Have you ever thought about making wine at home? It’s not exactly mainstream, but there is a small minority of wine lovers that have made it a hobby of theirs. Buying wine kits online is probably the most popular way to go about it, but some go so far as to grow (or buy) their own grapes and do everything themselves, from fermentation to ageing. Winemaking is not easy, but it’s possible.
The basics of making wine – that is, still wine – are relatively straightforward. You take some grapes and convert the natural sugars into alcohol through fermentation. At the risk of oversimplification, that’s basically it. You’ve got wine. Of course, there is a lot more to it – particularly if you want the wine to actually be good. Nonetheless, it’s (relatively) straightforward.
What about Champagne, then? Is it the same process? First things first: If it’s not made in the Champagne region of France, it’s not Champagne. If you really are determined to make Champagne, you’ll need to invest in some vineyard land in the region (which is not exactly cheap), some winery facilities including an ageing cellar, and you’ll need to follow the strict guidelines as set out by the Champagne regulatory body. For these reasons alone (not to mention the painstaking process of actually making the stuff), it’s probably best to leave it to the pros.
However, there’s nothing stopping you from understanding the process at least. Some sparkling wines from other regions, particularly Cava, are made in the same way as Champagne, in the so-called “traditional method”.
The traditional method
How Champagne is made is a complex, costly and time-consuming process. We’re not going to get into excessive detail, but hopefully this guide will help you appreciate just how much work goes into each and every bottle. This should explain, in part at least, why Champagne is so expensive. It should also convince you that making Champagne is best left to the experts – unless of course you aspire to become a professional winemaker yourself, in which case you should consider some formal technical wine education!
Otherwise, making sparkling wine in the traditional method goes a little something like this:
- Harvest the grapes and gently press them to release the juice.
- (Primary) alcoholic fermentation takes place. Usually in stainless steel tanks and under strict temperature controls, the grape sugars are converted to alcohol and form what is called the base wine.
- Blending takes place, where base wines from this year and previous years are mixed together in order to achieve a desirable style and balance. Many Champagne houses have access to a great many individual base wines from which to make up their blend.
- Secondary fermentation takes place. This is what makes the wine sparkling, and is achieved by bottling the blend along with a special mixture (including yeast) known as liqueur de tirage. The bottle is sealed with a temporary cap and stored between 10° and 12°C. The secondary fermentation occurs in the bottle over about eight weeks, generating CO2 which dissolves into the wine creating the bubbles.
- The yeast cells die and form a sediment of “lees” in a process called yeast autolysis. The lees can impart yeast flavours and keep the wine fresh, though will ultimately need to be removed through riddling and disgorgement. These are complicated and often labour-intensive tasks, though when they are complete the wine is completely free from sediment.
- Having been disgorged and the temporary cap removed, the wine must now be corked. Prior to corking, the wine is topped up with a mixture known as liqueur d’expédition, commonly known as the “dosage”. This mixture can include sugar and impacts the final sweetness level of the wine. The cork is fitted and secured with a wire cage.
- The finished sparkling wine now undergoes bottle ageing. Depending on where in the world this takes place, there will be different rules and regulations for minimum bottle ageing time. This allows the wine to settle and for its yeast and other character to develop before release.
- The wine is released, the cork is pulled and the wine lover gets to enjoy the result!
So there you have it: Simple, huh? Have you ever tried to make your own wine at home, sparkling or otherwise? We’d love to hear your stories!