Champagne popping

Food Explorer #9: A South African food scientist savours Champagne in Champagne!

Lisa Ronquest is one of South Africa’s top young food scientists, now transferred to The Netherlands in a global food R&D role by Mars. She’s been sharing her impressions and insights with FOODStuff SA readers in a regular blog, and we’re proud here to publish the ninth episode on her big move. This time, Lisa is seduced by the wonders of Champagne!

DRINKING champagne in Champagne has always been my on my bucket list. And here we are! Epernay, the heart of the Champagne region in north-eastern France.

Imagine a town with 110km of tunnels cut 30m deep into the chalky earth below, filled with Champagne in various stages of maturation. The actual town only has 6km of roads above ground!

Epernay is the perfect terroir for producing Champagne with the chalky earth keeping the champagne at 90% humidity, a constant temperature of 10⁰C and dark, all-year round.

As we strolled down the appropriately named Ave de Champagne, we discovered a town steeped in tradition and heritage with Champagne houses like Moët Chandon and Dom Perignon on every corner. Yes, really!

Mercier’s vision

We visited one of the largest Champagne producers for the French market, Mercier. Here we took a train through its 18km long cellar caves and followed the process of Champagne making from grape harvest to bottling.

Eugene Mercier’s vision in the early 18th century was to make Champagne accessible to everyone without compromising on quality. He was a real marketing-savvy visionary for his time and his first advertising campaign was to build an enormous 20-ton wooden barrel carrying 200 000 bottles worth of Champagne.

It later took eight days and nights, twenty-four oxen and eighteen horses, to transport the world’s largest wine cask from Epernay to Paris for the 1889 World Fair. See more on his industry exploits here…

The vinification process

Champagne is produced from grapes only harvested in the Champagne region. It has to be produced from chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier.

Grapes are first pressed into liquid. Champagne Joseph Desruets is one the last remaining Champagne houses that still presses grapes with a wooden press. It takes three men eight hours to crush four tons of grapes compared to modern facilities where the same amount would take one man three hours.

The first fermentation converts the sugars in the must into alcohol and CO2. From there it is filtered and called ‘cuvee’. This is bottled with some sugar and yeast and left to lie horizontally for a few years to ferment.

When the time is right, these bottles are then placed at an angle and riddled (turned over a period of weeks to move the dead yeast to the neck of the bottle).

A disgorging riddle

At La Castellane, we were regaled with stories of how the process of riddling has evolved over the centuries. At first, the monks placed the neck of the bottle in the sand and turned them. This ineffective process resulted in a 50% yield loss as bottles became contaminated with sand or the yeast got disturbed when they fell over.

The next solution was to place them directly vertical facing downwards where mice would eat the mineral oil used to help seal the closure, resulting in the Champagne ending up all over the floor.

Fortunately, a solution came from a completely unrelated piece of equipment, through the efforts of Madame Verve Cliquot. She modified her kitchen shelf to place the shelves at an angle where the bottles could be lodged and easily turned.

Since then the process has been automated. The first prototypes weren’t very successful. Bottles were shaken so vigorously they jiggled right out of their holders and crashed to the floor.

Finally in the 1970s, automation design was successful and is still widely used today. A manual process of two months has been reduced to just 24 hrs. Once the dead yeast has made its way to the neck of the bottle, the neck is frozen to -25⁰C. The cap is then removed and out pops the yeasty plug as the bottles are under 7 bar pressure at that point.

This process is called disgorgement. In days past, it was a specialised skill to disgorge bottles by hand blocking the rest of the Champagne from pouring out with their thumb.

The bottles are then topped up with reserve wine and sugar to the right sugar level depending on the type of Champagne e.g. brut, demi sec, doux etc. They are then corked and labelled and sit for up to three months before being ready for sale.

We visited one Champagne house that produced the equivalent of 10 million litres of Champagne and they only served the French and Belgium market!

The Champagne region is a contrast of old and modern, with gorgeous original Champagne houses. We stayed in a 100-year-old Champagne house yet visited some very modern production facilities.

They are not afraid to utilise automation to improve yield and productivity within the Champagne-making process, without compromising on the parts that make this a unique and special process.

In my humble opinion and maybe it was the elegant tulip-shaped flute glasses, but the taste of Champagne is different from SA’s Cap Classique and well worth the effort it takes to produce it.

I found the tiny bubbles smaller and they tickled my tongue, with the wine’s colour light gold with subtle yeasty and fruity notes. It really was simply delicious. At €20 a bottle, I savoured every sip.

As Dom Perignon allegedly said on first tasting Champagne, “Come quickly, I am drinking the stars!”

Lisa ChampagneAbout this blog:

Lisa Ronquest is currently Head of Product Development – Global Food R&D at Mars Inc, based in The Netherlands. The intention of this column is to be both a personal and professional account of a South African food scientist exploring life and work in a developed market.

You can contact her at [email protected].

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Food Explorer #8: A South African food scientist investigates windmills and gin

Food Explorer #7: A South African food scientist celebrates Christmas

Food Explorer #6: A South African food scientist goes to Anuga

Food Explorer #5: A South African food scientist explores things italian

Food Explorer #4: A South African food scientist explores Grolsch

Food Explorer #3: A South African food scientist explores chocolate in Belgium

Food Explorer #2: A South African food scientist goes shopping abroad

Food Explorer #1: A South African food scientist taking on a global R&D role