Imagine yourself in the 1600s. Shahjahan has just completed CONSTRUCTING the magnificent Taj Mahal. Doesn’t that call for a toast? What’s better to pop open than a bottle of bubbly. But, here’s a problem. It’ll be cloudy, rustic, murky, and full of sediments? How’d you make it look like the modern day bubbly then?
Would you appreciate if your glass of Champagne was murky, unclean, and had shard of yeasts floating in it? Probably thats what ticked off Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin, and she took upon self to clean all Champagnes there after.
Earliest evidences of (bottle-fermented) sparkling wines were found in Limoux, France. Made by Benedictine monks in Abbey of Saint-Hilaire, near Carcassonne in 1531. Whereas, Dom Perignon made the champagne in 1693. Within a few centuries, these techniques were passed on to Spain, Germany, and other countries. Locally they were called Cava and Sekt, respectively. However, the question remains how did bubbles reach the bottle in the first place?
Wines were ready in winters and bottled soon after. The yeast couldn’t stand the jittering cold and paused its workings. There was still some unfermented sugars in the bottle though. With the onset of summers, and the rising temperatures, yeast regained its workings, feasting on the sugars, and creating additional alcohol and bubbles. Voila! Upon opening these bottles, a surprise awaited. A gentle fizz was to be encountered. This was called the Ancestral Method of sparkling wines production, and that’s how Blanquette de Limoux is still produced.
A new change arrived in the Champagne region in 1801. Jean-Antoine Chaptal and Andre Francois mastered the science of secondary fermentation. But they couldn’t really figure the art of removing the dead yeast floating in the bottles. There comes in Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin aka Veuve Cliquot. In 1815, she created the process of clarify sparkling wines, called remuage. Prior to this, the task was unsophisticated, and wine were left cloudy and unclean.
Madam Cliquot shifted her dining table to the cellar and put holes in them. Bottles were placed upside down, letting the yeasts settle at the neck. They were occasionally twisted, or ‘riddled’, to move the yeast to the desired position. In approximately six weeks, the dead yeast could be removed. Riddling became a highly skilled craft and the professionals were called remuer or a riddler. They could efficiently operating over 40,000 bottles a day, with exceptional skills and patience that’s rare to find today.
It was said that to become a qualified riddler, one would take at least ten years of intensive experience. Afterall, the task demanded delicate handling of every bottle, with necessary precision, and unhindered focus. Back then, each bottle was personally supervised. No doubt the practice was considered a style of meditation by the monks.
But then this art was expensive, time consuming, and riddlers became rare an further pricey. After all the price was to be paid by the consumers. And just in the nick of time, came in Gyropalette, an invention by two French vintners, that was first introduced at the house of Cava Codorniu in Spain. It could process over 500 bottles in one go, and duplicate the process of riddling spanning over 6 months, in 48 hours!
For a Champagne house, like Moet & Chandon, producing approximately 28 million bottles a year, a brigade of 700 professionals would be required to execute remauge. And that only when they’ll be working for six weeks straight!
Being labour-intensive, cost-bearing, and space-hoarding a process, manual remuaging is no longer commercially practiced. Some houses still hold on to this age-old process, but they can be counted. Technology has made our wines cleaner, fresher, and at least better looking. On the other hand, made the hands of ancient craftsmen redundant.