Everything you need to know about how Champagne is made
Most people already know that Champagne is a sparkling wine, but exactly how is Champagne made? What makes Champagne different compared to other sparkling wines from around the world?
The short answer: Champagne wine must come from the Champagne region of France, and its production process must follow as set of established guidelines known as the method Champenoise (sometimes more generically called the traditional method).
For the full answer: Keep reading. We will start with the basic background and then walk through the production process step by step, with links to additional supporting detail throughout.
Champagne comes from the Champagne Region in France
It’s important to know that technically Champagne only comes from the Champagne region of France. The region has unique growing characteristics and terroir (including climate, soil, and other factors) that contribute to the features of this special sparkling wine.
While the term “Champagne” has been used more generically by some to refer to sparkling wine that is made in the “Champagne style”, the word Champagne actually refers to both the winemaking method and style and also to the specific region in France where Champagne grapes are grown.
The Champagne region is a protected AOC or appellation d’origine contrôlée which is a French government certification that is granted to products from a certain geographic area. Countries in the European Union and many other countries recognize the value of these protected areas and typically enforce rules so that only wines from within the Champagne AOC are able to label their wine bottles as Champagne.
In theory, if sparkling wine produced somewhere else in the world had the same exact climate, sun angles, soil types, growing methods, and traditional production method, it could taste exactly like a Champagne wine. However, even in that case it technically still wouldn’t be Champagne (at least not according to E.U. regulations), since it didn’t come from inside the Champagne AOC.
While Champagne is a relatively small region in France, there are still differences in soil, temperature, and sunlight based on the position of individual vineyards. For this reason, certain vineyard locations are highly prized and contribute to the prestige of the resulting wine. These location-based growing conditions, also referred to as terroir, are important in winemaking around the world and this includes Champagne. To learn more about some of the key factors of terroir in Champagne, feel free to read further here.
Bottom line – not all sparkling wine is Champagne, and a sparkling wine can’t truly be called Champagne unless it actually comes from the Champagne area in France. However, it’s worth noting that not all countries around the world currently enforce this wine labeling rule.
Making Champagne vs. Other Sparkling Wines
In addition to being located in the Champagne region, producers of Champagne must follow a specific traditional method when making Champagne, known as the method Champenoise. However, this is not just a matter of tradition because using this strict method is actually a legal requirement according to French government regulations. That is, in order for a wine to be labeled as Champagne, it must be produced using this method.
There are other types of high quality sparkling wines produced around the world. Some of them, if produced under the right conditions, would be very hard to distinguish from true Champagne even for an experienced Sommelier.
However, sparkling wine production techniques can vary widely by country and by producer. Other common types of sparkling wine include Cava (from Spain) and Prosecco (from Italy), but there are others. For more information on how other sparkling wines like Prosecco compare to Champagne check out this article.
In summary, some of the most distinguishing factors for Champagne winemaking vs. others are:
1. Rules for the specific area in France where the grapes can be grown
2. Rules for the specific types of grapes that can be used
3. Strict regulation around the growing, harvesting, and pressing of grapes
4. Regulations for production technique including amount of time the wine must be aged
5. The secondary fermentation (the fermentation that gives Champagne its bubbles) must be done in individual bottles instead of in a large tank
Now that we’ve summarized some of the basic factors, we will go through some additional detail for each step of the Champagne making process.
What Grapes Are Used to Make Champagne?
In addition to the specific wine making method, there are only seven specific grape varieties that can be used in the production of Champagne.
The most common grapes used in Champagne production are:
Chardonnay is the most common white grape used in Champagne, and makes up around 30% of grapes grown in Champagne.
Pinot Noir is the most common red grape used in Champagne, and makes up around 38% of grapes grown in Champagne. Note that red grapes are also called black grapes.
Pinot Meunier is the third major grape used in Champagne. Along with Pinot Noir it is one of only two black grapes permitted in Champagne and makes up around 38% of grapes grown in the region.
Other Champagne grapes
There are four other white grapes that are technically allowed in Champagne, but they make up less than a half a percent of the overall grapes planted in Champagne so they are comparatively rare. If you want to know more about the other grapes used in Champagne, check out this article.
Champagne Production, a Step by Step Process
As we have discussed above, for sparkling wine to be called Champagne it must follow a strict process. We will cover each step of the process below.
1. Growing and Harvesting the Grapes
Not only must grapes be a certain type and come from within Champagne, but the farming methods are also carefully controlled. There are specific methods of growing, pruning, and harvesting that are all strictly managed by government rules and regulations. For example, there are rules to govern how grape vines are trained and pruned, how tall they should be, and even how densely they can be planted.
Timing of when the grapes can be harvested is managed by a common committee to ensure quality is as consistent as possible. Harvests typically happen from mid-September in early October, with the exact timing varying from year to year based on growing conditions.
One noteworthy aspect of farming in Champagne is that many major Champagne houses don’t actually own the vineyards that supply their grapes. In many cases, they often contract with individual vineyard owners and growers for their supply of grapes. In some cases, vineyard ownership in Champagne has been passed down for generations and a family might own and manage just a few rows of grapes. In other cases, wines are produced by the same person or company that farmed the grapes. These are known as grower Champagnes, and you can learn more about them here.
To learn more about traditions,rules, and regulations of vineyards in Champagne, you can check out this article.
2. Pressing the Grapes
To make wine, grapes typically need to be pressed to extract the juice from the grape skins. The amount of pressure used to get the juice out of the skins can have a big impact on the quality and flavor of the resulting grape juice. For this reason, there are regulations about exactly how the grapes can be pressed and how much juice can be extracted for use in Champagne wines. If you’re thinking about visiting Champagne and want to learn more about the terminology and regulations related to pressing grapes, check out our guide here.
3. Choice of Yeast (Natural vs. Cultured Yeast)
Yeast plays an important role in the winemaking process because it will consume the sugar from the grape juice and lead to the production of alcohol – this process is known as fermentation.
In areas around the world that are densely planted with vineyards, especially those that have been there a long time, there is a lot of yeast naturally present on the grapes that can initiate fermentation of grape juice without adding yeast in the winemaking process. This yeast isn’t necessarily the wild yeast that would naturally have been present on its own, but is influenced over time based on the fact that grapes have been grown and wine made in the same area for a long time.
Some winemakers prefer to take advantage of this and choose not to add cultivated yeast (which is yeast that has been grown in a laboratory environment for a specific purpose). However, different yeasts will affect wine production differently, and some natural yeasts tend to make better wine than others. For this reason many winemakers choose to add cultured yeast with the goal of having more control over the fermentation process.
4. Making the Base Wine (First fermentation)
The first fermentation (or primary fermentation) is the process of making still white wine (also called the base wine, or vin clair). This part of the winemaking process is basically the same as making any other regular non-sparkling wine. If you want to know the basics about how wine is made you can learn more here. This primary fermentation typically takes one to two weeks to complete.
Because the winemaker knows that this still white wine is later going to be turned into Champagne, they will typically aim for a different flavor profile at this stage of the process than they would if this wine was intended to be consumed directly. Typically Champagne base wines are approximately 11% alcohol, and tend to have a more acidic profile.
5. Initial Aging of Base Wine (Choice of Tanks)
Although primary fermentation is typically complete within one to two weeks after harvest, the base wines are typically aged for a period of months prior to moving to the next step of the process.
Historically the base wines were aged initially in large oak barrels. However, in recent years other types of tanks such as stainless steel tanks, concrete tanks, and even large clay jars called amphorae are sometimes used. Many winemakers feel that these modern types of tanks enable the fruit flavor to be showcased without being affected by the effect that oak barrels can have on the wine’s flavor.
After harvest, base wines must be aged until at least the beginning of January. However, many winemakers age their base wines until later in the spring. Once the primary fermentation is complete, the yeast cells die but remain in contact with the wine (these particles from the dead yeast are called the lees). Keeping the lees in contact for a longer period can affect the depth, complexity, and texture of the base wine.
6. Malolactic Fermentation
Malolactic fermentation, often referred to by the shorter name “malo” by winemakers, is an optional step in the winemaking process. It’s a process where bacteria react with the malic acid that is naturally present in the grape juice during the wine making process, and convert the malic acid into lactic acid. This can reduce the tartness of a still wine that tastes very acidic (typically described as tart green apple flavors), and create a more buttery flavor profile. The process can occur naturally under the right temperature conditions, but is often managed by winemakers depending on the flavor profile they are aiming to achieve.
As times the malolactic fermentation has been actively encouraged in Champagnes that were intended for drinking younger. This is because the reduced acid profile from the malolactic fermentation can make the wine more approachable while it is still young. Other winemakers choose to discourage and avoid the malolactic fermentation, arguing that it can mask the original fruit profile that they want to express in the wine.
7. Blending the Base Wines
We discussed above that different types of grapes may be sourced from multiple locations within Champagne. When this occurs, winemakers often choose to ferment the base wines from different grapes or different locations separately. This way, they can taste the resulting base wines and then blend them together in the right ratio to achieve the balanced flavor profile that they are aiming for. This blending process is called assemblage and is a very important aspect of making Champagne.
In some cases, larger houses may store a huge quantity of different reserve wines for multiple years, ensuring that they always have access to the different elements that they may need later to achieve their desired blend. Since the flavor of the wine varies slightly from year to year based on growing conditions, the blend also changes from year to year.
In many other winemaking regions around the world, wines made from a single type of grape and even a single vineyard are very typical for high quality producers. But in Champagne, this is relatively rare as blending provides an opportunity to produce more consistent flavor profiles from year to year.
Smaller Champagne producers typically don’t have the resources to store as many base wines in the way that a large Champagne house does. For this reason it’s possible to see more year to year variation in smaller Champagne producers based on the weather and growing conditions that year. Make sure to check out our section on vintage Champagne for more information on this.
8. Initial Bottling and Second Fermentation
Next, the wine is distributed into individual bottles for the second fermentation, called the tirage. The secondary fermentation is what gives Champagne its bubbles.
Because the original yeast in the still wine has already died at this point, a small amount of additional wine with sugar and yeast is added to each bottle to restart the fermentation process. This yeast and sugar mixture is called the liqueur di tirage.
The bottle is then closed with a bottle cap – the same type of cap used on beer bottles. This is important because it seals the bottle allowing pressure to build inside. The pressure (and the bubbles) in Champagne are actually the result of carbon dioxide gas being released as a byproduct this second fermentation. The second fermentation typically takes from two weeks to three months to complete, and ends naturally once the sugar from the liqueur di tirage is consumed.
9. Aging on the Lees
Once the yeast runs out of sugar, it dies and these dead yeast cells settle as sediment in the wine bottle. This sediment is called the lees. The time that the wine spends in contact with these dead yeast cells is called ‘lees aging’, and is really important for helping the Champagne develop.
The effect of aging is important due to the effect of autolysis, the process where dead yeast cells split open after being destroyed by their own enzymes. Exposure to the resulting mix of amino acids and other compounds influence the character of the Champagne, and this becomes more pronounced through longer aging.
According to regulation, Champagne must age ‘on the lees’ for a minimum of 15 months (or even longer if it will be classified as a vintage Champagne). However, many Champagne houses choose to age their non-vintage cuvees for more than two years. Vintage Champagne is often aged for four to five years or more, because a fine Champagne can continue to develop for more than 20 years.
During lees aging, the bottle is stored on its side and over time the sediment eventually settles along the bottom side of the bottle. Riddling is the process of slowly rotating and tilting the bottle more and more each day until the neck pointed is pointed fully down. The main purpose of this process is to use gravity to shift the lees down and concentrate them in the neck of the bottle.
This process, called remuage, is completed over a period of more than 6 weeks, and was traditionally done by hand using wooden racks. Today, some houses still choose to do it by hand, but a Champagne house can also use a machine called a gyropallete to tilt an entire pallet of bottles all at once. Using this machine, the process can be completed in as little as one week. The bottles will then rest for a time with the neck pointed straight down to ensure all of the sediment drifts down into the neck of the bottle.
After the sediment has been concentrated in the neck of the bottle and an appropriate amount of aging has been completed, it’s time to remove the sediment. There are two typical ways of achieving this.
It can be done by hand by quickly removing the cap from the bottle and allowing the carbon dioxide pressure in the bottle to force out the sediment (unfortunately, some wine will also come out along with the sediment). This requires considerable skill because you must quickly turn the bottle upright as it is opened to avoid losing too much wine in the process.
The second method, called a la glace, involves dipping the neck of the bottle into a refrigerated ice salt bath, allowing the liquid in the bottles neck to freeze. Typically the bottle cap has a small plastic piece inside, and the frozen mix of champagne and sediment in the neck of the bottle freezes in direct contact with this piece. In this way, when the cap is removed the bottle forces out the small plug of frozen wine and sediment with dead yeast cells leaving behind the clear wine.
Prior to disgorgement, the bottle was completely full but part of that wine will get lost during the procedure to remove the sediment. The liquid that was lost must then be replaced, which brings us to the next step of the process, called dosage.
The liquid that will be added to the wine is typically aged Champagne with a small amount of cane sugar blended in. This blend is called the liqueur d’expedition. The amount of included sugar varies based on the winemaker’s preference and will impact the level of sweetness in the final wine. Wines with higher acidity can benefit from a slightly higher amount of sugar, without resulting in the wine becoming noticeably sweet.
The amount of sugar included in the dosage will ultimately determine the style and sugar content in the finished wine. There are specific designations for sweetness levels based on different amounts of sugar content, ranging from brut nature (no sugar added), to extra brut (very little sugar), to doux (most sugar). Wines with less sugar are said to be more “dry” as opposed to “sweet”. For more specific information on different levels of sweetness and dosage, you can refer to the Champagne sweetness chart here.
13. Final Bottling and Corking
Once the dosage is added, the Champagne is ready to be corked. The Champagne cork has a distinctive mushroom shape, and is traditionally constructed from natural cork. The cork also must be strong enough to withstand a significant amount of force from the pressure created by the release of carbon dioxide inside the bottle. The cork is softened by heating, and then hammered into the bottle to seal it.
After inserting the cork, a wire cage called a muselet is wrapped around the cork to help hold it in place. The cage has a metal cap on top that protects the cork and displays the name or sometimes the logo of the producer. Typically the process of applying the cage is fully automated using a special machine.
An interesting historical fact is that Champagne is the first region in the world where cork was used to seal bottles of wine. For more details about the history of Champagne and how its corks are made, feel free to follow these links.
14. Aging in the Cellar
Even after all this, there is a final important step to complete the process and ensure the finished wine is ready to drink. Bottles are stored in a cool cellar and continue their aging process inside the bottle. This makes up the third phase of aging Champagne (aging period in vats prior to bottling, aging period on the lees after the second fermentation, and finally the post-disgorgement aging).
At this stage the amino acids left over from the breakdown of the (now-removed) dead yeast cells react with the residual sugar in the wine, leading to a Maillard reaction. This is the same reaction that occurs when browning bread during baking, and when given enough time, makes wine with a toasty and yeasty flavor profile.
15. Labeling and Packaging
Once the Champagne producer decides a bottle is ready to release, it must be labeled and packed. After corking, the cork and wire cage are wrapped in metal foil and the bottle is labeled for sale and distribution.
It’s worth noting that either a clear Champagne bottle or green Champagne bottle can be used. However, it’s essential that Champagne bottles are strong enough as it’s not uncommon to find bottles exploded in the cellar on occasion when they can’t withstand the pressure of the carbon dioxide gas that builds up inside.
If you want to know more details about how to read a Champagne label, we recommend checking out our other article here. There is a lot to consider here (vintage vs. non-vintage, vineyard designate Champagnes vs. regional blends, different levels of dosage, and grower producers vs. larger negociant producers) so it warrants a separate explanation.
Common styles of Champagne
Blanc de Blancs vs. Blanc de Noirs
Blanc de blancs is a Champagne style made entirely from white grapes, most typically made from Chardonnay grapes. Blanc de blancs are often (but not always) made in a crisper, lighter, more acidic style.
Blanc de noirs on the other hand, is always made entirely from red grapes, most commonly including Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier. They are typically (but not always) more rich and full bodied compared to blanc de blancs. Although made from dark (or noir) grapes, the fact that the juice is separated from the skins right away results in a white (or blanc) wine.
Rosé wines (sometimes also called pink Champagne) is made by adding a small amount of still red wine to the sparkling wine cuvée. This blends with the white wine to result in a pink color.
Rosé wines (sometimes also called pink Champagne) is made by adding a small amount of still red wine to the sparkling wine cuvée. This red wine blends with the white to result in a pink color.
If you’ve made it this far, you now know the basics of how Champagne is made. You can probably also understand why it tends to be more expensive given all the production steps involved.
Italian sparkling wine, Spanish sparkling wine, and American sparkling wine can all be great wines, but there are differences between Champagne and sparkling wine. Most sparkling wine produced around the world does not use the traditional method because it’s so expensive and labor intensive to produce. Even when they do, most sparkling wines still don’t come from the unique terroir of the Champagne region.
If you want to learn more about this amazing wine, if you are looking for help planning a trip or a Champagne tour, we encourage you to check out the resources on our site or reach out to us directly. Cheers!