A sparkling balance of tradition and modernity

In 1743 Moët & Chandon produced the first bottle of champagne from their maison in Epernay. Since then they have led the way in the world of champagne, that magical drink that accompanies us through life’s happiest moments.

DATE 2023-11-28 AUTHOR Anna McQueen

The founder, Claude Moët, soon claimed many prestigious customers including Louis XV’s mistress, Madame de Pompadour, who declared that champagne was “the only wine that leaves a woman beautiful after drinking.” At the turn of the century, the founder’s grandson Jean-Rémy Moët added Napoleon Bonaparte to his list of satisfied customers, and it was Jean-Rémy’s daughter Adélaïde who brought the Chandon to the name, with her marriage in 1816 to Pierre Gabriel Chandon de Briailles.

Moët & Chandon is now the leading winegrower in Champagne, with some 543 hectares of vineyards spread across the appellation, nurtured by around 250 in-house winegrowers. But this is not enough to satisfy the maison’s needs, and Moët & Chandon has developed close partnerships with other winegrowers in the region, maintaining a watchful eye over the grapes it purchases.

Jean-Jacques Lasalle, the vat room manager at Moët & Chandon, is responsible for that precious cargo when it arrives during the harvest. “The harvest takes around three weeks, and usually occurs in September when the grapes are at peak ripeness and have the perfect balance of sugar and acidity,” he explains. “To make champagne, the entire grape must be intact and the grapes go whole, on the bunch into the press,” he adds. The grapes are pressed in local wineries across the region and the resulting must or grape juice is delivered to the maison in Epernay. “During those three weeks, we receive some 20,000 hectolitres of must every day that goes through a series of tough quality checks and is then put in vats,” says Lasalle.

Selected expertise

Chandon has over 500 hectares of vineyards

The alcoholic fermentation takes between five and six days in heat-controlled tanks at 18–20°C. “We add our own yeasts to encourage the fermentation to start as quickly as possible since this produces a better quality wine,” says Lasalle. “The yeasts are added as soon as the very first must goes into the tanks,” he explains. Once the alcoholic fermentation is finished, a malolactic fermentation is then triggered using special bacteria and this takes from three to four weeks. This secondary fermentation gives a characteristic roundness and that is sought-after for certain blends – indeed, over 90% of champagnes undergo this process.

In November, the wines are combined in a pre-assembly process in 6,000 hl blending vats. At this stage, the wine is still very cloudy and is put through a centrifuge to clarify it. These pre-assemblies are then presented to the in-house tasting panel, for validation. This secret panel is made up from around 12 members of the maison, each selected for their unique expertise and oenological skills. They have the ultimate say on which of the different blends will be combined to make the brand’s signature wines.

Moët & Chandon is well known for its vintage champagnes, and these are produced only in special years when the characteristics are just right for making a very exceptional blend of grapes from a single year. The decision on whether a given year is good enough to be a vintage year is made by the tasting panel but they have been known to wait until spring to pronounce their verdict. Around three out of every five years are classified as vintage in the region.

Halved stabilizing time and 90% energy savings

Once the blends have been established, every single drop of Moët & Chandon wine goes through a cold treatment process to stabilize the wine against tartaric precipitations. In 2006, Moët & Chandon decided to improve capacity and increase production security by upgrading this process. The result of this decision was the installation of a new line using an Alfa Laval Frontline plate heat exchanger with special Gemini double wall plates.

The new system has halved the time it takes to stabilize the wines. “Previously, the wines being stabilized needed a whole week in our 6,000 hl vats, preventing us from using them for essential blending, so we had to do it in two-week cycles,” explains Lasalle. “But with the new plate heat exchanger, we still use the vats to cool the wine but the whole process takes much less time and frees up two of our eleven 6,000 hl vats for a whole week each per month – time we can use for blending instead,” he adds.

But for Moët & Chandon, the biggest saving is in energy terms, with now just 10% of the energy previously required to cool and heat the wine being brought to the process. The rest is created by the plate heat exchanger. The system fits perfectly with Moët & Chandon’s company- wide commitment to sustainability.

A tiny – but important – cap

The bottles are matured between 18 months and 8 years

Bottling takes place next door, where the bottles are conveyed along a line where they are filled with the base wine, liquor and yeast which encourages the second fermentation in the sealed bottle that creates the bubbles. Then a tiny plastic cap is inserted
into the top of each bottle to catch the future sediment which is then secured with a crimped metal cap.

Five bottles a second are filled this way and the lines can take half, standard or magnum bottles. The filled bottles are then sent 25 metres down to the cavernous underground world below. The small town of Epernay has over 100 kilometres of cellars running beneath the city, nearly a third of which belong to Moët & Chandon. The bottles are stacked under cool, dark arches and are left to ferment and mature from between 18 months to eight years.

At the end of the ageing process, the sediment must be removed from the wine. The wine bottles are gradually turned around, day by day, until the neck of the bottle is pointing downwards and the sediment collected in the little plastic cap. The invention of this process, called riddling, is attributed to the widow Nicole-Barve Clicquot Ponsardin, the original Veuve Clicquot, in 1810. In the past, this process was done by hand in special racks and the bottles turned a quarter-turn every day for a month. Now it is done by machine and takes 4–5 days.

Once this is done, the bottles are taken to a special machine where the sediment is disgorged. The bottles are plunged head down into a special cooling liquid which freezes the top two centimetres of the neck. Then, turned the right way up, the cap is flicked off and the frozen plastic cap complete with sediment shoots out of the bottle. At this stage in the process, a liquor of mainly sugar is added to each bottle to sweeten it. The secret formulae differ from maison to maison and from blend to blend, but on average, a classic dry champagne would receive 5–15 g/l and a medium dry 33–50g/l. The level of wine in the bottle is then topped up, the corks inserted and wired into place, the bottles are washed and then sent off for labelling, foiling and dispatch to happy consumers around the globe.

Guiding nature

From vineyard to champagne flute, the wine has come a long way, through many processes handed down through generations, but the philosophy of Moët & Chandon’s winemakers is simple: “We never force nature, we simply guide it.” These men and women share a deep-rooted belief based on the experience of generations of cellar masters in a judicious process that admits no artifice and no shortcuts. But Moët & Chandon is not just about tradition, it is about research and progress that began with Jean-Rémy Moët, with his 18th century experiments into grafting rootstock, and continues today, helping winemakers bring out the very best from the fruit at every stage of the process.

Turnkey solution

The cold filtration process was installed for Moët & Chandon by OEno Concept, an Epernay-based company that designs, makes and installs winery equipment such as tanks, pumps and heat exchangers for winemakers in Champagne, the rest of France and around the world.

OEno Concept supplied a complete turnkey solution to Moët & Chandon, integrating the plate heat exchanger, the complete regulation system and the surrounding network. The new system has doubled capacity on the line.

The wine to be treated goes into a tank where it is cooled to -4.5°C (wine freezes at -5°C) and spends several days being agitated to encourage the precipitation of the unstable potassium. Once the crystals have formed, the wine settles for a day or two, is racked off the sediment and then goes for filtration. The system works using a series of interconnecting tanks with the wine passing through a plate heat exchanger. The unstable wine enters at around 12°C and is cooled by the departing filtered wine, which leaves at -4.5°C. This, in turn, is warmed back up to 12°C for bottling, offering significant energy savings.

The Alfa Laval Frontline plate heat exchanger with the special Gemini double-wall plates offers full security against contamination. “With the new plate heat exchanger the whole process takes much less time and frees up vats for essential blending,” says Jean- Jacques Lasalle, the vat room manager at Moët & Chandon.

“We’ve worked with Alfa Laval for some 15 years, and we use partners like them because they are serious companies we can rely on,” explains Frédéric Questiaux, head of international sales at OEno Concept. “The FrontLine/Gemini plate heat exchanger itself is perfect for our needs, and guarantees a safe and risk-free environment – guarantees that we can pass on to our customers,” he adds.