The romantic aura associated with Champagne is inextricably mixed up with the old artisanal methods. Everyone knows the story about Madame Clicquot’s disgust with the sediment in the bottle, and her experiments with cutting holes in the kitchen table which led to the introduction of the pupître, and riddling the bottles, which in effect means using thousands of hand movements over several weeks to move them from a more or less horizontal position to a more or less vertical position so the sediment collects in the neck. (Before the invention of the pupître, riddling was done by placing the bottle in a pile of sand.) Almost all tours of caves in Champagne take you past rows of pupîtres, but the fact is that the vast majority of Champagne today is riddled not by hand but by gyropalettes, which accomplish the process in a few days instead of a few weeks. The vast majority: but usually not the top prestige cuvees, which continue to be riddled by hand in the old artisanal way. Is this an attempt to preserve superior quality or is it a nostalgia that in fact gets in the way of quality?
“It’s absolutely clear gyropalettes give better results than riddling by hand. I did not want to believe it, but the inventor of the machine visited and gave me a machine for a year to test. After 6 months I looked and I could not see a difference between gyropalettes and hand riddling. So I took sample bottles to a lab to measure turbidity, and the machine was doing a better job. I decided I must not be nostalgic, I should take the best of modern technology,” says Bruno Paillard, whose modern facility on the outskirts of Reims is full of gyropalettes. “Gyropalettes have the advantage of being able to go from absolutely horizontal to absolutely vertical. You can write the program you want, programs vary from 90 movements to 120 movements, depending on the wine.” he says. Quality depends on how you use the machine: you can rush the process through in as little as four days, or spend a week to get perfect results.
But most of the top cuvées state proudly that they riddle by hand. It’s part of that aura of being artisanal, rare—and expensive. I suppose you have to do something different to justify the price of a top cuvée. If you work out how much of the cost of a bottle goes into promotion as opposed to winemaking, it gives you pause for thought, and I suppose it’s better for some to go to riddlers, but the question remains: what does this do for quality? This is not one of those cases where machines are a cost-effective, but lower quality substitute for traditional practices, such as harvesting, where machine harvesters (in spite of improvements) still don’t produce such good results as manual picking. In riddling the machine is reliably better. So are the producers letting nostalgia get in the way of quality?