I was lucky enough last weekend to get a personal tour of how champagne is made with champagne maker Philippe Chochina (who makes a very tasty drop and swears it’s impossible to have a hangover with well-made champagne), and I now understand why champagne is so expensive. Making champagne is quite a laborious task, involving two rounds of fermentation and turning bottles five degrees daily. After the initial fermentation in large silos, where the good stuff is then placed into bottles the way it is with wine, the second fermentation begins, and this is where the bubbles begin. Yeast and sugar are added, and the bottle is sealed like beer. When the yeast has consumed all the sugar, it dies, sinking to the bottom of the liquid. The bottle is stored sideways at first, and turned daily and eventually angled so the bottle top is face down, which will pull down any remaining dead yeast floating in the liquid. Eventually, the bottle is reopened to remove the dead yeast, aided by freezing the bottle top to -26°C. Extra alcohol is added to fill the gap and then the bottle is sealed with a big fat cork that starts off with an equal diameter from top to bottom, then gains its shape through the pressure in the bottle.
The entire process of making champagne is very manual. As you can see from this photo (click to enlarge), the grapes are pressed with the aid of people. They’re not stamping on the grapes — indeed, Monsieur Philippe Chochina said with some pride that he has never squashed grapes with his bare feet. That raised semi-circle of metal on each side flattens and lowers to press the grapes until all the juice is extracted into the vat on the right, like a giant orange press. However, after the initial pressing, these two guys get in with pitch forks and lift the grapes from the side, then press them again to squeeze out any remaining juice. The grape skins get added to a mountain of grape skins near one of the local villages rather than used as fertiliser to prevent too many pesticides, stuck to the grape skins, getting into the ground. Philippe did, however, add that this mountain of grape skins is used to make another type of alcohol. Fermented pesticides, anyone?
We also visited the vineyards where Philippe explained that horses are now replacing tractors, with wine-makers reverting to more traditional methods at every stage of the grape-growing and collecting process. We watched some horses being used to walk down each row of grapes, where boxes were placed on sleighs behind the horses — somewhere a tractor could never enter.
The only meals where champagne was not the staple drink were breakfasts, which made me realise just how similar this region of France is to where I live. Instead of talking about cheese and cows and eating some potato/cheese concoction regularly, people in the champagne-producing region of France talk about grapes and horses and drink champagne regularly.