Report by Serge Valentin with contributions from Michel Grilliat,
M. Chiquet of the House of Jacquesson and Mme Lucienne Cocquot.
The muselet (wire cage) is made of three parts assembled as a single piece:
The wire cage secures the cork in the bottle, keeping it sealed to the point of drinking. It serves to identify a bottle by its colour, by the design or embossing of its plaque and/or the colour of its wires. It makes the bottle safe to open by the consumer.
Legend has it that Dom Pérignon (1638-1715) first had the idea to replace the original Champagne stoppers: wooden bungs wrapped in oil-soaked hemp then sealed with wax and a cork stopper. They say it occurred to to him when he saw the closures on the gourds carried by monks returning from Santiago de Compostela in Spain.
But the securing of the stopper only really became an issue when the shipping of sparkling wines in bottles was authorised by royal decree on 25 May 1728. Cork had meanwhile been the recommended material for wine bottle stoppers since 1718.
From string to steel wire
The stopper was originally secured to the bottle with string, typically hemp string, which was fastened by hand, with the bottle held between the legs. To make the work easier, the bottle would be placed in a device called a calice or calebotin (literally ’the crown of an old hat’), which wedged it more firmly between the legs while the binding operation was in process. To apply more force without hurting the hands, the worker pulled the string tight to form a trefoil knot. He then cut the ends of the string with a special string cutter called a lance. But this fastening of the cork using a knotted loop remained a risky business, even when reinforced string and/or steel wire was used.
On 5 July 1844, Châlons-en-Champagne merchant Adolphe Jacquesson filed a patent for a method that involved inserting a piece of tinplate (the plaque) between the top of the cork and its ties. This balanced the forces acting on the cork and prevented the hemp string or steel wire from becoming embedded in the cork under pressure, causing gas or liquid leaks known as recoulage. The tinplate came from Jacquesson’s cellars, where it was used to reflect the natural light that entered via light wells cut in the chalk.
Two years later, the system of agrafes (metal clips), typically used to secure tirage stoppers, was patented by O. Delagrange.
Around 1855, Nicaise Petitjean, from Avize close to Epernay, patented a string-tying machine, (also known as a cheval de bois), with a lever action that increased the force tenfold and allowed the use of reinforced ties — so simplifying work for the binder ficeleur and making the stopper more secure.
String fastening (ficelage) was then completed with one or two twisted wires that were attached with pliers. The problem was that special pincers or a hook were then required to cut the wire and open the bottle, creating difficulties for the consumer that merchants usually sought to preempt by offering these items as gifts to their customers.
To avoid this inconvenience and above all the risk of injury when uncorking, a preformed ring, sometimes fitted with a lead button stamped with the name of the merchant, was added to the binding wire.
"Two ties secure the stopper, one made of string soaked in linseed oil, the other made of steel wire; the latter is prepared by specialists at wire twisting, then passed to the wire fitter who uses pliers to add the final tension and fold the end over the stopper itself, so it doesn’t protrude." Source: 19th Century Moët & Chandon historical archives.
The final version
The finishing touch was the pre-forming of the binding wire, which gave us the first muselets (wire cages). Originally known as the rapide, the wire cage bridged the gap between traditional and modern — applied by machine but composed of wires that were still twisted by hand.
The first wire cages were manufactured around 1880, as featured in 19th Century manufacturers’ catalogues (Hemart & Lenoir, Taillard, Lemaire). String was still part of the closure at this point, with the wire cage replacing the binding wire and fitting over the string. Improvements in wire-cage technology then made it possible to eliminate the string altogether. These early designs were very simple, just three or four strands with a little hole in the middle (the three-strand wire cage being originally exclusive to the House of Pommery in Reims). Then in 1884, mechanical engineer René Lebegue was employed on his return from armed service as head of materials management for major Champagne House Moët & Chandon in Epernay, with special responsibility for reviewing the House’s use of the wire cage.
Initials trials proved successful and Moët & Chandon adopted the three-strand wire cage (manufactured in-house) in place of string and wire.
It was René Lebegue’s idea to fit the Moët & Chandon wire cage with a ring that untwisted for uncorking. As it turned out, a certain M. Hotmarwaleck had a prior claim to this invention, so René Lebegue adapted it by using a soldering iron to tin the twisted legs of the ring. This had the added advantage of giving the ring more security.
The House of Pommery, first to use the wire cage, now abandoned the three-strand version in favour of a four-strand design that secured the stopper more effectively. With three strands, there was always a risk that one strand might slip from its anchor point, and the two remaining strands were not sufficient to hold down the cork. Also, since virtually all corks in those days were square in cross section, the four-strand wire cage offered better balance. These factors contributed to the phasing out of the (albeit cheaper) three-strand wire cage. Moët & Chandon ceased in-house production of wire cages soon after the liberation of Paris in 1944, and bought them instead from local manufacturers.
Until the middle of the 20th Century, plaques and wire cages were sold separately by different manufacturers. Wire cage manufacture remained an essentially manual process, consisting of three stages:
Stages 1 and 3 were executed by the manufacturer or at the Champagne House. The second stage was typically carried out by home workers, paid on a piece-work basis.
The plaques were generally made of tinplate, sometimes embossed, with three or four notches for threading the wire and possibly a tab to help position the plaque on the cork.
The first printed plaques appeared at the beginning of the 20th Century (the 1906 vintage marking the first in a collection of Pol Roger vintage plaques). It was only after the Second World War that plaques and wire cages were amalgamated into a single unit
According to anecdote, until the 1970s certain Champagne Houses would ask for their wire cages to be supplied with the plaques ready pierced with a hole in the middle.
This was mainly so that nightclub hostesses could keep a record of the bottles of Champagne consumed by customers. The hole in the middle of the plaque on every bottle came fitted with a pin bearing the mark of the club. When the bottle was opened, the hostess would remove the pin, and at the end of the evening submit the pins for a percentage of the evening’s sales. This avoided any arguments, and the pins took less space in her bag than the Champagne corks.
Corking, binding ficelage and wire-hooding (muselage or museletage) remained manual activities up until the ’fifties, with wire cage manufacturers offering a range of products to suit different bottling facilities.
Some large Houses (Moët & Chandon, Pommery) made their wire cages in-house. A typical disgorgement area might encompass a variety of small, manual machines designed for disgorgement, dosage, corking and wire-hooding.
Larger merchant houses also performed these sort of operations in parallel. The plaque and wire hood would be positioned on the cork, the bottle would be placed on a support and the cork would be placed in a cuvettte (bowl-shaped holder) and compressed by a lever. The lower ring would then by tightened around the neck of the bottle by twisting the wire, trimming then hammering the end down with a mallet. The uncorking ring was either pre-formed or created in the course of the twisting.
Eventually, the wire cage and plaque were combined into a single unit, an extra operation that required wire hood manufacturers to crimp the plaque along preformed indentations. (The first plaques had no indentations, just notches for threading the legs of the wire cage).
At the beginning of the 1950s came the first semi-automatic machines, simplifying the task of the operator in charge of wire-hooding, who now only had to place the wire cage in the cuvettte and the bottle on its support. The rest was done automatically.
Further developments led to the emergence of the so-called ceinture libre style of wire cage, where the lower ring was no longer threaded through the loops in the legs (a task that resisted automation ) but crimped inside a pre-formed hook.
The 1960s saw the introduction of the first automatic machines, with the bottles fed by conveyor belt and the wire cages delivered to the machine automatically. This automatic feeding feature created dimensional constraints for manufacturers, prompting the development of automated production based on exact dimensions and the regular feeding of wire cages into the machine, stacked one inside the other like paper cups.
In the 1970s, wire cage unpackers were introduced upstream from the wire- hooder, so fully automating the bottling process.
Wire cages were now available as precision components, unpacked and fed into machines that processed more than 20,000 bottles per hour. Only businesses that embraced these developments were able to survive — small operators, accounting for some 20 plus Champagne producers after the war, all disappeared. Now the first and only person who ever touches the wire cage was the customer.
The wire must allow the easy twisting and untwisting of the lower ring, with no risk of breakage when the bottle is opened. The wire must be supple when drawn but with a tensile strength of more than 300N/mm².
Wire hood manufacturers are supplied with products specially developed for the purpose by wire drawing machine manufacturers and steel mills. The tinplate plaque must be able to withstand deep embossing and shaping and accept the printing of designs.
Today’s wholly automatic production machines are calibrated to regulate the sub-assemblies at each stage of production. Operators check dimensions using a setting gauge, working to ISO 9002 specifications: in particular, the width and length of the lower ring, the height of the wire cage, the diameter of the plaque and the stability of plaque crimping.
Quality control samples are taken on a regular basis, checking the dimensions of the wire cage, with a machine tracking system that monitors wear and tear of individual tools.
Requirements for the fitting of wire cages are governed by the INE 93/006 standard along with manufacturers’ recommendations, notably:
Cleaning the bottle necks
After soaking in a solution of freezing brine or glycol, both highly aggressive chemicals, the necks of the bottles must be thoroughly jet washed to remove all traces of these substances.
Packs of wire cages must be loaded in the unpacker in the direction required by the wire-hooding machine. The conveyor system must ensure that successive packs are delivered to the wire-hooding machine in a smooth, continuous product flow. The conveyor and unpacking mechanisms must keep the packs intact until they are required by the wire-hooding machine.
The automatic delivery system must be exactly timed to select a wire cage as a bottle enters the machine, removing the wire cage from its pack without damage. In systems with a rotary style of delivery, the transition from one pack to the next must be set to drop the fresh pack by a distance of 20-40mm.
The cuvettes entailed in wire-hooding have to meet three requirements:
The flattening of the ring
The lowering of the bottle and the forward movement of the flattening tool must deliver a flattening action that follows the centre line of the bottle and is located as close as possible to the bottle neck.
For the bottler, the wire cage is often a means to identify cuvées, either by the colour of the wire itself, or by the colour of the plaque when bottles are stocked in the cellar before labels are applied.
The design printed on the plaque, and the method used to print it (especially offset printing), allow a Champagne House to express its image, identify a particular cuvée, distinguish a collectible series, etc. Champagne plaques are becoming increasingly collectible and are carefully catalogued in a book by M. Lambert. Fairs are held for plaque collectors, most notably the event staged at Vertus on 11 November. Plaques also feature in competitions, with the prize to be won or an invitation to play the game printed on the underside of the plaque.