There are no bubbles in the 2015 vintage of champagne!
That’s right. No. Bubbles.
Have I got your attention yet?
You can breathe again, it’s all ok and perfectly normal – the still wine just hasn’t gone through the secondary fermentation that turns it into champagne!
It’s actually action central in champagne at the moment in a period that is called ‘assemblage’ or blending.
After the grapes have been harvested and pressed, they are left to ferment (a process which takes 4 to 6 weeks), and they become still wines. These still wines are called ‘Vin clair’. They are left to rest for a few more months for the flavours to start to develop, and then about now, the magician wine makers swing into action.
Assemblage is a very important stage – particularly for non-vintage champagnes. It is the art of bringing together wines from different grapes, vineyards and vintages to make an end result that is greater than the individual parts.
Each cellar master has a different vision about what they are creating and like a great composer, they are creating their symphony.
Non-vintage champagne, especially for the larger houses is a particularly difficult blend to create. The non-vintage must taste like it has in all the previous years, so that customers always taste the champagne as they have been accustomed to tasting it. A house is judged by the regularity of taste and style. This is difficult because nature doesn’t make the grapes taste the same every year due to the varying climatic conditions. The percentages of each grape used and the amount of reserve wine (still wines kept from precious harvests) added varies each time. From the still wine, the winemaker must be able to use their sensory memory to understand how the taste will evolve and develop over time.
It is also at the tasting of the vin clair that a vintage is declared. The growers usually have a good idea at harvest time whether the grapes will be good enough for a vintage, but it needs to be confirmed by tasting the still wine and analysing its ageing potential.
Although the cellar master is in charge, there is usually a committee involved in the tasting. They blind taste different blends several times and eventually come to an agreement. This pre-blending stage can take between six and eight weeks.
If a vintage is declared – it is a much less complicated process, because only the grapes from that particular harvest are used. Vintage champagne is more an expression of what mother nature has provided in any particular year, where as non-vintage is more an expression of a house style and must be consistent.
Once a decision of the assemblage has been made, and the blends prepared, the still wine is ready to be bottled and transformed into sparkling wine. At bottling, a small amount of a sweet solution called ‘liqueur de tirage’ is added. This is a mixture of still wine with cane or beet sugar and some acclimatised yeast. The yeast and the sugar react together to start the ‘prise de mouse’, literally translated as ‘capturing the sparkle’, and the champagne is born.
This secondary fermentation inside the bottle continues for about 6-8 weeks. The sugar is consumed by the yeast, and this transforms it into alcohol and carbon dioxide.
The good news for 2015 is that it was a near perfect year, and the champagnes are expected to be exceptional. We will just have to wait a few more years to find out.
Meanwhile – never fear! The sparkle will soon be captured!