Natural winemaking in the Champagne

Fair warning – This may be a bit too much on the technical side for some readers, but stick around and learn something! Biodynamics and natural winemaking are hot topics in the wineworld. You may have noticed a commonality in most of the domains discussed since I started this blog and I have to admit that, though I may not be completely convinced by the gospel preached by the natural wine movement, I do have a great interest in what they are saying. I do not like wines simply because they have been grown following biodynamic or natural principles. The wines that I prefer at tastings however, tend to be those that have been created in a more ecological manner, something that I often find out only after liking them.

The natural wine movement is an atypical story in the Champagne. Most vignerons working naturally will say that one of their goals is minimizing human intervention in the winemaking process. This is impossible if your goal is creating champagne as there are steps in the production where you have to intervene with products that are not wine. Vignerons are however coming up with innovative ways to change the process while still staying faithful to the rules of the AOC Champagne.

JDR champagne

First, a quick review of the production process of Champagne. The start is more or less the same as for every other wine. You press the grapes and fermentation starts either using cultured yeasts or natural yeasts. Once the fermentation is complete, meaning all the sugar available has been “eaten” by the yeast and converted into alcohol, you are left with your base wine. This is then bottled together with a mixture of yeast and sugar, the liqueur de tirage, in order to start the second fermentation in the bottle. The wines are then left for a minimum period of 15 months before dégorgement. The goal here is to remove the dead yeast cells that have formed a deposit in the bottle. Through remuage, the slow turning of the bottles until they are upside down, this deposit slowly floats towards the cap. Then, the tops of the bottles are dipped in liquid nitrogen so that when the bottles are opened, the frozen yeast cells pop out thanks to the pressure built up in the bottle. Before closing the bottle with a cork, the liqueur de dosage is added, a mixture of sugar and alcohol.

There are two interventions in this process that are difficult to work around; adding the liqueur de tirage and the liqueur de dosage, with the most difficult one to bypass being the liqueur de tirage. It is a legal obligation to work with dry base wines, meaning that there can be no residual sugar left before the second fermentation. In other regions of France you can find sparkling wines produced using the méthode ancestrale where the alcoholic fermentation is halted by lowering the temperature as this will cause yeasts to stop functioning. This used to be done naturally as cellars would simply get too cold for the fermentation to be completed. Come spring, the wines would heat up and the fermentation would start again in the bottle. It is very difficult to control this process, and if the ratio yeast-sugar is unbalanced, you will end up with a pétillant naturel with residual sugar. This is illegal in the Champagne as you need wines that have finished their alcoholic fermentation and that start their second fermentation by adding yeasts.

Most natural winegrowers refuse to use cultured yeasts, so they have to find a way to start a spontaneous fermentation. One way is working with a pied de cuve, which allows a winemaker more control over the fermentation process. Instead of hoping that everything will start fermenting without a hitch, the winemaker will often start with a small batch of the must to see if it can start fermenting by itself, similar to making sour dough bread actually. If the batch does not turn out as wanted, producing for instance strange odours like aceton, you can simply start again with a new batch until you get it right. Once you are confident in the fermentation you can add your pied de cuve to the rest of the grapes.

The process is slightly different in the Champagne, as you need to wait until you have an alcoholic fermentation going before you can accumulate yeasts for a second fermentation. Vignerons will therefore often age a wine until the moment of bottling coincides with the harvest of the new vintage. He or she will then take a batch of the fermenting newly harvested must and raise it separately by “feeding” it with sugar. The yeasts will start multiplying and once you have enough you can start bottling. As far as I know, this is not a common practice. Francis Boulard and Amaury Beaufort are some of the growers experimenting with it and yes, while it is still an intervention, you are not opting for the easy way of buying wine yeasts on Amazon!

So now we have one half of our liqueur de tirage made naturally, but what about the sugar? In most cases cane sugar is used. It’s easy to measure, cheap and predictable but it is not made from wine. One of the alternatives is using rectified grape must. I know, this is not exactly the most natural of terms! The production process is also not the most natural you can imagine. Essentially, you take grape juice and filter out all non-sugar components, leaving you with only fructose and glucose. You can go a step further and get rid of the water to end up with concentrated rectified grape must.  It used to be common practice in Germany to enrich wines using this Süssreserve and it’s one of the solutions against wine surpluses presented by the EU. Now the majority of RGM comes from the Languedoc. For champagne growers it’s the perfect substitute for cane sugar, but as of yet the only person that I know who is working with this is Pascal Agrapart. Unfortunately I never had the opportunity to taste anything aside from his entry level cuvée but it would be an interesting exercise.

We managed to get our wine bottled and the second fermentation going using only grape-based materials so far, but what will we do afterwards? Find out in a couple of days when I tackle dosage in champagne!

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