This technical brief aims to provide as much information as possible about how we produce our wines, from the tending of the vines right through to the production of our champagne here at Champagne Jean VESSELLE.
As you are about to discover the champagne production process comprises numerous stages, each using techniques which require a great deal of patience, perseverance and expertise.
Champagne Jean VESSELLE is a family business.
We are “Recoltants Manipulants”, meaning that we control every stage of the production of our Champagne, from the growing of our grapes right through to the sale of our champagne. Here are the different stages of the process, we wish you an enjoyable and “sparkling” visit:
A vine has a lifespan of around 35 - 40 years. It becomes productive in its third year. 90% of our vines are of the Pinot Noir grape variety and 10% are Chardonnay. The planting is carried out on specially prepared, clean soil which has been rested for a minimum of one year.
We plant the vines in the spring using specially selected grafted plants. At Champagne Jean VESSELLE the upper part of the plant, which holds the fruit, is taken from a European plant variety- the vitivera family. However, the roots of the plant come from an American plant variety. Essentially we graft the European vines to the resilient American root which is resistant to pests such as the phyloxerra insect.
After the harvest, it’s time for the vines to rest. During this period the leaves fall, we remove the staples from the wires that we use for training the vines and we begin pruning. There are many different methods for pruning vines. We use the following:
- “Cordon de Royat” pruning: used mainly for the Pinot Noir vines (involves close pruning).
- “Chablis” pruning: used for the Chardonnay vines (less severe pruning). Also occasionally used for Pinot Noir.
Any vine shoots and stems that are cut away during this process are either ground or burnt. The pruning is carried out throughout the winter months, but only when the outside temperature is above 0°C/32°F. The pruning process usually finishes between December and the end of January.
After pruning, we leave many of the cut vine shoots on the soil so that they can be ground and crushed. This work is carried out using a tractor. The grinding of the cut vine shoots reduces their size so all that remains is a thin layer on the top of the soil, which can then decompose naturally.
In an effort to be more environmentally conscious, we stopped using all forms of weed killer in 1995. Instead we leave the grass to grow amongst our vines, thus inhibiting the growth of weeds and preventing soil erosion in heavy rain. Since spring 2020, we plough with horse on some of our plots, notably the Petit Clos. This is part of the way in which our champagne house is organic.
In winter, we use tractors to spread environmentally friendly fertilisers
After pruning, the shoots must be attached to wires which run along the length of the vines; we call this the binding.
After this time the vine becomes active again; it starts to produce more sap and the buds come out of hibernation. The bud softens, grows and covers itself in a small “blanket” that resembles cotton. In the spring, when the temperature increases and the days grow longer, the bud changes and grows. A small green tip emerges and shortly afterwards, the first leaf appears. By the end of April, the buds are beginning to develop and are very vulnerable to frost. The most common type of frost is white frost, which appears at dawn after a chilly night. Before the sun rises, temperatures can easily drop below 0°C/32°F.
At these temperatures, a small ice cube of dew forms around the bud. When the first rays of sunlight touch the now frozen bud, they scorch it slightly. However, the vine is a hardy creature and has a “back up plan” at the ready! If frost forms on the bud at this early stage, all is not lost. If the main bud is affected, its latent bud will start to grow to compensate for any damage. The latent bud is found at the base of the main bud and only begins to grow if the main bud has been damaged. However, there is a time constraint the more the main bud develops, the more the latent bud is inhibited by the growth hormones of the main bud. Consequently, if the frost is late and occurs in May, we have a potential disaster on our hands. At this stage, the main bud is already in its advanced stage of growth and therefore the latent bud is more or less totally inhibited and cannot undo the damage that has been done by the frost.
There will always be other buds which will try to compensate for any frost damage but the harvest will nevertheless be decreased.
We can begin to de-bud once frost no longer poses a threat, which is usually after the middle weekend of May called “Saints de Glaces” (the day of the ice saints). De-budding involves removing the unproductive buds which are inhibiting vine growth.
Towards the end of May, training wires are put into place to control leaf growth. There are two periods during which the vines are trained, both occurring within a fortnight of each other.
During the second period we space out the individual branches of the vine and arrange their stems so that they do not suffocate each other. This makes any future treatment of the vines easier and more efficient. Flowering occurs towards the middle of June and lasts around ten days. The fertilised flowers are then knotted together; this is known as the training of the vine.
The training of the vines is carried out in three or four stages, from the end of May until the middle of July.
Treatments begin in May until mid-August, with the tractor, to protect the vine against cryptogamic diseases (fungi: Oïdium, gray rot, mildew) which infect the leaves and then the bunches of grapes.
Since 2019, we have been moving towards a "Biodynamic viticulture”, using only copper, sulfur, herbal teas, decoctions ... to promote the natural defences of the vine and its ecosystem of helpers. In 2020 Bouzy and Chouilly have been operating acompletely Biodynamic vineyard.
Since 1995, for insects such as cluster worms, we have practiced "sexual confusion", by depositing in the vines capsules of female hormones which disrupt mating. The males no longer find the females to fertilize and thus no worms!
As the vine grows so quickly it is necessary to top and trim the vine. The topping consists of cutting back the tops and the sides of the vine, essentially the upper shoots, in order to control its growth.Trimming the vine involves clipping the extra leaves found at the top and the sides of the vine. This process is carried out by tractor three or four times each season.
In mid-August, the fruit begins to gradually mature - the grapes get bigger and their skins change colour. The Pinot Noir grapes change from green to red to a dark purple/black colour whilst the Chardonnay grapes, which until this point have been a translucent pale yellow colour, become green.
These colour changes signify that the harvest is fast approaching. We start to carry out maturity tests in order to measure the development of the sugars and the acids in the grapes. We also measure their weight in order to estimate the date of the harvest. These tests continue for about a month.
The beginning of the harvest varies according to region and village. We use a scale called the ‘maturity index’ to calculate the ratio between acidity and sugars. Harvest begins when the grapes reach around “20” on the maturity index.
During the harvest all the grapes are picked by hand, as is the law in the Champagne region. This process usually lasts around 15 days. The bunches of grapes are cut one by one and put into baskets which are then weighed. We keep a record of the quantities of grapes that arrive during the harvest. Their weight is converted into ‘marcs’ for loading the presses.
1 marc = 4000kg = 25.55 hl = 2555 l of must (grape juice)
The AOC, the quantity of grapes intended for the production of Champagne wines is regulated by the INAO. Every year according to economic and climatic criteria, a quantity of kg / Ha is determined.
We use two horizontal pneumatic presses which have lateral membranes. These presses are loaded by hand until full. When the press is closed, it turns 180° and compressed air causes the membrane to inflate, crushing the grapes inside. During this loading and pressing, the juice is extracted. The first 0.5hl (50l), is separated . The next 20hl50 (2050l) is called the “cuvée”. This juice is richest in sugar and therefore perfect for making champagne.
After the extraction of the “cuvée”, the membrane deflates and the press rotates in order to aerate the “press cake” (the crushed grapes). This is referred to as the “retrousse”. A second pressing then occurs in order to extract the remaining juices, known as the “taille”. The membrane re-inflates and the pressure goes up in increments of 0.2bar until it reaches the maximum of 2bar. We obtain around 5hl (500l) of “taille” from each second pressing.
This pressing cycle takes around four hours. 25hl50 (2550l) of settled must is obtained (cuvée and taille) for our champagne.
The second pressings are more acidic and contain more tannin than the cuvée. This is an important factor to take into consideration when blending the juices.
After the pressing, the must is transferred into a fermenting cellar, where it is placed in thermo-regulated inoxidable stainless steel tanks. Settling takes place due to the weight of the deposit from the must.
The settling is an important stage in the wine making process. Here at Champagne Jean VESSELLE it takes between 17 and 20 hours. This method enables a natural clarification and facilitates the later stages in the champagne making process.
The musts are vinified separately according to the grape variety, the area in which they were grown, the date of harvest and the type of juice (either cuvée or taille). We prefer to use low volume fermentation tanks to ensure that we preserve the natural qualities of the juice and avoid ‘over’ pre-blending. When the tank is 90% full we do an analysis in order to find out the probable level of alcohol and the acidity of the must. These results enable us to do the “chaptalisation” (the adding of sugar), which varies according to the year and the current regulation of the harvest.
The alcoholic fermentation is done by specially selected dry active yeast. The yeast transforms the sugar into alcohol and releases carbon dioxide (CO2). During the alcoholic fermentation, the tanks are left open to allow the CO2 to escape at this stage. The temperature is maintained between 17-18°C (63-65°F).
After 10 to 12 days, the alcoholic fermentation is finished and the wine is about 11% alcohol by volume.
After the alcoholic fermentation takes place, the yeast dies and forms a sediment at the bottom of the tank.
The racking consists of pumping the wine out of the tank, removing the “lees” deposits (dead yeast), cleaning the tank and replacing the wine into the tank. At this time, the wine is sensitive to the air. We therefore fill the tank and seal it off completely.
This is the transformation of malic acid (bi acid which is found in green apples) into lactic acid (found in milk) through the action of lactic bacteria, which occur naturally in grapes. This is the biological de-acidifying of the wine. Even today, this fermentation process holds many secrets as we know very little about it. What we do know is that the bacteria are sensitive, work slowly and need specific conditions such as a good pH level and a temperature around 20°C/68°F.
We use a “fermentation starter” in order to kick-start the malo-lactic fermentation. We allow a minimum time of one month for this process as racking is only possible when the malo-lactic fermentation is complete.
The racked wines are glued with vegetable proteins (peas). So that when this glue is added to the wine, the particles will sediment. This makes it easier to taste for future blending whilst ensuring that the structure of the vines themselves are protected.
Blending is the art of blending clear wines with each other, the founding act that creates the house style, blending the special features into each of our cuvées.
All the tanks are analysed to calculate the alcohol percentage, remaining sugar, acidity, pH etc. After this analysis we taste the wine from each tank and note down the results.
The blending is carried out using a test tube to blend the wine according to our tasting notes. To obtain the desired blend, it is generally necessary to carry out several "tests" before obtaining the desired cuvée. When the taste is suitable an analysis is carried out prior to blending the entire tank, in order to ensure its "chemical" balance.
Tartaric acid is present in the wine at this stage. It is unstable and crystallizes at low temperatures.
If left untreated the tartaric acid would crystallise when the champagne is refrigerated, giving us flakes in the wine. We call this “Christmas Champagne”. The formation of this deposit does not alter the quality or the aromas of the champagne. There is however a risk of “Gerbeuses” - the uncontrolled explosion of foam when the bottle is opened, Grand Prix style! In order to stabilise the wine we add cream of tartar and we force the tartaric acid to precipitate by cooling the wine from 12°C/54°F to -5°C/23°F. This process is known as the “cold passage”.
When the deposit precipitates, the wine will be filtered in order to get rid of the tartar crystals. The wine is now ready to be bottled!
The preparation for bottling is carried out in several steps.
a) Preparation of the bottling liqueur: The bottling liqueur is made up of cane sugar and reserve wine from previous harvests. The mix should be perfectly homogenous and syrup-like.
b) Preparation of the yeast: We have to rehydrate the dry active yeast (always specially selected for champagne). The yeast has to be acclimatised to the alcoholic environment and then allowed to multiply. This acclimatisation and multiplication of the yeast takes five days and lasts until the date of bottling.
c) The Bottling: In the morning we prepare the “mix” which is made up of:
- The blended wine (a type of cuvée, e.g. Rosé de Saignée, Prestige, Œil de Perdrix etc.)
- The prepared active yeast
- The necessary volume of liqueur for the second “in bottle” fermentation (see below) (about 24g of sugar per litre are needed in order to obtain 6 bars of pressure).
All of this mixture will be put into bottles. The bottles are then sealed with a plastic cap called a “bidule” and a metal crown cap is placed on top.
These bottles are then stored in the cellar. The second “in bottle” fermentation will take place over the next five weeks.
These bottles are then stored in the cellar. The second “in bottle” fermentation will take place over the next five weeks. The Second “In Bottle” Fermentation - the “Birth of Champagne” The active yeast will transform the sugar into alcohol and release CO2 which cannot escape because the bottle is tightly sealed. It is the CO2 which forms the bubbles in champagne.
After five weeks, we carry out a sample on the second “in bottle” fermentation and measure the pressure, which we expect to be around 6 bars. The yeast dies and forms sediment against the side of the bottle.
The bottles will stay on racks for between 2 and 10 years or even more, depending on the type of “cuvée”, as follows:
- CUVEE ŒIL DE PERDRIX, EXTRA BRUT, RÉSERVE = 2 years
- CUVEE ROSE = 3 years
- CUVEE PRESTIGE = 4.5 years
- CUVEE MILLESIME , CUVÉE PETIT CLOS = 9 years and more
During this “in bottle” fermentation the complex aromas begin to evolve. These aromas are created by the dead yeast which plays an important role in the development of champagne.
The permeable membranes of the dead yeast enable their aromas to diffuse into the champagne. The longer the yeast stays in contact with the wine, the more complex and intense the aromas will become. This doesn’t mean that young champagne is inferior to a vintage or “millésime”, it is just different.
In fact, young champagne of two or three years of age is more easily appreciated than a “millésime” which, due to complex aromas, has a more refined taste.
After the “in bottle” maturation, we riddle the bottles in order to bring the deposit into the neck of the bottle where it collects in the plastic cap (the “bidule”).
We use gyro pallets to riddle the majority of our bottles. The gyro pallet is a large cage which can riddle one pallet containing 504 bottles at any one time. The gyro pallet is controlled by a machine that is programmed to gradually rotate and incline the bottles at various stages throughout the day, moving the yeast into the neck of the bottle. This system allows us to riddle the bottles precisely according to the type of wine.
After 5 days of riddling the bottles in the gyro pallet are carefully removed and stored upside down whilst waiting for the “dégorgement”.
This stage consists of removing the deposit from the bottle and “dosing” the champagne with the liqueur (blend of sugar and reserve wine or with MCR (grapejuice concentrated)
The “dégorgement” takes place in the following way:
The necks of the upside down bottles are placed into a tank of frozen gel (-25°C/-13°F). The sediment becomes trapped inside an ice cube. We use a special “pince à dégorger” (a special type of bottle opener) in order to open the bottle. Due to the 6 bars pressure in the bottle, the frozen sediment is automatically ejected from the bottle, along with the plastic cap. As the pressure in the bottle is so high, we have to be careful or the bottle will end up empty!
Therefore, as soon as the deposit has been removed, we keep the bottle closed with a type of plastic nozzle. We use a special machine with four nozzles to carry out the various stages involved in the “dosage”. The first nozzle slightly aerates the wine to leave space for the liqueur to be inserted and the second injects the blended liqueur, called the “dosage”.
The dosages of our champagnes are as follows:
- 0g / l (Nothing) for L’Expression Nature .. it is a real "non-dosed"
- 1.5 to 3g / l for Brut Nature BBB or BBC (MCR dosage) and for Extra Brut (Liq)
-4g / l for the Petit Clos
-5g / l for the Prestige Vintage
- 4g / l for ODP
-9g / l for Pretige
- 9.5 g / l for the Reserve
- 12 g / l for Brut Rosé (MCR dosage)
- 20 g / l for the Sec
- from 34 to 36 g / l for the Demi-Sec (Liq) Treats (MCR dosage)
-52g / l for D’lys (liq)l
The third and fourth nozzles refill the bottle with a measure of non-dosed champagne of the same quality, which have been stored in hermetically sealed glass containers. We call this process the “remploi”.
The bottle will be sealed by a cork which is made out of two parts:
- “The mirror” is the part of the cork in contact with the wine. It is made up of two twin strips of cork which are elastic and so keep the bottle hermetically sealed by pushing against its sides.
- “The trunk” is the part which is visible outside the bottle and is the “lip” of the cork which allows us to uncork the bottle. This “trunk” is made of agglomerated, compacted cork. Before a new cork has been used, it resembles a cylinder. Once it is in the bottle it takes the form of a mushroom. When the bottle has been uncorked the “mirror” part tries to take back its initial shape. The pressure in the bottle is around 6 bars after the “dégorgement”, enough to eject the cork automatically. We therefore hold the cork in place with a wire cap.
The bottles are allowed to rest for three to four months to give the liqueur time to harmonise with the wine.
This is the final stage of production. The bottles are washed and dried. Here at Champagne Jean VESSELLE we use filtered rainwater to wash our bottles. The foil collar and the label are stuck on and the bottles are boxed up. Now our bottles are ready to be sold and enjoyed all over the world.