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Riddling the Roederer way

Can hand-riddling improve the taste of champagne?

Hand-riddler Jean-Marc Lavabre
Hand-riddler Jean-Marc Lavabre | Image: Rafaël Lévy

The 7km of Louis Roederer Champagne’s labyrinthine cellars lie underground in the very heart of Reims. They are shrouded in darkness, with wine-friendly mould springing from the damp walls and silence filling the cavernous hallways, save for the occasional “scrape, scrape, scrape, scrape” of a riddler. Riddling, or remuage as it is called in France, is one of the lesser-known practices that go into the production of champagne. In many ways, it is a process that is completely at odds with the glamorous venues at which the wine will later be enjoyed, whether it be by the glitterati of modern society, or by a group of friends celebrating in cosy dining rooms or toasting each other on sun-drenched terraces.

Although many restaurants and bars are dimly lit – and some are almost as deep underground as Roederer’s cellars – the atmosphere in which we drink champagne bears no resemblance to the world its riddlers inhabit. Hand-riddlers are the hermits of the champagne world, spending their days in silence, in damp, chilly cellars kept deliberately dark and dank to provide the best possible environment for the wine to mature. Isolated they may be, but riddling is a profession born from passion, dedication, determination and precision, as well as a little mystery. Riddlers are the masters of a rare craft, one Louis Roederer Champagne is determined to preserve.

Stairs to the Louis Roederer Champagne cellars
Stairs to the Louis Roederer Champagne cellars | Image: Rafaël Lévy

The science and the “magic”

When champagne’s second fermentation is complete, the gross and fine lees (dead yeast cells that have converted residual sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide, giving the wine its fizz) remain in the bottle, making it appear cloudy. The riddler’s job is to remove this sediment from the wine, leaving it crystal clear and ready to drink. But there’s a catch – the wine must remain in the bottle, making filtering or fining impossible.

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To remove the sediment, bottles are placed at a 45-degree angle, neck down, in specially built racks called pupitres. Working from a centuries-old code – marked on the bottles with chalk and unintelligible to the uneducated eye – the riddler grasps the end of each bottle, giving it an abrupt back and forth twist, and, while slightly increasing the tilt, drops it back in the rack. This action is repeated every one to three days over a period of several weeks until the bottles are positioned vertically, neck down. The twist and tilt action gradually dislodges particles that have clung to the glass, as well as the minute fine lees suspended in the liquid, encouraging them, with a little help from gravity and the lubricating effect of the wine, to move downwards towards the mouth of the bottle.

It sounds simple enough, but consider this: a skilled riddler is expected to move 50,000 bottles in a single day. This process, crucial to the production of champagne, was devised by the widow Clicquot of the eponymous house, and was widely adopted soon after. However, the exorbitant costs and time-consuming nature of the task led many to abandon hand-riddling in favour of automatic riddling machines introduced in the 1970s; these can rotate and tilt over 500 bottles at a time in a process that can take as little as three days. However, Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon, chef de cave at Louis Roederer, continues to hand-riddle the house’s prestige cuvées, Cristal and Cristal Rosé. For a wine produced from 25-year-old vines that spends a minimum of eight years maturing in Louis Roederer’s cellars, this kind of time-saving is immaterial.

Image: Rafaël Lévy

In the modern world, where everything is mechanised for efficiency and profitability, hand-riddling and Louis Roederer’s “handmade” approach to producing Cristal are a throwback to a gentler, slower time. It takes a certain type of character to elect to spend hours on end in the cool, dark cellars with nothing but their thoughts and thousands of bottles for company, yet riddlers tend to stay in the profession for decades – often their entire professional life. Fiercely protective of the secrets of their craft – the specific way they turn the bottles, the cryptic white chalk marks they use to speak the language of their trade – their methods of working are an enigma to all bar them. Each riddler has their unique approach, quietly confident in the merits of their system of precisely and dexterously removing all traces of sediment from the liquid.

One of Roederer’s riddlers, Jean-Marc Lavabre, has worked in the cellars for the majority of his professional life, and guards the methodology of his craft so close to his chest that not even Lécaillon could explain his exact technique. This little heard, or seen, member of the Roederer team is just as crucial to the Cristal story as the men and women who prune the vines, pick the grapes and blend this iconic wine.

Image: Rafaël Lévy

Riddling at Roederer

Riddling is the natural culmination of the “by-hand” approach to winemaking that takes place at every stage of Louis Roederer’s winemaking process. In 2001, Lécaillon introduced biodynamic farming to Roederer’s most prized vineyards, a method that demands that the vines, as well as the grapes, are tended without help from machines, synthetic fertilisers or pesticides, resorting to gentler, natural methods – ones that were used when riddling was first invented in the early 1800s. Once in the winery, each plot is hand-sorted, vinified separately and then individually tasted and evaluated by Roederer’s highly skilled blending team. According to Lécaillon, “When you have nurtured something with your bare hands along every step of the way, entrusting its care to a machine seems unnatural, and we are all advocates of natural, sustainable processes at Roederer, which we are proud to conclude with the enchanting, almost magical process of hand-riddling. Manual riddling is part of the DNA of Cristal. We are truly connected to the product throughout, and we believe that this connection translates into the taste of the wine – when you care for something so diligently, how can it fail to make a difference?”

Louis Roederer chef de cave Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon
Louis Roederer chef de cave Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon | Image: Rafaël Lévy

Frédéric Rouzaud, a seventh generation member of the Roederer family, is equally determined to preserve the profession of hand-riddling at Roederer. He says, “Although machines bring efficiency to winemaking and can save us a great deal of money, we are proud to preserve the jobs our ancestors have been employing people to perform for generations. In the same way that we hire the same families to hand-harvest our vines that were employed by our ancestors many years ago, we are proud to support the lesser-known skills and processes that go into making champagne and empower every viticulturist and cellar worker involved in the winemaking process. We have been working together for so long that we are like an extended family, united in our passion for, and connection with, champagne.” 

Cristal – the way Tsar Alexander II drank it

Image: Rafaël Lévy

Riddling may seem antiquated to some but, to the winemaking team at Louis Roederer, it is the natural culmination in a truly artisanal winemaking process – a process almost identical to the way Cristal was first created for Tsar Alexander II of Russia in 1876. Louis Roederer’s prestige cuvées are handmade from start to finish – from the biodynamic processes that take place in the vineyards to the grape sorting, tasting in the winery and, finally, hand-riddling in the cellars. Being so close to the vines, grapes, wines and bottles each step of the way, every member of the Louis Roederer team has a greater understanding of the product’s needs, as well as a finer appreciation of how to make it as perfect as it can be.

Cristal was the first ever prestige cuvée in the Champagne region, created and designed for Tsar Alexander II of Russia, whose favourite champagne was Louis Roederer. Today, it is made using the same “handcrafted” method as it was 200 years ago, when it was first produced.

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