated by the ‘Appelation d’origine controlee’. As I said, I’m not so interested in the cheaper wines, but you can see here that there are other methods.
The first of my favourite steps of the traditional technique is that of ‘autolysis’, and of how champagne so well entices. (Yes, I tried to rhyme. Did it work for you?)
The fermentation of wine is a delicate process. Each type of grape wants to be coddled in it’s own favourite way, and winemakers must learn each grape’s needs and desires.
The amount of sugar in each type of grape will vary, and even within a certain variety of grape, the amount of sunshine the plant receives during the gestation and the length of time taken in the ripening of its fruit will determine how much sugar is produced.
The photosynthesis that occurs in the leaves of the grapevine produces energy which moves sugar (in this case, sucrose) molecules into the developing fruit – meaning that the more sunshine a grapevine gets, the more sugar will accumulate in its grapes.
In an even more fun twist of the sugar cane, during the ripening of the grapes, this first type of sugar, sucrose, is turned into two different types of sugar, glucose and fructose.
This change in the sugar type is performed by an enzyme called invertase. Invertase removes some parts of the sucrose, changing what type of sugar it is. These ‘parts’ are the water molecules (yep, good old H2O) that are attached to the sucrose. These water molecules are split into their separate components, water and oxygen, in a process called ‘hydrolysis’, quite literally ‘water-splitting’, with ‘hydro-‘ referring to ‘water’, and ‘lysis’ referring to ‘splitting’.
Normal fermentation involves yeast added by the winemaker to the blend of grapes. The yeast feeds off the glucose and fructose in the ripened grapes, converting the sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide.
Once the yeast runs out of sugar (or, in fact, other nutrients such as nitrogen, or if the alcohol level in the wine becomes too high), it dies. The way that the yeast cell dies is what is called ‘autolysis’. Like we learnt before, ‘lysis’ means ‘splitting’, and in this combination with ‘auto’, we are talking about a process of ‘self-splitting’. Quite simply, the yeast cell kills itself, unable to cope with the harsh conditions of its now hostile environment. After autolysis, the yeast cells sink to the bottom of the fermentation vessel. These dead, sunken yeast cells are called the ‘lees’.
In order to capture that magical melting sensation of a quality velvety champagne in your mouth (sounds weird, I know), the champagne has to be fermented with these lees. The bubbles of champagne, or sparkling wine, are made by this secondary fermentation, over a time period of anything from a couple of months to many years (the ‘Appelation d’origine controlee’ I mentioned earlier enforces a minimum 15-month second fermentation).
Two of the best words in all of the wine production fiefdom start rolling off the tongues of winemakers once they have guided their precious grapes through the secondary fermentation stage – ‘riddling’ and ‘disgorging’. Come on. Tell me you don’t love ‘em, I dare you.
Riddling is basically just fancy stirring. The sediment needs to be moved up to the bottleneck, but if it’s moved up too fast then the sediment will mix back into the liquid and not be able to be removed until it has finished settling out again. While automated systems now exist, no machine will ever be so poetic as ‘the riddler’: that dear gentleman entrusted with the 15-day long process of the turning of the bottles, each only 1/8 of a turn at a time.
The other fantastic word of the wine world that I have chosen to mention, disgorging, is not so disgusting as it sounds. Following riddling, once the sediment is all up in the bottleneck, the bottle is immersed in a cryogenic bath and then upended and the cap removed – so that all the frozen sediment in the neck falls out. This leaves the sparkling wine or champagne clear, rather than cloudy like in the good old ancient days.
The disgorging is the second to last step before the bottle is closed with the final cork, which is secured to the neck with one of those fun wire caps I love twisting off, because it is so joyfully followed by that ever so satisfying,