In a humid, dimly lit cellar of French Champagne house Ruinart, Cyril Guisant turns by hand some 60 bottles tilted downward in an A-frame-shaped rack.
He is one of the “remueurs”, or riddlers, who with the dedication of a monk to tradition manually rotates the bottles of the great Champagne makers to loosen the sediment at the bottom left by yeast during fermentation.
“We come by two or three times a day, and turn the bottoms in a way to make the sediment move toward the neck of the bottle,” said Guisant, explaining the task of his dwindling group of remueurs.
“And we work on the rack (of bottles) like reading a book, from left to right, from top to bottom.”
Dom Perignon, Moet et Chandon, Krug, Veuve Clicquot and Ruinart, a roster of famous appellations owned by the world’s No. 1 luxury company LVMH, still use for a small part of their production manual “remuage”, or riddling.
At this crucial phase sediment is collected in the neck of the bottle so it can be removed, a process nowadays mainly done by machines.
At Reims in northern France, Ruinart, the oldest Champagne house founded in 1729, traditional remuage by hand is reserved for the most prestigious vintages, which take several years to mature in the coolness of its eight kilometres (five miles) of galleries dug deep in limestone, some dating from the Middle Ages.
“You need around 10 years of experience to be a ‘remueur’, to know whether to rotate the bottle a quarter, an 8th or a 16th, and to the right or to the left,” said Guisant of the process that takes about two months.
It means learning “to read the wine” to carry out this extremely precise rotation.
“We take the bottle and we analyse the sediments, for example, if they are stuck or not…,” explained Raphael Joyon, a “remueur” at Krug, the only house that each year produces just prestigious vintages, known as “cuvees de prestige”.
– Next come ‘degorgeurs’ –
Joyon estimated that there are about eight remueurs in France’s Champagne region still working for the biggest domaines, a token of tradition for the image of these houses at a time when they have already automated many tasks.
Krug, for example, uses remuage by hand for about a fifth of its production, manager Dorian Drancourt told AFP.
The other bottles are titled downwards in rows of 300 to 500 in big metal crates, and placed in a machine known as the “gyropalette”, which is programmed with a precise rotating movement.
“Our manual work on a sample of bottles also helps to programme the machines more precisely for the rest of the vintage,” added Joyon standing under a brick arch in a Krug cellar dating from 1843.
After several weeks of the skilled turns of the remueurs, the bottles are handed over to the “degorgeur” — or disgorger — who will plunge the bottleneck into a refrigerating solution to turn the deposit into a frozen plug which is then ejected under pressure when the bottle is opened.
After final corking the Champagne bottles are kept in storage for durations determined by the particular house before being sold.
On May 20-22, the LMVH houses — Dom Perignon, Moet et Chandon, Krug, Ruinart and Veuve Clicquot which last year sold 62 million bottles of Champagne worldwide — will open to the public part of their sites and cellars, including a chance to see demonstrations by the remueurs.