How Méthode Champenoise is Made
From harvest to cork . . .
It will take at least two years to get from the beginning of this article to the end of it. But in that time, ordinary grape juice will be transformed into the most elite of wines: champagne made in the classic méthode champenoise tradition.
Many different ways of fermenting champagne have been developed, but the traditional méthode champenoise – careful blending of still wines, followed by fermenting in individual bottles – is still recognized throughout the world as the finest method known today. It is the only way Thornton champagne is made.
Step One. The Harvest.
Thornton Champagne is made from a variety of grapes, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Noir grapes grown in Temecula Valley. Grenache, Viognier, Muscat Canelli, Muscat of Alexandria and Syrah are also utilized in the making of our champagne.
Champagne grapes are harvested earlier than still wine grapes in order to keep the sugar content (brix level) down. Our harvests begin the last week in July, when sugar content is 18 to 19% instead of the normal 22 to 24%. Grapes are hand-picked and placed into half-ton bins in order to preserve the delicate quality of the grapes.
Step Two. Making Grape Juice.
After crushing the grapes, the fresh grape juice is then transferred into temperature-controlled stainless-steel tanks. These tanks vary in size, holding 2,000 to 6,000 gallons, and are set to maintain a constant temperature of 45 degrees. In about two days at this temperature, the juice has clarified and the sediment is removed in a process called racking.
Step Three. Making Still Wine.
The transformation of grape juice into still wine takes place right in the large tanks. Adding active yeast, which will interact with natural juice sugar and form both alcohol and carbon dioxide, begins fermentation. The juice is fermented until the sugar level drops to 0% and the alcohol content reaches 10 to 11%. The first fermentation takes about three weeks. Once desired levels have been achieved, the wine is held at 45 degrees for several weeks, and then filtered.
Step Four. Blending.
Here is where the art begins. Each of the champagnes created consists of a blend of different wine, and arriving at the proper blend is no easy task. Winemakers test and taste, and after several days, the chosen blend is bottled. This special blend of base wine is called cuvée, and it will determine the flavor of the finished champagne.
Step Five. Liquor de Tirage.
To the cuvée is added the Liquor de Tirage – cane sugar (to 2.7%) and a yeast starter culture. The mixture goes into individual bottles and is capped with temporary closures.
Step Six. The Second Fermentation.
It takes four to six weeks to convert the sugars that have been placed into the cuvée into carbon dioxide and alcohol. But to drink the champagne at this point would be a mistake, because while it has alcohol and effervescence, it has no mature character. AtTHORNTON WINERY, we let the champagne “repose” for two to five years. The length of time is determined by the style of champagne. This time allows the champagne to develop its subtle complexities and delicate flavors.
Step Seven. Riddling.
Residue from the second fermentation has settled in each bottle. In order to remove it without losing the precious effervescence, each bottle must be “riddled.” The champagne is placed at a 70 degree angle in a rack. Over a period of three to four weeks, the bottles are rotated constantly, gradually tilting their necks further downward. This forces the sediment to collect in the caps of the bottles. At the end of the four week period, the champagne itself is clear. All the yeast and grape sediment is packed into the neck of the bottle, which has been handled approximately 100 times during the riddling process.
Step Eight. Disgorging.
The bottles are cooled to 35 degrees to reduce foaming during the disgorging process. The necks of the bottles are then frozen in a special solution. It takes about five minutes for the trapped sediment to freeze into an ice plug. When the temporary cap is popped off, the pressure from inside the bottled forces the plug out.
Step Nine. Dosage.
“Dosage” is sugar mixed with the same wine from which the champagne is made. A carefully measured amount is added to each bottle of champagne before it is corked, wired and labeled. (Not all of our champagne has dosage added.) After the dosage has had time to “marry” flavors with the champagne, the bottles are ready for distribution.