Three or four months before the anticipated date of release, the bottles undergo riddling (remuage): the process that causes the inactive yeast cells (lees) to move down towards the neck of the bottle and collect in the bidule (plastic stopper designed to catch the lees).
Three consecutive stages:
Pointage is the shaking of the bottles to dislodge any sediment. The bottles are tilted about 35 degrees in an oak pupitre consisting of two flat surfaces that are hinged at the top (an A-frame-shaped riddling rack). Each surface is pierced with six bevelled holes across 10 rows, creating space for 120 bottles (special pupitres are available for larger bottle formats).
The cellar worker in charge of pointage, also known as the remueur (riddler), gives each bottle a flick of his wrist to detach the sediment from the sides of the bottle and send it sliding into the neck. By the end of riddling, the wine is left clear and perfectly limpid and remains in the cellar to rest for a further two to three weeks.
Holding the bottles by the base, the cellarworker gives each one a short, sharp rotation, 1/8th, 1/6th, or 1/4 of a circle at a time, to the right or to the left, with a chalk mark on the bottom of the bottle for reference. The objective is to detach the sediment, now made even heavier by the riddling agents, from the sides of the bottle and encourage it to slide into the bottle neck and collect on the underside of the cork (or bidule), taking care not to send the lees back into suspension. At the same time the bottle is tilted, so that by the end of riddling a few weeks later, it is positioned head down and almost vertical (sur pointe).
The process is long and laborious but essential given the variable nature of the lees, which consist of several layers of dead yeast cells and chemical precipitates (potassium bitartrate and tannic substances).
From Vine to Wine: Labelling
Dépointage is the stacking of the bottles neck down after riddling, in readiness for disgorgement, with the neck of one bottle resting in the hollow base of the bottle below.
The bottles are wedged tight against the floor, sandwiched between two walls and slightly tilted towards the back wall. The bottles in the bottom row are positioned neck down towards the floor, with each successive row resting in the hollow bases of the bottles below — about five or six rows altogether. Stacking the bottles en masse (neck down) like this is a delicate business and by no means as stable as horizontal stacking (entreillage). If any bottle should slip, the whole lot might come crashing down and the breakage would be considerable.
Manual remuage is the traditional method, carried out by the remueur (riddler or bottle turner) in charge of handling the wines at specific times of the year, and in different places within the same cellar, always adjusting his technique to suit the type of deposit. A practised remueur can turn 50-60,000 bottles a day, which is a more reasonable rate than the 70,000 bottles turned in an average day 20 years ago ...
The entire riddling process takes at least six weeks and sometimes as much as 2-3 months. It is a very costly phase in the Champagne production process, greedy in terms of manpower and work space alike.
Appendice: Remuage — a whole story in itself ...
Remuage was unheard of at the end of the 17th Century and throughout the 1800s. In those days, bottles were released complete with their deposit and it was up to the customer to separate any sediment, which explains why the wine was decanted and not served straight from the bottle.
In fact, it was the beginning of the 19th Century (1813) before vertical stacking (sur pointe) was introduced. At the time, this consisted of inserting the bottles neck down into holes in wood sidings, then removing them one at a time to rotate them in small increments, relying on gravity to draw the lees down into the neck of the bottle. In the event, the operation was only partly successful, leaving part of the lees still clinging to the sides of the bottle.
The following years saw rapid improvements in riddling. Story has it that the Widow Clicquot and her cellar-master Antoine de Müller were the first to hit upon the idea of pupitres when they took a kitchen table "and drilled it with angled holes. This allowed the bottles to be tilted at different angles [...] and to remain in place throughout the course of remuage."
Other techniques, such as delivering little hammer blows to the bottle or a method colloquially known as demasquer le dépôt (unmasking the deposit), were discarded.
In 1947 winemakers started to add substances that made the sediment heavier (so easier to riddle) and in 1973 the first gyropalettes were introduced. Now it was possible to process 504 bottles in a single operation, using an ingenious computer-controlled machine to replicate the exact movements of manual remuage. Born in Champagne, automated riddling then quickly caught on in France and abroad — wherever second fermentation in bottles was used to make still wine sparkle.
We should make clear that mechanical remuage, granted its first patent in 1909, was only introduced once it had fully proved its worth.
The Champagne industry currently favours four principal systems of remuage:
The "Gyro" reduces the riddling cycle to just one or two weeks. It allows one million bottles to be processed in a single year (40-45 cycles compared to just 7 or 8 with manual remuage); and it requires a space no bigger than 100m2.
Researchers are currently investigating the possibility of doing away with remuage altogether, so rendering Gyros redundant. The study focuses on enclosing yeast cells in alginate gel microbeads that would enclose yeast activity and prevent any deposit from forming. At the end of fermentation, with the bottle positioned neck-down, the beads would slide into the bottleneck under the effect of gravity, ideally placed for disgorgement. The project is still in its early stages pending an assessment of its impact on the quality of Champagne wine.
Remuage completed, with the deposit no longer in suspension, the bottles are placed neck-down and either taken away for disgorgement or kept sur pointe, complete with their deposit, stacked in pallet-crates. They can stay sur pointe for years, eventually attaining their long anticipated apogee.