Botanically, the grapevine is a liana, a woody climber that only bears fruit if it is domesticated, pruned and protected. Its cultivation in Champagne is no mean feat when you consider that grapes simply cannot be grown any further north than this. The climate and soil produce grapes with unique characteristics, but they require very careful nurturing if they are to survive to harvest time. So it gives winegrowers particular satisfaction when their lovingly tended grapes do eventually tumble into the press. The majority of the grapes are dark-skinned but intended for the production of white must – a challenge that depends on a slow and gentle pressing technique.
The blending of the still wines is a crucial stage in Champagne winemaking. It is the irreversible final step that brings together all of the previous stages. Every bottle represents a particular combination of wines from different vineyards, vintages and grape varieties. But while it draws on their specific properties, the likeness stops there because each blend has its own individual identity. To think of Champagne in this way – as a whole that is much greater than the sum of its parts – is to understand the essence of a cuvee Champenoise
It is after bottling (tirage) that the magic happens: deep inside the cellars away from natural light, the wine is transformed from still to sparkling in the course of its long maturation. This is the all-important secondary fermentation – a process in which the cellars play a key role by keeping the humidity and temperature constant (around 12°C).
Preparation for shipment many years later
Towards the end of its long resting period, the wine must be clarified by eliminating the sediment created off by second fermentation. Known as remuage (riddling), this process consists of rotating the bottles to cause the sediment to collect in the neck of the bottle prior to disgorgement (ejecting under pressure). The Cellar Master’s final touch is to add the liqueur de dosage: a mixture of wine and sugar that determines the category of Champagne.