By Aaron Winsor
Hello Prince Albert! What makes Champagne so expensive? This question boils down to the production method known as “Traditional Method” or “Methode Champagneois”; a technique discovered by the famous Dom Perignon from the Champagne house of Moet et Chandon.
Champagne is very labor-intensive and it takes a painstaking attention to detail to get it right. For this reason, even entry-level products can be fairly expensive (usually starting around $50). Let’s look at how Champagne is made and what makes it special!
It’s important to make a distinction between regular Champagne (known as NV for Non-Vintage) and the higher-quality vintage Champagne. All vintage Champagnes are made from 100% first-pressed juice. This is the highest-quality juice from pressing and carries many pure-fruit characteristics. Vintage Champagne is always produced with the best house reserve wines which are carefully stored and aged to be blended later. Vintage Champagne is always aged a minimum of 2 years in the bottle to allow a build up of rich, decadent flavors.
Non-vintage Champagne is still made from high-quality wines and grapes but the first-pressed juice is often reserved for the better wines. NV Champagne will receive a minimum of 1 year of age in the bottle before being released. These are some of the basic quality differences between NV and Vintage Champagne.
Selected grapes are brought into the winery and often pressed in whole bunches. Once the wine is fermented, it is bottled and sealed with a nutritional liquid containing yeast, reserve wine, sugar, water and other nutrients. Secondary fermentation begins as the yeast converts the residual sugars into alcohol. One of the byproducts of this conversion is CO2 (Carbon Dioxide) which builds up pressure inside the bottle as the wine ferments (up to 6 atmospheres of pressure).
Once the yeast has converted all the sugars into alcohol, it dies and the wine is left to age on the yeast (known as “on the lees”). The process called autolysis now begins where the structure of the yeast slowly melts into the wine creating the biscuity, buttery and toasty flavors Champagne is known for.
All the flavor is now in the bottle but what about the yeast? The yeast must be removed and this where riddling and degorgement come into the picture. The bottles of Champagne are slowly tilted, little by little and day by day until they are upside down and at a diagonal angle. The yeast and nutrients float to the neck of the bottle and then they are frozen. The bottle is popped open for a quick moment and the frozen plug of nutrients is expelled in a process called “degorgement” (disgorgement). A quick shot of reserve wine is added to top the bottle back up; this is called the “dosage” and allows the winemaker to add a final touch to the wine with their choice of reserve wine. The wine is then left to age in the bottle until commercial release.
Always look for the disgorgement date on the bottle as this will indicate how long the bottle has been aging after the nutrient plug was released. Note: not every bottle will have a disgorgement date.
This brings me to the bottle of Devaux featured in this article. This bottle I tasted is not a vintage Champagne but shares many similar quality indicators. Only first-pressed juice is used, the wine is aged 5 years in bottle before release and high-quality reserve wines of chardonnay and pinot noir were used to produce it (most Champagne is made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier). The Jaume Serra is made in Traditional Method out of Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel-lo grapes but doesn’t reach the quality heights of Champagne. Here are my wine picks of the week!
Jaume Serra Cristalino Cava: (Cava, Spain). Dry to off-dry sparkling wine with medium-sized bubbles. The nose is simple and light with apples, citrus and hints of toast. On the palate, the wine is active and frothy with flavors of bruised apples, citrus peel bitterness (grapefruit, lemon) with a follow-through of mineral (chalk), soft cheese and toast. The quick finish leaves a bit of bitterness and fruit flavors become slightly muddled. Medium body, medium acidity and medium-plus intensity. Excellent appetizer wine and quite affordable. Good! $17, 11.5% ABV
Devaux Cuvee D Champagne: (Champagne, France). Dry sparkling wine, pale gold color. A bouquet of interesting scents rises from the flute glass. Brie, wet rocks, lemon peel, pineapple fruit, caramel and biscuit all create an enticing aroma. To the taste, the wine leads with a bright note of mineral (wet rock, riverbed) with a burst of medium-plus acidity. Very lively and fresh on the palate with hints of graphite, citrus fruit, dark chocolate, apples, starfruit and soft cheese. Small, fine bubbles. A slight undertone of bergamot seed and soap stone add a floral complexity while the finish carries a steely, lemon/lime bitterness. Further notes of sourdough and crusty loaf (baguette) continue on the long finish. Complex, sharp, interesting and will age for several more years. Outstanding! $85, 12% ABV
Cheers and thanks for reading!