13 March, 2002

Quietness before the bubbles

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Alain compares Chardonnay from Vertus, one wine has gone through a malolactic fermentation, the other one has not.

The new wine is ready. Vintage 2006. Even the year will only be visible on very few vintage champagne bottles, when ready to sell in a few years.

So far the first fermentation is through. It has taken place after the harvest and the pressing of the grapes, and now the quiet or still wine is ready in vats or even casks here and there.

The wine has gone through a number of processes - some times chaptalisation and/or malolactic fermentation to remove some of the natural acidity and always a number of filtrations to remove impurities in the wine. The result is a number of different base wines. They are the building stones, a champagne is made of. (More thoroughly description of the processes here).

Uniting the base wines
The building of the champagne is a proces called assemblage. The idea of it is to mix a number of base wines and add yeast and sugar, transfer everything to the champagne bottle and let it all ferment once more. This is when the bubbles are made. The proces is called the prise de mousse.

Before though you taste your different base wines to get to know them and understand how they may be combined to reach the wanted result after the second fermentation and maturation. Big houses have people emplyed with education and talent for this job. Smaller places can hire experts or manage with their own experience.

The idea is that the same type of champagne must taste the same year after year. Since years are not the same, different base wines will be mixed to arrive at the wanted result. Little winegrowers typically has less base wines to mix, and therefore their champagnes will vary more with the individual years.

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Michel taps the Chardonnay wine that has gone through the malolactic fermentation directly from the steel vat.

Wines of the cousin
The other day we visited a cousin of Alain's. She is so far away on a branch of the family tree, that I am not sure of the correct designation of the relation. In Danish it definitely doesn't exist. But in Champagne your near family is much bigger, so we are related with this cousin and her husband, who grow vines in Vertus in the Côte des Blancs.

We were invited to taste their bases wines - vins clairs - a number of Chardonnay-wines of different vintages and with and without the malolactic fermentation, that begins automatically when the temperature in the vat passes a certain number of degrees. During the malolactic fermentation bacteria transform malic acid to lactic acid, which results in a less marked but also remarkable less acid base wine.

The risk is to loose too many of the more exciting tastes of the wine. The high acidity also makes it possible for a champagne to mature nicely, and it contributes to its natural freshness. Therefore it is an act of balance to dose the usage of the malocatic fermentation correctly.

It was evident, how the white wine without the malolactic fermentation attacked the palate straight forward, whereas the other was much less acid and also sort of less interesting. The corresponding base wine from 2005 had clearly developped a greater balance during the time it had spend in the vat, which 2006 undoubtly will do as well.

Redwine for rosé
The couple grow a bit of Pinot Noir-grapes too, that are used to produce a red wine of a surprising pretty and deep red colour. They use it for pink champagne.

To make a pink champagne you add red wine to your general assemblage of base wines. If the red wine has enough colour, your result will be rosé champagne. If the red wine is not great, your rosé will be too pale or even worse get a brownish colour.

In Champagne, very far north when it comes to vines, it can be difficult to mature the red grapes enough to reach a pretty red wine. But 2006 was a great year for Pinot Noir, and this one certainly proved that you can achieve a splendid result if you nurse your red wine as it should be. In Champagne the energy is normally put into the champagne, that also demands a lot of work.

However, a champagne is a product that must please all senses, the eyes as well, so if you want to sell rosé, you've got to make a decent coloured red wine. This is how you can create a rosé champagne of a colour so pretty, that your customers will accept to pay you more for your extra work to make it.

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The cave of the family, where the champagnisation takes place, and where the bottles later mature until they are ready to be sold. At the moment the family sells bottles from 2004.

På dansk

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