The Traditional Method
The “Traditional Method” is the winemaking method key to the style of sparkling wine created in Champagne.
Grapes are harvested and gently pressed to create a base wine
Grapes are hand harvested and immediately very gently pressed so there is no extraction of colour or tannin. Fermentation generally takes place in temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks, though some producers still ferment in old oak barrels. After primary fermentation (aka the process that creates alcohol) the base wine produced is fully dry, with neutral aromas, light in flavour and high in acidity. Most (though not all) base wines then undergo malolactic fermentation to convert the harsh green apple acid to the creamier lactic acid.
Typically Champagne is a blended wine with grapes being sourced from many different vineyards and made from base wines of past and present vintages. Blending from a large selection of base wines is the only way to have a consistent “house style” which is the norm in the Champagne region. That said, there are “grower Champagnes” made from single vineyards or even single vintages where the goal is to express the qualities of the terroir and a particular growing season rather than produce a consistent style each year.
Once the blend is created, a small amount of liqueur de tirage (a mixture of sugar and yeast) is added before the wine is bottled and closed with a crown cap to undergo a second fermentation. It is at this point where all of the magic happens; where the wine starts to gain all of those qualities that characterize Champagne as we know it. Secondary fermentation occurs over a six to eight week period; flavours begin to develop, the alcohol increases by a degree or two, and the CO2 generated by the yeast dissolves into the wine in the form of tiny bubbles. Once the bottle fermentation has stopped, the inactive yeasts form a sediment know as “the lees” and begin to break down in a process known as yeast autolysis. This process lasts about 4-5 years and contributes to the complex flavours of bread and biscuit in the wine.
To remove the yeast sediment the bottles are gradually turned, by hand or in large racks, so the yeast gently slides up the necks of the bottles in a process called riddling.
Disgorgement & Final Bottling
The neck of the bottle is then submerged into a very cold brine solution that freezes the wine in the neck of the bottle. The bottles are then placed upright and the crown cap is removed-the frozen wine holding the sediment in place is ejected due to the dissolved CO2 in a process called disgorgement.
The bottle is then topped up with the dosage of liqueur d’expedition (a mixture of wine and cane sugar solution that determines the sweetness of the final product, balances acidity, and helps with flavour development) before the bottle is corked and the wire cage secures the cork in place.