Friday, December 28, 2007

Champagne

Now that New Years Eve is just a few days away, I thought I'd talk a little about Champagne.

The juice of most grapes is white so the color of the wine comes only from the skins.  Usually a blend of the juice of white and black grapes is used to make champagne. Blancs de Blanc are the only examples made purely from white grape.  Rose, or pink, champagnes are produced by using some red skins as well as the white.

After grapes have been harvested the grapes are pressed.  Whole grapes are  loaded gently into presses and, slowly, the juice is extracted. This occurs three or four times and each time more tannin and color comes out of the skins, although the actual skins and pulp have to be removed.

Fermentation takes place in stainless steel cylinders or barrels; where yeast is added to the grape juice  so fermentation can occur. The yeast feeds on the sugar in the grape juice and releases alcohol (as ethanol), heat and carbon dioxide.

Sugar and yeast are added to the final blend to induce a second fermentation. This wine is then bottled and capped in  the bottles that will end up on the shelves of the wine cellar.  During the second fermentation the yeast increases the level of alcohol and adds CO2 which creates the bubbles in sparkling wine. This process takes about four to six weeks. The yeast must now remain in the bottle for at least a year to allow the champagne to age, even though the fermentation process is complete. The bottles rest horizontally on top of each other where the yeast collects along the bottom side.

Once the wine has aged, there's still the task of removing the yeast from the bottle. An ingenious method called riddling is employed. The bottles are placed at a 45 degree angle in either an automated or manual turning rack. Then the bottles are periodically rotated. This process forces the yeast down into the cap of the bottle. The mechanical riddler can achieve this in about a week, while the manual riddler takes about one month.
 

After riddling the yeast is ready to be removed. The tops of the bottles are frozen, trapping the yeast as an ice plug in the cap which prevents it from falling back into the sparkling wine.  A disgorging machine removes the cap from the bottle and the pressure built up inside shoots out the yeast ice plug.

The final stage before corking and wiring allows the wine maker to adjust the blend. Generally a combination of sugar and wine will be added to balance the high acidity of the dry wine. The amount of sugar added determines the designation on the label: non-dosée, brut, extra sec, sec, demi-sec or doux, in ascending order of sweetness. 

In the Hudson Valley I would recommend two local Champagnes

Clinton Vineyards Seyval Champagne made from Seyval grapes and Whitecliff Vineyards & Winery's Champagne, made from Chardonnay grapes.

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