As consumers, we often have a romanticised notion of wine. Slick marketing practices (such as the advertisement above) have no doubt contributed to our idea of wine as a ‘natural’ product as if, with a bit of sunshine and rainfall, wine would make itself.
However, the reality is that from the cultivation of vines through harvesting, vinification to the bottling and shipping of a final product, modern wine making is very much dependent on bioscience research, hi-tech vinification practices, and huge machinery. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, but I find it fascinating to delve beyond the consumer image of wine and to see where the stuff actually comes from.
I was fortunate enough to be invited on a visit to the Pol Roger Champagne House in Epernay recently. Through a tour of the cellars and winemaking plant, I was able to see first hand the vast mechanised process involved in producing this very fine wine. It’s probably the physicist in me but I got a real kick out of seeing the bottles whirring along the conveyors of the bottling plant like parts on an assembly line.
Unfortunately the weather was too poor for a trip out to the vineyards to see the grapes on the vine, thus our journey started in the winery. Following harvest, the grapes are pressed and the juice undergoes fermentation in these huge, temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks.
Once the juice has fermented to wine and the final blend of the product been decided, the wine is bottled in normal champagne bottles. Sugar and yeast are added to the wine and the bottles are sealed with a crown cap and stored in Pol’s vast network of underground cellars for a minimum of 15 months (significantly longer for the vintage wines). It is here where the yeast acts to turn the still wine into sparkling champagne, by consuming the sugar and releasing carbon dioxide as a waste product.
When it is time to get the champagne ready for market, the expended yeast cells must be removed. Most champagne houses use a machine called a gyropalette to turn the bottles in a controlled way in order to encourage the yeast deposits into the neck of the bottle. Pol still uses the traditional method by hand, employing remuers who virtually live in the cellars turning the bottles a quarter-turn at a time over a period of several weeks. This turning process (remuage) eventually sees the bottles upside-down, with the yeast deposit, or ‘cap’, firmly in the neck of the bottle. With an annual production of about 1.5 million bottles, Pol is by no means the largest champagne house, yet you can imagine remuage by hand would be quite an involved process!
Once the cap is in the neck of the bottle, the bottles are transported up to the bottling plant ready for the final stages of champagne production. The first step is to remove the yeast cap. The necks of the bottles are frozen, then the bottles are flipped on the bottling line and the cap flies off due to the pressure of the carbon dioxide in the bottle, successfully disgorging the frozen yeast pellet.
The bottles are speedily moved on to where they are topped up with a sugar solution – depending on the required dosage of the wine – and a cork is fitted and locked in place with the customary wire fitting. A machine rather like a stomach-churning amusement park ride seizes the bottles are rotates them to mix the dosage into the champagne. The bottles are then washed, dried and the foil and labels are applied before being stacked in cases.
Many thanks must go to the hospitality of Hubert de Billy and Pol Roger for hosting this trip.