Champagne is made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier grapes grown in the Champagne district. This is a northern grape-growing region and the still wines made from individual cultivars (the Pinots make red wines and the Chardonnay is used for white) are not particularly remarkable (some might call them insipid). However, when the base wines are appropriately blended (a skill first perfected by the monk Dom Pérignon), the wine assumes the best qualities of each individual cultivar. Manufacture starts, as for other white wines, with a rather fast pressing of the grapes, such that pigment extraction is minimized.The first press juice, called the cuvée, is then inoculated with selected yeasts (these are almost always proprietary strains), and the juice is fermented at about 18°C in oak barrels (stainless steel vats are also used). Because the base wines can be rather acidic (<pH 3.0), a malolactic fermentation may be desirable and the appropriate cultures can be added (or growth of indigenous malolactic strains encouraged). However, promotion of the malolactic fermentation in Champagne is not a universally accepted practice, because some bacteria-generated flavor products may affect the delicate flavor and aroma balance of the finished wine.
After fermentation to about 12% ethanol, the critical blending step is performed (using high quality wines, free of defects). Base wines from a single year are blended to create vintage Champagne, whereas wines from different years are more often used to create non-vintage Champagne. Next, the blended wine is bottled, the "tirage" or sugar solution (about 20 g to 25 g of sucrose per liter) and a yeast mixture is added, and a cork closure is inserted. A fastener or clamp is placed over the cork to prevent its displacement. The bottles are then held at about 10°C to 12°C.The yeast inoculum for the secondary fermentation usually contains strains of S. cerevisiae (formerly Saccha-romyces bayanus) that are selected based on their ability to grow at high ethanol concentrations and low pH and temperature.The bottles are also constructed differently from ordinary wine bottles (thicker, with a tapered neck), since they must be able to withstand the high CO2 pressure.
When the secondary fermentation is complete (after about seven weeks), the wine may be allowed to age in the bottles for up to three years.Aging or maturation occurs while the lees are still present in the wine, a critical step that distinguishes Champagne from other sparkling wines fermented by the bulk method. Next, the time to remove the yeast cells (most of which are now dead) and sediment material has arrived. This step, called riddling (or remuage), involves gradually shifting the position of the bottle, starting from near horizontal and ending up near vertical.At the end of this daily or every-other-day jolting, turning, and twisting process (about one to three months), the sediment will have collected within the neck of the bottle, specifically settling on the inside of the cork. Although the riddling process is still done manually in several of Champagne houses, mechanical riddling is now common.
Once the sediment has settled on the cork, it is removed by a process called disgorgement. First, the now vertical bottles (neck down) are cooled to about 7°C, then conveyed through a freezing solution (at — 20°C) such that the material in the neck, not more than about 2 cm above the cork, is quickly frozen.The bottle is inverted to a 45° angle (neck up), and the frozen plug, containing the cork, sediment, a small amount of slushy wine, is removed. About 10 to 50 ml of a sugar-wine solution (called the dosage) is then quickly added to replace the wine lost in the disgorgement process, and a fresh cork is applied and fastened with a wire "crown." The amount of sugar in the dosage, from less than 1.5% to more than 5%, determines whether the champagne is dry (brut), medium-dry (sec) or sweet (doux).The bottle is gently shaken to mix the wine and dosage, and the bottles are then stacked horizontally for up to three months. Champagne does not improve much beyond this aging period, and is essentially ready for consumption.
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