Art in liquid form. Sparkling fizz, shimmering bubbly, famously effervescent. However you describe Champagne, there’s simply nothing else like the pop of its cork. While all sparkling wines undergo a second fermentation to produce that soft, bubbly mouthfeel, the process in Champagne is so precise and rigorous, it’s earned its own moniker—the méthode Champenoise.
The journey begins once the wine is already bottled with remuage, or riddling.
Riddling is the gradual tilting and rotating of the bottle sur pointe (neck-down) to loosen the sediment thrown off by second fermentation, consolidating the sediments in the neck and leaving the wine perfectly clear. While most sparkling wine regions have mechanized this arduous task, in tradition-minded Champagne you can still find winemakers who prefer to turn by hand, rotating each bottle a quarter-turn at a time over four to six weeks. A good remueur (bottle turner) can handle 25,000 bottles each day.
This method can be traced all the way back to 18th-century monks who stored bottles in wooden sandboxes, and painstakingly rotated the boxes to achieve the same riddling effect. Just a century later, a more permanent solution took hold—Madame Clicquot Ponsardin—the 19th-century matriarch of the famed Veuve Clicquot Champagne house—modernized the practice with her ingenious wooden pupitre, a kitchen table transformed into a wine rack with angled and tapered holes, that has evolved into a symbol for the entire region.
Whatever equipment is used, this multi-step method for perfection is so revered, and the region’s term for it is so fiercely protected by local winemakers, that a deal was struck with the European Union in 1985 to ban other wine regions from using the term méthode Champenoise. Instead, sparkling winemakers beyond Champagne may only refer to the méthode classique or méthode traditionnelle.
And though the methode Champenoise most commonly refers to fermentation, there’s also a handed-down methodology for pressing the grapes too. Take, for example, the traditional 4,000-kilogram vertical wine press—manually operated, of course—that is still used in some places in Champagne. By law a 4,000kg marc (the traditional unit of measurement for a press-load of grapes) may produce no more than 25,500 liters. This is divided into the cuvée, a first pressing of 20,500 liters, which is the purest juice, rich in sugar and acid, and producing wines with strong aging potential; and the taille, a second pressing yielding 5,000 liters, fruitier when young but less age-worthy.
In order to produce the finest Champagne, winemakers will often reserve the Coeur de Cuvée—the heart of the first pressing (just 1,400 liters of 20,500 total)—for special stand-alone vintages.
While each winemaker is fiercely independent, every single bottle of Champagne is a collective love letter to the tradition and a shining example of the methode Champenoise.