Nadège Druzkowki - Juillet 2005
The slow evolution of the aromas specific to each Champagne terroir 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. When the lighter particles are not entirely eliminated, the wine is said to be bleu — something that thankfully no longer happens thanks to the development of very precise gyropalette control.
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 this king among wines.
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.
It was 1818 before the story of riddling really started. Legend has it 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." It was a worker with the House of Morzet called Thomassin who then put the idea into practice. The riddling table, forerunner of the pupitre, was born!
It was quite literally an upside-down idea — treating 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 — a solitary, ancient and mysterious routine, executed in the shadows, slowly waking the wines from their long slumber in the cellars ...
The 19th Century brought modern methods and mechanisation. The development of Champagne wines was perfected to an extraordinary degree, and the process of production was greatly improved. Louis Pasteur in particular was fascinated by the study of wine, and his scientific genius laid the ground for the modern discipline of oenology. New methods of riddling played their part in this great drive towards modernisation. The following decades would see a revolution in the elimination of the sediments that spoiled the clarity of wines.
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, for instance, Méreaux filed a patent for a manual system of rotation that worked by friction. The way was meanwhile open 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.
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. Champagne born and bred, the gyropalette has triumphed abroad as much as in France, earning a just reward for its far-sighted concept. 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.
To put their idea into practice, our determined innovators commissioned sawmill proprietor M Crozat to make them a cage in oak, and engaged companies Jouglet and Legras to make the metal structure to contain the cage. The very first trials took place in Pierry on the premises of Winegrower Gilbert Lagache who immediately gave the project the thumbs-up.
The team continued trials in the course of 1971/1972, using containers of 504 bottles filled with water to test different angles. This work stretched the capabilities of the little group to its limits. "As our experiments continued, we changed our approach and refined our methods of fabrication," recalls Gilbert Lagache. Results were hardly fruitful but the team remained enthusiastic. "Our first attempts did not always turn out satisfactorily. But we knew our system was worth it and didn’t doubt that we would one day solve our problems," says Lagache. They were determined to go ahead, but the project lacked traction.
Two new participants then came on the scene: sparkling winemaker Pierre Martin and the oenologist Georges Hardy, who had just joined forces to set up the Station Œnotechnique de Champagne, which opened in 1973. 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.
Georges Hardy and Pierre Martin gave the project a second wind, but their participation did not immediately change the fortunes of the "gyro". Across six years, from 1973 to 1979, the trials and demonstrations piled up. Each year, the "gyro" was shown at the Epernay fair, the main event where professionals would gather to see the latest in winemaking equipment. "They thought we were crackpots," remembers Jean Marie Bouvry. But as they say, a prophet is not without honour except in his own land, and in the event it was Italy that placed the first order in 1976, for 19 machines. Sadly the excitement was short-lived and for the next two years, there no further orders. By the end of 1978, our two entrepreneurs were thinking of throwing in the towel.
So when the House of Piper-Heidsieck placed its order at Christmastime that year, the news came like a thunderclap out of a blue sky. Confounding the sceptics, Piper-Heidsieck had just given the new riddling system the boost it needed.
What’s more, this was no small order. Piper-Heidsieck cellar master M Lacroix and head of production M Menu had thought it over very carefully, spending some months reviewing the existing riddling options. "We had looked at everything in France and abroad, especially in Spain, where winemakers were at that point modernising their equipment," recalls René Menu. Having carefully weighed up the odds, the House bet on going one hundred percent "gyro" and committed to 221 machines in a single order. So doing it would play a major part in the machine’s development.
On Piper-Heidsieck’s instructions, the wooden cages were replaced by metal wire cages. There had been a certain amount of play in the wooden cages as the bottles were rotated, which posed a threat to the glass and could sometimes lead to off-flavours in the wine. No such problem with the new wire cages, which held the bottles steady whether vertical or horizontal. The size of the Piper-Heidsieck order meant the scale of "gyro" production had to be increased,, with Claude Michelot, president of the Profilam company, winning the production contract.
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," remembers Jean Marie Bouvry.
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," recalls J M Bouvry. Orders now flowed without a break, from customers in Champagne and also several quality Crémant producers in Alsace, the Loire Valley and Burgundy — always keen to follow Champagne’s lead in quality production.
Enthusiasm for the new riddling system spread quickly across the country. In 1985, Marne & Champagne placed the biggest order ever recorded by the Station Œnotechnique — more than 500 riddling units. It was not long before wine producers across the world were showing interest in the new machine ...
The success of the "gyro" fuelled continuous research and development throughout the ’eighties. Between 1979 and 1985, large control units were switched for compact automation with ever more robust technology. In 1981, Champagne’s Station Œnotechnique embarked on a total revision of the "gyro" system and a new generation of machines was launched. It was Roger Jeanrat, the Stations’ technical and commercial director, who led the development of these single or double cage monomât "gyros" with their lighter-weight more modern mechanism. In 1982, the company completed development of its own automation system under the auspices of its Automatisme & Robotique service directed by Roger Lopez. This new in-house design gave the "gyro" more flexibility and allowed for customisation of installations in line with the particular requirements of each customer.
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. The design of this new cage was placed in the hands of Frédéric Questiaux, chief of Roger Jeanrat’s design office. Hooks replaced forks for the handling of the "gyro" cages. It was now possible to integrate the complete production process, from tirage to disgorgement, by way of aging. The handling of the bottles was reduced to a minimum to safeguard the quality of the wine.
The introduction of the "gyro" and its general acceptance at the beginning of the ’eighties marked the automation of the last manual link in the Champagne production chain. Passionately defended by some and questioned by others, the benefits of the "gyro" proved ultimately irresistable. The "gyro" was synonymous with technical progress, and also stood for a change of vision. It revolutionised attitudes, practices and ways of thinking, bringing with it the introduction of other new equipment like the lifting machines that are an absolute requirement for the "gyro" — all common currency today.
In the ’eighties the success of the "gyro" opened the flood gates to competing systems that enjoyed varying degrees of success. The hexagonal Champarex was designed around 1975, but never equalled the fortunes of the "gyro". The Remupal was another system, based on a cage that turned on an axis fixed to the floor. Another model that arrived simultaneously with the double "gyro" was the Giratech, featuring two rectangular cages mounted on an axis. The Turnover was based on a similar system. In 1989, the Giromatic appeared as a medium-capacity complement to the "gyro" (342 and 586 bottles). The Giromatic could be loaded with a simple pallet truck and was well suited to small- and medium-scale production.
The most detailed of the "gyro" patents dates from 1983/1984. Since then, its design has met with rapidly intensifying competition and the twenty years of legal patent protection is now expired. The ingenious principle on which the "gyro" was based is now public property.
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 sediments themselves had been reduced in weight and were less inclined to stick to the sides of the bottle. So they slid more easily into the bottle’s neck.
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. This original design responds to a certain number of technical constraints: the cube shape spreads the weight evenly and places the centre of gravity in the middle. "The conventional rectangular storage cage does not have the same precision. Within a rectangle, there’s always more weight on one side, unlike a perfectly balanced square. The over-hanging weight puts a drag on the cage when the machine is switched off," explains Jean-Marie Bouvry, one of the knowledgable champions of this innovation.
A cube shape neatly avoids this risk and saves the need for the onerous addition of a motor break. Size was dictated by ease of manipulation and practicality. The machine fits easily through the doors of cellars, while the palette cage (weighing nearly a tonne when loaded) represents a balanced weight.
The standard "gyropalette" format is echoed in other models, adapted to the needs of different Champagne Houses. Double "gyropalettes" handle two cages at a time. "Quadra" "gyropalettes" handle four cages at a time.
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. With a pupitre by contrast, the change of angle is limited to 30 degrees.
The "gyro" greatly shortens the riddling cycle. After 7-10 days, the bottles are once again sur pointe, neck down and ready for disgorgement. In all, "gyro" riddling entails 26-30 operations with some time allowed between each operation, depending whether you are at the beginning or end of the sequence. So somewhere between eight and four hours in total. 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. Given this extra productivity, certain cellars have reduced the space devoted to riddling. You need less than two square metres for the "gyro" riddling of 504 bottles. Four pupitres would be needed to riddle the same number.
Since its transition to "gyro", the House of Piper-Heidsieck has liberated the equivalent of 40 cellar chambers — a terrific gain in space. "The "gyro" allows accurate management of the time the bottles are held in the cellars, and also the space they take up. These are two factors that help to improve the financial return from the cellars and therefore the returns for the House," explains Patrick Dubois, cellar master at Castellane. "Gyros" today are often laid out in echelon, so they can be more easily loaded and unloaded, which adds to the functionality of the system. Your modern "gyro" is important enough to dictate the design of the space it occupies. New spaces are sometimes created or fitted out specifically to accommodate the "gyro" installation.
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 and then consultant for the Station Oenotechnique.
Adopted and approved by the whole of the Champagne industry, the "gyropalette" is today virtually universal. So much so that competing systems are also often called "gyro" even though they carry different brand names and work in different ways. This is an innovation that has in time added its own enhancements and produced in its wake still more efficient systems adapted to the needs of the Champagne industry.
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 — particularly the remueurs who sometimes suffered health problems due to the repetitive nature of their work. 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.