Hands on: it takes a strong pair of wrists to twist-and-turn 50,000 heavy champagne bottles a day. It also takes a strong constitution to stand in the cold, damp chalk galleries, 120 feet below ground, for your entire working life.
Yet the job of remueur is passed from father to son and is second to that of chef du cave in prestige. It comes with perks, such as being the only workers entitled to ride bikes around the 18 miles of cellars at Moet & Chandon.
Remuage, the work of the remueur, is the rotating and oscillating of the bottles in order to coax the yeast deposits of the second fermentation down to the neck. If it sounds like hard work, it is. It also requires a great deal of skill and patience. The process takes between three and six months, depending on the size of the deposits, and the remueur has to know just how much and how often to twist every one of his thousands of bottles.
At George Goulet, a methuselah, equivalent to eight bottles, is the largest size handled by the remueur. Most houses remuage only standard and magnum bottles. Krug is unusual: the half-bottles of its beautiful cuv,ee de prestige, Grande Cuv,ee, go through individual remuage and are not transferred from a larger size.
Bigger Is Better -- Your chances of getting a bottle of champagne in sparkling condition are much higher if it went through second fermentation and remuage in that bottle. The most reliable size is the magnum, say the people in Champagne.
Ready to Pop -- Once a champagne leaves its producer's cellars, it's ready to drink. Just give it a few months to recover from trans-Atlantic travel. Although Anglo-Saxons may disagree, the French say that the aging of a champagne, even one of a single vintage, does not improve it. Gradually the wine will tire. However, those heavy cylindrical blocks of cork that are forced into the bottle are so solid that it's a slow process.
Bigger Is Better 2 -- Look closely at the bottom of a champagne label, and you should see the initials NM or RM. NM stands for n,egociant-manipulant: a house whose cellars are in one of the main towns, away from the vineyards. It probably owns some vineyard land, but not enough for its total requirements, and has contracts with growers. RM stands for recoltant-manipulant: a grower who makes champagne from all or part of his crop.
The famous names are to be found among the n,egociants, the traditional suppliers to the export markets, but lately we have seen some wines from r,ecoltants. And they're often several dollars less than those of the big houses. So, if they're both champagnes, why bother to buy the more expensive labels? Because there is a difference. By definition, champagne is a blended wine. It is usually a blend of two or more of the permissible grape varieties (chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier). The wines from different vineyards are blended before the second fermentation. And over 80 percent of production is in non-vintage champagnes, blends of different years.
It is financially impossible for a grower-producer to duplicate standards set by large houses. He may use only grapes from his own vineyards, whereas a n,egociant has contracts with growers all over Champagne and is able to select the exact material needed for his traditional cuv,ees, or blends. In a good year a r,ecoltant will produce a good wine, but in the frequent poor years, he's in trouble. He can't afford to keep the reserves on which the n,egociants rely: reserves of still wines of previous vintages blended with new wine to ensure consistency of style, and reserves of champagne lying on its yeasts after the second fermentation.
"R,ecoltants-manipulants are not making champagne. They are making a sparkling wine from the Champagne region," said a n,egociant. "This is a joke in Champagne, but it's not far from the truth."