The slow evolution of Champagne occurs in the course of cellar aging, as yeasts work to open up the wine’s complexity and finesse. For at least 15 months (and often much longer) the bottles lie horizontally so that the yeasts are maintained in contact with the wine. If the bottles were vertical, there would not be a sufficient area of contact between the wine and the yeasts.
Once the wines have reached perfect maturity, the bottles are turned to displace the sediment of now-dead yeasts that are spread the length of the bottle. Simultaneously, the sediment is moved by stages, very carefully driving the lees into the bottle neck. There are the heavy lees and there are the fine lees: particles in suspension that must be trapped and combined with the heavy lees.
This process of riddling remuage proceeds by carefully orchestrated rotations of the bottle, right and left, a quarter turn, an eighth of a turn or a sixteenth of a turn. The angle of the bottle is meanwhile gradually altered to point the bottle neck-down. The effect is to combine the particles in suspension with the heavier sediment, which descends by stages towards the neck. This stage is critical for obtaining a perfectly clear wine.
Across the decades and sometimes still today, riddling is performed in pupitres, which are wooden frames drilled with tapering angled holes. The pupitre is typical of Champagne-making and over the course of time has become emblematic of Champagne.
EARLY METHODS OF RIDDLING
Before the pupitre, there were various methods devised to produce a perfectly clear wine. At the close of the 17th Century and the beginning of the 18th, ingenious monks used boxes of sand in which they bedded their bottles, starting horizontally then raising them gradually towards the vertical. That way, the dead yeasts in the sediment could be trapped in the neck. Rheims cathedral canon Godinot (1661-1749) recommended placing the bottles on three fingers of sand in a half upturned position, one against the other. The control of fermentation was at this point far from perfect, and the fragility of the glass in those times caused many breakages. According to the notes of this philanthropist, in 1732, out of 594 bottles opened, 345 were shattered by the pressure! In those days, bottles were sealed for fermentation with a leather stopper, secured with hemp string to resist the pressure (equal to 6 bars inside the bottle) — what was known as ficelage à l’ancienne (string-tied in the old-fashioned manner). In the course of the 19th Century, the string was replaced by metal clips and the bottles were lodged in a rack with angled holes. We see this first in 1813. The bottles were held at an angle, but not at this point systematically turned.
Legend has it in 1818 that Madame Clicquot, prompted by an employee called Antoine Muller, took a kitchen table and had “holes drilled in it at an angle, so that the bottles might be set at different angles and be turned while remaining in their places.” The riddling table, forerunner of the pupitre, was born!
The idea was to treat the neck as the bottom of the bottle so as to encourage the sediment to collect under the force of gravity. The sediment being important for the wine but distasteful for the drinker. In 1864, M Michelot submitted a patent for the pupitre as we know it today (with a traditional capacity of 120 bottles). Then in 1889, a system was established for the rotation of the bottles. The invention of the pupitre also gave rise to a new skill in its own right: riddling remuage, detaching the sediment from the sides of the bottle by a double rotation, to the left, then to the right, while encouraging the deposit to slide down towards the neck by changing the angle of the bottle — as the pupitre is designed to do. The correct flick of the wrist, coup de poignet, takes quite some practice. The best remueurs of the time were important figures in the cellars who could turn as many as 75,000-80,000 bottles in a day.
THE BEGINNINGS OF AUTOMATION
The first crank-operated pupitre made its entrance in 1920 and marked the true beginning of automation. Bottles were placed side by side on trays and raised towards the vertical by crank. In this way, 108 bottles could be turned together. But it was 1966 before the first automated machine appeared. This was the Pupi-Matic.
The Pupi-Matic was shaped much like a pupitre, based on vertical panels with a capacity of 240 bottles. The number of bottles was freely variable to suit the needs of the cellar, and perfectly suited to low-quantity production because the machine was loaded manually. Its plastic containers could be rotated and angled as required, from around 25 degrees to 75 degrees. Vibrations accompanied the movements, driven by two electric motors under programmable control. These motors simultaneously regulated the progressive angling of the bottles.
Despite the trend towards automation, several manual inventions also emerge in this period. In 1971, the way was paved for more radical innovations, and in 1973 the gyropalette was born. From 1975 onwards, it was available in automated and programmable form.
It is worth mentioning five other systems of riddling that are still used in Champagne: the Champarex, the Rotopal, the Remupal, the Giratech and the Giromatic. The Champarex appeared in the mid ’seventies: hexagonal in shape, with space for 183 or 381 bottles enclosed in a metal support that rotates and changes angle. Rotation is performed by hand, in increments of 1/8th of a turn. The simplest system was the Rotopal introduced in 1982. Here 297 bottles are lodged in a rectangular metal container, held at a fixed angle by a pivot in the middle of the apparatus. The system is rotated manually, 1/8th of a turn at a time, until it touches the next stop.
THE EPIC INVENTION OF THE GYROPALETTE
Over the past 30 years the advent of the gyropalette (an automated rotating cage for the riddling of Champagnes) has revolutionised the riddling of all sparkling wines. Originally viewed as unsuitable for the production of serious wines, the gyropalatte is now regarded as a key tool in the rigorous quality-control processes applied by the Champagne Houses.
It all began in 1968 when two Winegrowers, the invention-minded Jacques Ducoin and the more practically-minded Claude Cazals, submitted a patent for a riddling cage that would turn not just one bottle at a time, but many.
Two new participants then came on the scene: sparkling winemaker Pierre Martin and the oenologist Georges Hardy. They quickly saw the potential in this “bottle turning machine,” and struck a deal for exclusive rights with the two patent holders. Georges Hardy then enlisted Jacques Doxin, who was a farrier by trade. From this collaboration was born the first-ever prototype: the “gyro”, produced in 1973.
House of Piper-Heidsieck placed its order at the end of 1978 giving the new riddling system the boost it needed. Piper-Heidsieck also asked for programmable automation, which gave the system a flexibility it previously lacked. With this new feature you could simultaneously control an entire installation of riddling machines. “The previous electro-mechanical system gave you control of up to 100 machines. Piper-Heidsieck’s insistence on state-of-the-art technology came as a welcome nudge toward better equipmentt,”
In the following months, the House of Taittinger also placed an order, for 231 machines. The great “gyro” epic was finally taking shape and mass production commenced. “Some time later, a third client took 120 machines, just when the House of Roederer signed for 60 “gyros” of its own,”
In the period 1984-1985, the introduction of TSR (Tirage-Stockage-Remuage) cages marked a further advance. “The original idea of the “gyro” was a cage that would not just handle riddling but also serve in the aging of the wines,” notes Jean-Marie Bouvry. Such an idea was not practical at the end of the ’seventies, given the risk of bottles exploding in the course of aging, along with the higher cost of the new cages. But several years later, conditions were right for a new technological leap forward. Advances in glass making had made bottles increasingly reliable and the patented metal cages were now widely used and represented a smaller investment.
A wholly innovative riddling system, the “gyro” worked with a consistency and precision that defied human dexterity, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It was one of those innovations that changes everything — a radical change working practices. The basis of the patent was the concept of the cage, not the machine. Particularly ingenious was the idea of a cage that could lay the bottle on its side sur lattes or vertical and neck down sur pointe. This was something entirely new at the time.
One innovation often inspires another, and the invention of the “gyropalette” was one in a succession of oenological break-throughs that occurred in the ’seventies.
The “gyropalette” is based on two sub-assemblies: a palette cage containing 504 bottles that can be off-loaded from two sides; and a motorised container. The cage, often galvanised to protect against corrosion in the damp atmosphere of the cellars, has six surfaces: four fixed surfaces, a “riddling gate” and a grille known as the “sixth surface” which serves for transport and the turning of bottles in the horizontal position. This arrangement takes account of the two bottle positions (laid flat and neck-down, as noted above). The container, mounted on an articulated foot, provides for the turning of the bottles from horizontal to vertical and rotation in all directions at any angle. The cube-shaped “gyropalette” allows for the racking of 126 bottles in four rows, 504 bottles in all.
The idea the inventors had in mind was simple: the riddling of not just one but a quantity of bottles at the same time. The problem was how to apply an identical rotation and change of angle to 504 bottles simultaneously. Here’s how it is done: as the bottle in the middle of the palette makes a quarter turn, so the bottle on the edge of the palette performs the same movement and also completes a quarter turn. Bearing in mind the very low rotation speed of the “gyropalette”, the distance of a bottle to the centre does not change. Thus the sediment is not suddenly disturbed and the 504 bottles get a perfectly identical treatment! It is also possible to give the bottles a 1/16th turn to right or left. With the classical manual remuage sur pupitre, the cellar worker would generally apply a quarter turn or one eighth of a turn. Tests have proved that it is the start of the rotation of the bottle that has the most effect. So it is more effective in quality terms to give the bottle two 1/16th turns rather than a single turn of 1/8th. Another benefit of the “gyro” is the programmed angling of the bottles from close to zero to 90 degrees, and setting the bottles at the exact angle desired.
The “gyro” greatly shortens the riddling cycle. After 7-10 days, the bottles are once again sur pointe, neck down and ready for disgorgement.
Manual riddling by contrast requires a week resting sur pupitre once the bottles are neck down (the time it takes for the wine to clarify) then at least 26-30 days (roughly six weeks) of riddling. The cycle may take two or three months depending on the House’s manpower. It’s easy to do the sums. With manual riddling, 7-8 cycles per year are possible. With “gyro” riddling, the figure is usually 40-45.
Over and above the benefits to Champagne wines, the “gyro” has actually improved working conditions. The remueurs, whose job it used to be to turn the bottles by hand, have been liberated from demanding and repetitive work that ran from morning to night, by artificial light in the damp atmosphere of the cellar. “At the end of the ’seventies and beginning of the ’eighties, you’d expect a bottle of Champagne to be handled 71-72 times in the course of its development. Today, with proper organisation, you don’t have to handle the bottles at all. The “gyro” has supplied the missing link in the modernisation of the process,” comments René Menu, production director for Pipier-Heidsieck. The “gyro” is an innovation that has refined the Champagne making process once and for all. It has also made work easier for the cellar workers. But their ancestral savoir-faire is zealously preserved by the Champagne Houses, who remain committed to passing on the traditional method of riddling — which is still taught today. And what a pleasure it is to hear remueurs speaking of this skill that they love so dear.
Remuage: Also called riddling, remuage involves rotating bottles to loosen the sediment created during second fermentation. The bottles are gradually rotated from horizontal to vertical to drive the yeast sediment into the bottle neck before disgorgment. Historically, remuage was carried out manually by a remuer, who can handle roughly 40,000 bottles a day. Nowadays, the process is more likely to be completed in a much shorter time by a mechanised gyropallette.
Pupitre: A wooden rack with 60 holes bored at an angle of 45° on which bottles can be manually ‘riddled’ – turned from horizontal to vertical.
Gyropalette: A mechanical device used in place of riddling. A gyropallette can hold over 500 bottles and complete the process much quicker than manual riddling, with no resulting loss in quality.
Sur Pointe: The storing of bottles upside down after riddling. Bottles can also be stored sur pointe long-term, to concentrate the sediment in the neck, thus reducing the continuing effect of the lees on the wine. Many producers believe bottles left undisgorged and stored sur pointe will stay fresher for a longer period of time.