When the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” is asked, how often does someone say, “I want to be a remueur.” Probably never.
French for “bottle turner,” a remueur is someone who performs the act of remuage. Remuage, which means “riddling” in French, is a manual process used in the traditional method of making Champagne, and some sparkling wines, to consolidate sediment into the neck of the bottle in preparation for disgorgement—resulting in a clean, clear bottle of wine.
Before I get into the specifics of what I consider to be a “fine art,” I have to admit that the reason for writing this is not because I want to reiterate what remuage is and why it is performed. Instead, I am fascinated by the fact that at one time remuage was entirely done by hand—in damp, dimly lit crayers—hands that if they were alive today could tell you stories of a time when Champagne got the holy heck beaten out of it, of a time when women ran champagne houses, and of a time when innovations in champagne production began to flourish, with remuage sur pupitre (“removing by desk”) being one such innovation.
So my intention here is to understand why remuage is still done today, albeit in small part. Is it because of tradition? Is it done for the love of the craft? Does hand-riddling add some value to the finished product that automated riddling via gyropalettes does not? (More on gyropalettes below.) Just as important, I want to learn about the people behind the bottles. Who wouldn’t want to talk to them? Then again, maybe they wouldn’t have much to say given the time they spend alone with only these bottles.
A Widow, a Desk and a Process that Transformed Champagne Production
I’ll start with one person, Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin, who I wasn’t able to talk to but who I certainly read about. Barbe-Nicole (aka the Widow Clicquot) in 1816 invented remuage. She did so because she wanted a faster way to produce the highest-quality wines in large numbers. Prior to this time the old way of doing it was crude and rudimentary, leaving finished bottles cloudy and filled with particulate matter. Robert Tomes in his book The Champagne Country (1867) explains: “The old way, which involved knocking the bottles upside down to settle the sediment, used drugs and clarifiers that could be poisonous, [and] took many months.”
Taking months to clarify the champagne would not do for the Widow who, after much thought, had a light-bulb moment. She determined that storing the bottles sur pointe, or “on their necks,” would enable the debris to efficiently settle into the neck of the bottle. So as the story goes, she had her kitchen table moved into the cellar and had her workers riddle it with slanted holes to hold the neck of the bottles at an angle. This A-frame-shaped rack is called a “pupitre.” With the help of her cellar master, Antoine Müller, Barbe-Nicole toiled away, turning and tapping hundreds of bottles in the riddling rack. After six weeks, the wines were clear and the residue of dead yeast cells could then easily be removed.
This was a magical time when hands touched each and every bottle, over and over again, until this difficult, hard-to-tame, yet fascinating alcoholic beverage was considered marketable to the masses. After reading a number of materials and books on both the history of Champagne and the process of making the drink itself, I had to know who these 18th-century remueurs were: What were they like? What did they think about all day while turning bottles under less-than-stellar conditions? What were their hopes and dreams—both for them and for their loved ones, and for champagne and the region?
I scoured the Web but all I found were some newspaper articles that only skimmed the surface. One story talked about the houses of Champagne that still hand-riddle a small percentage of their bottles, particularly their top cuvees. Doing so definitely sends the message of being rare, artisanal and, of course, expensive. I guess these are a few reasons why the craft is still performed. But where’s the nostalgia? Where’s the romance? Am I reaching for something that’s just not there?
According to the article Quality Champagne No Riddle for ‘Remueurs’: Turn Bottles by Hand there are roughly six remueurs working for some of the most prestigious domains in the Champagne region, including Krug, Dom Pérignon, Moët & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot and Ruinart. I contacted a couple of these houses hoping to get a reply that reeked of sentimentality, but a response never came.
How Do They Do It?
“In remuage, the remueur rotates the bottles sur pointe and in stages, one-eight or one-quarter of a turn at a time, to the right or left, then places a chalk mark on the bottom of the bottle for reference. As the angle of tilt increases, the gravity draws the sediment into the neck where the sediment consolidates, leaving the wine crystal clear. Manual remuage takes four to six weeks and involves on average 25 turns per bottle. A veteran remueur can handle roughly 40,000 bottles a day.” —- The Comité Champagne Trade Association
Other reasons for hand-riddling are more pragmatic. Schramsberg Vineyards, in Napa Valley, California, hand-riddles about 25 percent of its production, according to Matt Levy, Schramsberg’s marketing director. All of the J. Schram bottles are done by hand because the bottles have a unique shape that prohibits them from fitting into the gyropalette cages.
Schramsberg also manually riddles many of its Pinot Noir-based sparkling wines. “[These] wines tend to be more of a challenge when it comes to getting the yeast to cooperate, and hand-riddling gives us the opportunity to see issues with these bottlings as they arise,” says Levy. These wines include the Reserve, Blanc de Noirs, Brut Rosé, Brut Anderson Valley, and Brut Marin bottlings.
According to Barry Jackson, winemaker-proprietor of Equinox Champagne Cellars, in Santa Cruz, California, riddling by hand does not add any value to the finished product but does allow him to visually inspect the bottles. Jackson claims he can riddle 420 bottles in 20 minutes. Romantic? You decide, but it is impressive.
Au Revoir Skilled Craftsman—Bonjour Cold, Calculating Machine
Hand-riddling may have sufficed for the Widow Clicquot, but today manual remuage alone won’t do, as the demand for Champagne and sparkling wine is just too high. So any romantic notions about hand-riddling have since been kicked to the curb. Since the 1970s, riddling has been done by computer-automated machines called gyropalettes, which have become the norm for most Champagne houses and sparkling wine producers worldwide.
Producers love these machines because they can be preprogrammed for the number of movements needed depending on the wine. Each riddling cages holds 500 bottles on average and rotatex slowly, tipping forward while riddling in batches as opposed to one bottle at a time. The process is as industrial as it gets. Based on one video I watched, the clanking and whirring sounds of cages rotating and tipping are loud and obnoxious—nothing romantic about that.
Gyropalettes can work up to 24 hours, and not only are they accurate in terms of their ability to be preprogrammed, they also save producers significant costs in time, space and production. At Schramsberg, Levy says manual riddling takes about eight to nine weeks to complete, including one week for the bottles to settle once they are put into the riddling racks; whereas riddling via the gyropalettes, which hold 504 bottles each, takes seven days to move the yeast into position.
In the end, I came up short-handed in my search for the romance in remuage. Just as disappointing is the significant dwindling in this centuries-old practice birthed by Barb-Nicole Ponsardin. I wonder what she would have thought of the gyropalettes were she alive today? Would she love them or hate them? Then again, given her acumen for marketing, sales and innovation, I think she would have applauded the technology. Based on what I’ve read about her, the Widow did not come across as much of a romantic.