The Wine Pages: Homebrew winemaking
Making homebrew champagne is one of the most impressive but time consuming activities for the home wine maker. It can be nearly two years from the time you start the champagne making process until you have a finished and drinkable bottle of champagne - and until you get to that stage, you never really know how successful your homemade champagne is going to be!
The final stage of the process, after a long (at least 1 year) period of bottle fermentation and maturing, is to remove the yeast deposit from the bottle of champagne, leaving a clear wine that you can pour to guests with confidence. The process is known as disgorging.
Disgorging only starts after the long period of bottle fermentation. IT is vital to mature the bottles of champagne on their sides in a cool dark place for at least 1 year after the start of bottle fermentation. After this time, I normally start to disgorge the yeast two bottles at a time. As I normally make 6-12 bottles of champagne in each batch, this means I have about 30 bottles of champagne on the go at any one time. Some of the older bottles have been maturing on their lees for over 3 years! It is best to leave the champagne on its own in the dark for as long as possible, and only disgorge the yeast on an "as needed" basis.
Take a couple of bottles and arrange a tilted wine rack or similar apparatus to angle the bottles down towards the neck. This starts with a slight tilt - probably lifting the end of the bottle no more than an inch or so.
Each day, give each bottle a small twist back and forth by holding the base of the bottle in your hand and twisting it back and forth once as far as your wrist will twist. Do this without changing the angle of the bottle. Then let it rest again - but not in the same position - you need to leave it resting one-quarter of a twist "further round" than it started.
OVer a period of 6 to 8 weeks increase the angle of the bottle, and keep up the daily twisting. After this time the bottle will be vertical, neck down, with the yeast deposit almost entirely in the plastic stopper in the neck. This length process is needed to help compact the yeast deposit into the smallest place possible, and to stop some getting stuck on the sides of the bottle.
Finally - the day of the disgorging. At least 36 hours before, put the inverted bottles into the fridge. Turn the fridge to its coldest setting. Put a lot of ice-cube trays into the freezer, and make sure you buy a kilo bag of cheap table salt. Finally, find a bottle of simple white table wine, and put this into the fridge as well.
When you are ready and the bottles have been chilling for at least a day, smash up the ice in a blender or a bag+hammer, and pour on a lot of salt. Mixed the crushed ice and the salt - the temperature of the mixture will plunge to below -15C.
Now you put the still inverted bottles of champagne neck first into the freezing mixture - at least 1 inch of neck needs to be in the mixture. You will have to rig up a support system. Leave the bottles there for 20 minutes for the yeast in the neck to freeze. This can take from 10 to 20 minutes. Ideally do the whole process inside your fridge to keep the champagne cool - but this depends on the size of your fridge!
Because the champagne is already chilled, it should be at it least fizzy. Carefully unwire the stopper - still pointing down - the stopper shouldn't force itself because it is cold and stiff. Run the neck and stopper under a tap to clean the salt off. Now the tricky bit. Slowly start to ease the stopper out - the idea is to get the bubble of air in the bottle to rise and you remove the stopper at the exact moment the bubble hits the top of the neck. Fun eh? This should push all the icy yeast sludge out of the bottle. Clean the neck with some kitchen roll and a teaspoon to remove any yeast.
If there is no fizz, then something has clearly gone wrong, and you have nice bottle of still table wine to drink. If the champagne is suitably fizzy, pour a finger into a glass and taste - if it seems ok, use your chilled bottle of table wine to top up the champagne bottle and push in another stopper and wire it down. The bottle of champagne should be open for the shortest time possible.
Leave the champagne for a few days to calm down, and then examine the bottle - sometimes you will get all the yeast out, and have a totally clear wine - keep those ones for impressing guests! Bottles with a bit of remaining yeast deposit are still fine - just chill it upright in the fridge before serving, and pour the whole bottle out in one go - only the last glass will be murky.
DANGER - because of the nature of champagne, you are handling a glass bomb the whole time. I've never had a bottle explode on me, but this is most likely to happen when handling the bottle, so it is best to wear at least some safety glasses. The more paranoid can use heavy gloves and a full face mask - I'd probably wear one if I had one!