The romance of champagne procedures or everything you wanted to know about disgorgement

The romance of champagne procedures or everything you wanted to know about disgorgement
Wine is a work of art!

One of the most unusual words you will hear when champagnes and sparkling wines are presented is »disgorgement«. It comes from the French word dégorgement, gorge being the archaic French term for throat. So, in the case of champagne and sparkling wine production, it is the neck of the bottle, and disgorgement is the process of removing the lees from it.

Wine is a work of art!

How we get the lees down the throat, how it can be removed, why it's important, and also what the date of disgorgement on the label tells us. We've put together some thoughts about that at this November's disgorgement of the 2016 vintage Medot Rose sparkling wines.

The corks popped on sparkling wines and champagnes

The production of champagne or sparkling wine using the classical method is full of thrills. A romantic image depicts a dark wine cellar in Baroque times, where a French monk is inspecting his carefully stacked bottles of wine when, with a loud pop, a cork pops out of one of them in his hand, spraying everything around, and he realises that something divine and starry-tasting has been created in the bottle. Legend has it that it was Dom Pérignon in 1639, when he discovered champagne and exclaimed: "Come quickly, I am tasting the stars".

But, legends be legends, it is undeniable that one of the most exciting features of champagne and sparkling wines produced using the traditional method is the extraordinary eruptive power that can blow the cork. We are all familiar with the popping of corks when they fly off under pressure at sporting victories and celebrations, but this popping of corks is also accompanied by a much less well-known but very important process in the production of champagnes and classic sparkling wines, known as disgorgement.

Although disgorgement is nowadays a rather mechanical task for a cellarman who does it several times a year, there is something mystical about the process, precisely because of the violent ejection of the sediment of the lees trapped in the ice from the neck of the bottle, which is akin to the eruption of a volcano. This is the moment when the sparkling wine opens up to the world for the first time with all the power that nature has created, after it has been lying perfectly still and slowly building up in the bottle for at least four years, or even five or more, as is the practice at Medot. The minimum ageing period for a classic method sparkling wine is 15 months by law, but at Medot, where we swear by elegance and sophisticated, complex flavours, the youngest sparkling wine is disgorged after 48 months.

At the moment of disgorgement, the sparkling wine will have taken its last sharp, short breath of fresh oxygen, receive a few drops of expedition liqueur, which contains the secret of the cellar, and of course the few drops of sparkling wine that were lost in the projectile. Finally, the bottle will be proudly crowned with the final cork and decorated with the winery's coat of arms, so that it can come out of the cellar as the true Queen of the hearts of sparkling wine lovers.

Riddling and disgorgement - then and now

First of all, we have the great lady of Champagne, Madame Clicquot, to thank for the very idea of disgorgement. In her day, champagne was served cloudy and full of sediment, and to improve its commercial viability, she felt that it should be clearer. In 1816, she conceived of a simple wooden frame in which she could place the bottles with their necks down, so that the sediment of the lees would collect at the cork, and the process of turning the bottles at an angle and shaking them for several weeks for this purpose became 'riddling'. Finally, the upside-down bottle, with the sediment visibly accumulated in the neck of the bottle, was opened, held in that position just long enough for the sediment to be removed, before being quickly put back upright, the expedition liqueur and the missing part of the Champagne wine were added, and it was ready to drink. This used to be a purely manual process, requiring mastery and a great deal of experience.

A decorative example of the riddling rack for sparkling wines in the Medot cellar.

Today, the technique of disgorgement is based on immersing the neck of the bottle in a cooling reservoir of liquid invented in 1884 by the Frenchman Armand Walfard. This involves forming an ice plug a few centimetres long in the neck of the bottle, which traps the lees. The bottle is then flattened and opened, and the pressure expels the ice cube and the sediment of the lees trapped inside. This is the process used today by almost all champagne and classic sparkling wine cellars. Manual disgorgement is still used only for very special, older vintages or, say, for particularly large bottles.

The manual turning and shaking of the bottles to direct the lees towards the cork, known as riddling or remuage, is also nowadays carried out by special rotating pallets, or 'gyropallets' according to a precise programme. This tool was invented around 50 years ago by French winemakers Jacques Ducion and Claude Cazals and was first used in the Spanish cava cellar.

The expedition liqueur, which is added to the sparkling wine at the time of the tasting, is the final seal that the winemaker gives to his sparkling wine. In addition to sugar, it can contain various blends of wines, wine spirits, herbal or fruit liqueurs, making its formula the best-kept secret of champagne and sparkling wine cellars.

Wine is a work of art!

Disgorgement of Medot sparkling wines

The cleaned bottles are placed in the fridge, upside down, directly from the gyropalette to freeze the neck. This takes about 5 minutes at a temperature of -27 degrees. The bottle is then placed on the next station where a pressure of 6-7 bar will push the frozen plug out of the bottle neck. At the next station, the Medot's expedition liqueur is added to the sparkling wine, and at the last station, the missing amount of sparkling wine is added and the bottle is ready for the final cork.

Wine is a work of art!

On the label of the classic sparkling wine, you will find not only the date of bottling, but also the date of disgorgement. The life of a classic sparkling wine is measured in two periods: one is related to the time of slow maturation in the bottle on the yeasts, i.e. the time from bottling to disgorgement, and the other is the period of faster maturation, when the yeasts no longer protect the wine from the oxygen in the bottle, i.e. the time from disgorgement to the time when you open the bottle. This will give you an idea of the maturity and freshness of the sparkling wine in your hands.

Whether it is better to open classic sparkling wines shortly after they have been disgorged or whether it is better to age them further is a matter on which experts differ. In our opinion, sparkling wine is best enjoyed at least a few months after disgorgement, when it has settled down and regained its balance. However, a kind of magic formula developed by Bollinger says that champagnes and classic sparkling wines are good for as long as they have been aged on yeast, so if you work out the time from bottling to disgorgement, you can calculate the latest time your sparkling wine or champagne should be consumed.

After disgorgement the bottles will rest for a short time, then get a label and a decorative cap over a cork and then they will be on their way to creating unforgettable memories for people.

These days, autumn is in full swing in Brda. If you come to the area, welcome to the Medot Homestead, where you can learn even more about our classic method of sparkling wine production.

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