The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

The Cost of Champagne

Posted on | May 19, 2010 | Written by Francesco Vigorito | No Comments

Most Champagne seems pretty expensive, and it can feel hard to shell out 80-100 bucks for a bottle of bubbly when you can buy a handful of bottles of still wines for the same price.  I can’t necessarily rationalize the cost of a 500-1000 bottle of Champagne, but I can give you readers a sense of where your money is going—and that requires a fundamental knowledge of how Champagne is made.

The region of Champagne is the most northerly wine producing region in France. This region really pushes the envelope for the cultivation of grapes because it gets almost too cold for the grapes to ripen. It often rains, limiting the amount of sunshine and warmth that reach the vines. Late spring frosts are dangerous—often even a killer.  The weather is unforgiving, and the decrease in yields sometimes adds the cost, but also the flavor, of a bottle of Champagne.

In addition to producers growing their grapes under difficult conditions, the method to make Champagne is not for slackers. It’s labor intense, no question. Let’s look at a breakdown of the steps you have to take to make a prime bottle of bubbly.

Step 1: The grapes are harvested like those for any other wine; then they’re pressed and fermented in large stainless steel or glass vats.  Some producers, such as Krug, Bollinger and Vilmart, use 225 liter barriques for this fermentation.

Step 2:  5-6 months later the wine is ready for blending.  Non-vintage champagne is a blend of about 40-50 wines from as many as ten different years.  This step is crucial because this is what gives the champagne its consistent taste year after year.  The blending technician is very skilled and knows exactly the percentages of which wines to blend depending on the current years organoleptic qualities. Imagine a chemist in a lab with the nose of a bloodhound and the prognostic skills of a psychic, and you’ll get a picture of what goes into the making of a blending technician.

Step 3:  After the wines are blended in a vat, a liquer de tirage is added to the wine.  This blend is a carefully mixed quantity of mostly liquid sugar and yeast.  The sugar and the yeast are what allow the second fermentation to take place in the bottle. See technician above.

Step 4: After the addition of the liquer de tirage, the wine is bottled and capped.  If too much sugar was added in the liquer, the bottle can explode, and if not enough, there will be no carbonation.  Remember the equation for fermentation is this: sugar + yeast—->ethanol + CO2.  After the bottling they are laid on their sides in chalk caves, so the second fermentation can take place.  During this period the yeast die in a process called autolysis.  The dead yeast cells sink to the bottom imparting yeasty, bread-like aromas to the wine as well as complexity. The bottles must be left in this position for at least fifteen months for non-vintage and three years for vintage champagne.

Step 5:  Now that the yeast is dead, there arrives the long and sometimes laborious process calledremuage.  This is when the dead yeast cells are coaxed into the neck of the bottle.  Back before the use of machinery, a man called a remuer would turn and angle everybottle of champagne a little downward every day into a vertical position.  A top remuer can riddle, or manually turn, around 40,000 bottles per day.  Some houses still use a remuer, but they are very costly and time consuming.   Most houses now use a girasol.  This a piece of machinery holds about 500 bottles and replicates the remuage process.

Step 6:  Twelve to twenty weeks later, the bottles are in a vertical position, and it is time to remove all that sediment that has accumulated in the neck.  One method called a la volee, uses the pressure inside of bottle to force the sediment out after the enclosure has been removed.  The other and more common method is called a la glace.  In this method the neck of the bottle is dipped into a freezing brine solution, which freezes the sediment; when the enclosure is removed, the ice and sediment shoot out.  This process is called degorgement for obvious reasons.

Step 7: To replace some of the wine that has been lost during the last step, a measured amount of sweetened wine is added to the bottle.  This mixture is called the liqueur d’expedition, and it’s what gives the wine some residual sugar and house flavor. Finally, the champagne is topped with the mushroom cork a wire cage and is ready for shipment or storage.

It’s not easy to produce champagne—especially because the caves where the champagne is stored are carved from the chalk soils that run twenty feet into the ground.  The chalk provides the perfect storage temperature for the wine.  By capturing heat during the day and radiating it during the cold nights, the internal temperature remains constant.  From growing the grapes, to mixing the wines, to dealing with yeast, to storing the wine, it’s a whole big thing, but Champagne done right is a wine unlike any other.

As we know from any cursory study of economics, the more labor and that goes into making something, the rarer it is. The smaller the amount and the greater the demand, the more something costs. Champagne is, in many ways, a textbook study of market pressures. But what a delicious, tantalizing and seductive study it is. Expensive, yes, but if you love it, it’s worth every penny.

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