After being harvested and pressed, the champagne undergoes a primary fermentation in either oak barrels, or stainless steel vats, depending on the producer. It is then bottled and has a small amount of yeast and sometimes sugar added to create a secondary fermentation process. The bottles are capped with steel caps, and stored flat for about 18 months.
To remove the sediment (or lees) that has settled in the bottle, they must undergo a process of ‘riddling’. This involves placing the bottles horizontally in a specially designed rack. Every day the bottles are turned a quarter of a turn and slightly tilted downwards.
After a period of time the bottles are almost completely upside down, and all the sediment has settled in the neck of the bottle. To remove the sediment, the bottles are chilled, the neck is frozen, and the cap removed. The pressure in the bottle shoots (or disgorges) the icy sediment, and the bottle is quickly corked before the gas escapes.
The label on the bottle will tell you if it is a vintage – the year is prominently displayed. There is also other information to give you an indication of the level of ‘dosage’ or added sugar of the champagne – ‘brut’, ‘extra-brut’ and ‘brut’ nature have to do with the sugar content, and therefore give an idea of the sweetness of a particular champagne.
Brut is the sweetest, Brut nature is the driest, and extra-brut falls somewhere in between. Then there is Sec and Extra Sec, just to confuse us all, which means really sweet and really, really sweet!