Champagne: one bottle, two gifts

An artistically wrapped present can be two gifts in one. The first gift is a visual one, the beauty of the wrapping and the enjoyment of opening it; the second, of course – the contents of the package. That is how I think of a bottle of Champagne.

Opening a bottle of Champagne requires a very different technique from opening a bottle of still wine; and it’s all because of the bubbles, created by a second fermentation in the bottle.

Champagne must be produced in the Champagne region of France, from specific grape varieties grown there, using a detailed production process called Méthode Champenoise.

Champagne begins as a still wine. After pressing and initial fermentation, separate lots of base wines may be blended in a process called assemblage. This is where the production of Champagne diverges.

A mixture of sugar and yeast, called liquor de tirage, is added to the base wine which then goes into a heavy glass bottle with an indented punt in its base. The bottle is closed with a crown cap. Then the magic begins.

The second fermentation starts when the yeast begin to digest the additional sugar, producing alcohol and carbon dioxide. Thanks to the heavy bottle and the secure crown cap closure, the carbon dioxide cannot escape and is forced into solution — into the wine that is.

Champagne then spends a minimum of 15 months (for non-vintage) or 3 years (for vintage) aging on its side. This extended contact with the lees (dead yeast cells) contributes flavor complexity through a process called autolysis. This extended aging also produces very small bubbles – one of the things that makes Champagne so special.

Champagne aging on its side
When aging is complete, the yeast sediment is removed. Bottles are moved to racks called pupitres where the bottles are held at a 45º angle – with the crown cap down. During a manual process called remuage the bottles are lightly shaken and turned, gradually moving the  sediment toward the neck of the bottle. This process may take over a month to complete. Alternately, a mechanized riddling process can complete the task in a matter of days.

With the yeast sediment moved to the neck of the bottle, the crown cap is removed and the sediment expressed from the bottle by the pressure within.

The wine lost during disgorgement is replaced with liquor d’expedition or dosage, which contains a variable amount of sugar. This determines the sweetness of the Champagne.

With the dosage added, a cork is inserted into the bottle and secured with a wire basket called a muselet. After any additional aging is completed, both the cork and muselet are covered with a decorative foil and the bottle is labeled. Voilà Champagne!

Now, to open your present. . . first, be certain the bottle is completely chilled, has not been agitated and is dry.

To remove the foil covering the muselet, pull the small tab allowing the foil to tear smoothly along the perforation.

With one hand, pull down the twisted stem of the muselet. With your other hand place a napkin over the muselet, and then place your thumb on top to keep the muselet firmly in place. Give the twisted stem six firm twists in a counterclockwise direction. Count them – it’s always six. Loosen the muselet from around the cork while keeping your thumb firmly in place.

Firmly grasp the muselet and the cork with one hand and the base of the bottle with the other. Holding the muselet and the cork stationary, turn the base of the bottle. You will feel the cork gradually begin to loosen in the neck of the bottle. Gently guide the cork from the neck of the bottle keeping downward pressure on the cork. If you have properly removed the cork, you will hear only a slight “sigh” as the cork is released from the bottle.

You’ve done it. Now pour yourself a glass of Champagne and enjoy its true gifts – the aromas, flavors and texture. And those tiny bubbles.

Take a moment to notice the capsule underneath the muselet. They vary in color and are often decorated with an image or lettering —yet another part of the gift to enjoy.



  1. Nancy-
    Very nice article and explanation of the process involved in creating a vintage champagne. But I hope my wife doesn’t read the part about how to open a bottle of fine bubbly. I might not ever be able to perform a “Sabrage” again and never have a ceremonial use for my “Briquet Saber.” (gasp) What would Valentine’s Day be without a saber?
    Your obnoxious friend,