Saturday, January 31, 2009

Champagne Bottling in the 19th Century

This is from "Facts about Champagne and Other Sparkling Wines", by Henry Vizetelly, 1879.

The cellars of the champagne manufacturers are very varied in character. The wine that has been grown on the chalky hills undergoes development in vaults burrowed out of the calcareous strata underlying the entire district. In excavating these cellars the sides and roofs are frequently worked smooth and regular as finished masonry. The larger ones are composed of a number of spacious and lofty galleries, sometimes parallel with 58 each other, but often ramifying in various directions, and evidently constructed on no definite plan. They are of one, two, and, in rare instances, of three stories, and now and then consist of a series of parallel galleries communicating with each other, lined with masonry, and with their stone walls and vaulted roofs resembling the crypt of some conventual building. Others of ancient date are less regular in their form, being merely so many narrow low winding corridors, varied, perhaps, by recesses hewn roughly out of the chalk, and resembling the brigands’ cave of the melodrama, while a certain number of the larger cellars at Reims are simply abandoned quarries, the broad and lofty arches of which are suggestive of the nave and aisles of some Gothic church. In these varied vaults, lighted by solitary lamps in front of metal reflectors, or by the flickering tallow candles which we carry in our hands, we pass rows of casks filled with last year’s vintage or reserved wine of former years, and piles after piles of bottles of vin brut in seemingly endless sequence—squares, so to speak, of raw champagne recruits awaiting their turn to be thoroughly drilled and disciplined. These are varied by bottles reposing necks downwards in racks at different degrees of inclination according to the progress their education has attained. Reports caused by exploding bottles now and then assail the ear, and as the echo dies away it becomes mingled with the rush of the escaping wine, cascading down the pile and finding its way across the sloping sides of the floor to the narrow gutter in the centre. The dampness of the floor and the shattered fragments of glass strewn about show the frequency of this kind of accident. The spilt wine, which flows along the gutter into reservoirs, is usually thrown away, though there is a story current to the effect that the head of one Epernay firm cooks nearly everything consumed in his house in the fluid thus let loose in his cellars.

In these subterranean galleries we frequently come upon parties of workmen engaged in transforming the perfected vin brut into champagne. Viewed at a distance while occupied in their monotonous task, they present in the semi-obscurity a series of picturesque Rembrandt-like studies. One of the end 59 figures in each group is engaged in the important process of dégorgement, which is performed when the deposit, of which we have already spoken, has satisfactorily settled in the neck of the bottle. Baskets full of bottles with their necks downwards are placed beside the operator, who stands before an apparatus resembling a cask divided vertically down the middle. This nimble-figured manipulator seizes a bottle, holds it for a moment before the light to test the clearness of the wine and the subsidence of the deposit; brings it, still neck downwards, over a small tub at the bottom of the apparatus already mentioned; and with a jerk of the steel hook which he holds in his right hand loosens the agrafe securing the cork, Bang goes the latter, and with it flies out the sediment and a small glassful or so of wine, further flow being checked by the workman’s finger, which also serves to remove any sediment yet remaining in the bottle’s neck. Like many other clever tricks, this looks very easy when adroitly performed, though a novice would probably empty the bottle by the time he had discovered that the cork was out. Occasionally a bottle bursts in the dégorgeur’s hand, and his face is sometimes scarred from such explosions. The sediment removed, he slips a temporary cork into the bottle, and the wine is ready for the important operation of the dosage, upon the nature and amount of which the character of the perfected wine, whether it be dry or sweet, light or strong, very much depends.

No comments:

Post a Comment