La méthode champenoise- the 10 steps of the champagne production process

méthode champenoise

Making champagne is an art. But so is finding information on the champagne production process. When I started to learn more about it, I got lost in the many websites explaining “la méthode champenoise”. Then I discovered many of them were lost themselves. That’s when I decided to go offline and read actual books written by actual pros: Peter Liem and Richard Juhlin. Peter is an American wine writer living in Dizy near Épernay (close the the source!) and author of the iconic “Champagne”. Juhlin is a world-famous champagne taster that holds the world record in Champagnes tasted (more than 10,000). He has written a couple of very heavy books, including “400 Champagnes”.

On their pages, I found the missing pieces to my story. And I can now say with confidence that this is going to be a quite decent explanation of the champagne production process.

Don’t be scared by the upcoming long-read: I’ll explain all the weird stuff and I’ll stay away from champagne lingo. On y va!

Time well spent

Champagne is made from grapes (I kid you not) that grow on vines in a vineyard. During the production process, champagne makers add yeast, sugar and wine they reserved from other years (“vin de réserve”). This is the short description. The long description knows many exceptions, as you can also make champagne without vin de réserve or sugar. Either way, you might say the list of champagne ingredients is not too elaborate.

The process itself is, though, as turning grape juice into liquid, golden bubbles takes a lot of time and effort. Champagne producers work all year long, both in the fields and in the cellar. The fact that there are lot of rules about pruning, harvesting and timing makes the production process even more labour-intensive. It’s also what makes the champagne production process a fine art. And in the end, both champagne makers and champagne drinkers consider it time well spent.

Step 1. Harvesting

First of all, the grapes are harvested from the vines. The Comité Interprofessionnel du vin de Champagne (CIVC) decides when, by proclaiming L’ouverture des Vendanges which translates start of the harvest. There are separate starting dates per village, but also for Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay (these are the 2021 dates). The CIVC sets the dates based on the sugar levels in the grapes, that are needed to produce the right amount of alcohol later in the process (around 10%).

Timing is everything, because when sugar levels get too high, this compromises acidity. This acidity is needed to balance flavour, but it’s also what adds character to champagne. Therefore, L’ouverture des Vendanges is the kick-off to some very busy weeks, in which fruit pickers go into the fields to hand-pick the grapes. In September 2021, I was one of those fruit pickers at David Léclapart. The hand-picking is not because of nostalgia: using machinery is actually forbidden by law, at least for champagne producers. You can imagine the many hands that are needed to get the job done!

Step 2. Pressing

Next up is pressing. The harvested grapes go through to a press, often located close to the vineyards to safeguard the quality of the grapes. As you can imagine, rotten or bruised fruit are left out as they don’t exactly contribute to great flavours (except for 1978, a wine year that’s known for its undertone of rotten fruit!). Fancy champagne houses have their own press, but many of the smaller growers send their grapes to cooperative facilities.

In an ideal world, grapes go through the press one single time. This first pressing (called la cuvée) produces the highest quality juice. This is because there’s been no contact with the grape skin or seeds, that add an acrid taste. High quality champagne comes from this first pressing exclusively, whereas the less expensive ones also contain juice from a second pressing, called première taille**. There used to be a third pressing (deuxième taille), but this resulted in such low quality (“supermarket champagne”) that this is now forbidden. 

*Very confusing! Cuvée also means blend, as in the combination of grape varieties in a Champagne
**In his book Champagne, Peter Liem does state that sometimes, high quality juice from the première taille can add fruitiness to a wine and soften it. And David Léclapart actually swears by adding the première taille as he believes the cuvée tells only half of the story. 

Step 3. Sludge removal (débourbage)

The grape juice is added to either casks or steel tanks, and after 12-24 hours it’s time to get rid of the sludge. This stands for all things that aren’t supposed to be in the juice, such as grape seeds and pieces of skin. We call this process débourbage. Although it can be done mechanically through a centrifuge, most champagne makers choose to use gravity and just wait until the waste settles voluntarily.

Step 4. First fermentation

When the sludge has been removed, the juice is transferred to either new steel tanks or casks. There, it simply “expires” like a juice box in a fridge. Hence, it turns into must, producing both CO2 and alcohol. Although both are crucial elements to making champagne (admit that the alcohol and bubbles are part of the fun), too much of CO2 and alcohol makes the wine go bitter. Excessive oxidation is responsible for too much CO2; excessive fermentation results in too much alcohol.

Fortunately, producers can control both with the same additive: sulphur dioxide. Champagne producers add very small amounts to the must, to control oxidation and fermentation as to safeguard taste and character throughout the production process. The first fermentation stage usually takes around ten days and at a temperature of 18 to 20 degrees. Of course, as with everything, there are champagne makers that do things differently. For example, there are producers that prefer a long fermentation period at a cooler temperature, so that the wine holds on to its fruitiness.

Step 5. Blending (or not!)

Let’s skip a few months. The first fermentation stage has long ended, and the still wines lie waiting. Around April-March, the cellar master enters the stage. He descends to a cellar full of casks filled with still wines from different villages and years, and he has the noble task of blending them in line with the champagne house’s style. This so-called assemblage is a delicate art, as this is where the flavours come together in a cuvée (or champagne batch). This is also the stage where the human factor is most important, as a mediocre cellar master can turn great still wines into a mediocre champagne, whereas a talented one can work miracles with unbalanced wines that need a little help. The cellar master also needs to be able to predict the way that the wine will develop when it’s aged and sparkly.

But hold on. Not all champagne is blended! Sometimes, cellar masters or producers choose to use only one vintage to create a new champagne. This is what we call vintage champagne, also known as millésime champagne. When champagne is blended as described above, it’s called non vintage champagne.

Richard Juhlin compared the cellar master to a chef that combines different ingredients to come up with the perfect dish. Peter Liem makes the comparison of a director, that aligns multiple instruments so they form an orchestra.

Step 6. In-bottle fermentation

When the cellar master has found the perfect recipe, he blends the still wines and puts them into bottles. This is where the second fermentation takes place, which will eventually lead to sparkly wine (finally!). As the first fermentation stage has ended, champagne makers need to re-start the process by adding a mixture of sugar and yeast that’s diluted in wine. This so-called liqueur de tirage is added to the blend. Then, producers provide the bottles with a temporary cap so that the second fermentation stage can start. And as the produced CO2 has nowhere to go, little bubbles appear.

Sidenote: liqueur de tirage and dosage are not the same thing. In this sixth step, sugar is added to start the second fermentation process, not to change flavour. The sugar in the dosage (see step 8 below), on the other hand, is used to add flavour.

Step 7. Ageing

The second fermentation stage takes around two weeks. During this period, the bottles are regularly shaken by the champagne maker, to create foam and let the liqueur de tirage do its job. The second fermentation stage eventually creates lees, which is a mix of dead yeast cells and unwanted (chemical) leftovers. This sounds gross and it probably is, but it actually has a lot of benefits. For one, it helps control oxidation and it preserves the champagne. And it even adds a bread-like flavour! The longer you keep this lees in the champagne, the more it influences flavour.

After this racking stage (called poignetage), the bottles are angled at 45 degrees, after which they’re regularly turned (sideways) so that the lees detaches from the sides of the bottle. This is called remuage and the big houses do this mechanically. In the end, all bottles hang upside down so that the lees assembles in the bottleneck. The lees is now ready to be removed, but there are champagne makers that choose to leave their bottles sur pointes, to remove the lees right before the champagne is ordered. Leclerc Briant does this!

If all of these exceptions within the champagne production process are confusing to you (they are to me), get ready for some more ambiguity.

Step 8. Disgorgement

This is without a doubt my favourite step. The lees has the be removed from the bottle, which is not easy as you can’t take liquid out of a bottle without spilling the actual champagne (oh the horror). Fortunately, champagne makers came up with the brilliant idea of freezing the bottleneck, so that only the part that contains lees gets frozen. Then, they remove the temporary bottle cap and take out the frozen part. This is what we call dégorgement. There are rock ‘n roll champagne makers that dégorge their wines “à la volée”, by opening the bottle and releasing the lees in a swift second. This is very cool to watch, for example in this video, where Charles Philipponnat shows how it’s done. It’s in French, but he pretty much explains what I wrote in this article, so you won’t miss out on important information.

After the dégorgment, the bottle is not in its best shape (=full). This is the part where champagne makers at liqueur d’expédition, better known as dosage. This is sugar dissolved in wine, and it’s what makes a champagne either doux, sec or brut. In the case of brut nature champagne, there’s no sugar added whatsoever.

Here’s the thing, though: this classification is considerably less linked to sweetness than many people think. For example, Selosse’s Exquise Sec N.V. contains a lot of dosage (like a lot) but doesn’t taste sweet at all.

Step 9. Corking

We-are-almost-there. But did you know that the cork is actually a very important part of la méthode champenoise? It has to be in perfect shape to maintain quality, even when the champagne is preserved for years. Corks are usually made from several layers, and the part that’s in contact with the Champagne must be of the highest quality. That’s actually all you need to know for now, so no need to make this paragraph longer than needed.

Step 10. In-bottle ageing

You might say the champagne production process has finished by now, and it has. But there are champagnes that are kept in their bottle for years, and this also changes flavour. Depending on the grape variety, it deepens flavours by adding more layers to the champagne. The fruitiness is often diverted to the background, making room for more depth. If you wait very long, flavour often goes downhill as the champagne turns into some kind of cherry wine, but the weird thing is that this is hard to predict. Champagne makers carefully monitor the ageing process and know when their champagnes reach their expiration date. To make this story even more confusing, some champagnes go downhill first, but regain their flavour over time to come back stronger. Brilliant, if you ask me, as this means there’s still some magic left in this world.

If you made it to the end of this long-read: good for you! It takes some time to learn about la méthode champenoise, but I hope you’ll feel more confident next time you pick up a bottle. You’re not a stupid foreigner, you’re a connoisseur and you know difficult words such as dégorgement and poignetage.

So far for the story on the champagne production process. Do you have anything to add? Please feel free to comment!