Champagne and the mystery of the 6 turns of the muselet
When opening a bottle of champagne you have to remove the wired cage that sits on top of the cork. This wired cage is officially called the ‘muselet’ and it is loosened by removing the foil and turning the wire counter-clockwise. If you are like me you probably have never paid attention to the amount of turns it takes. But a friend once noticed that it always(!) takes 6 turns if you do by hand, or 3 if you count full 360 degree turns.
That was years ago, and since then we have tested many bottles on the amount of turns. The outcome has always been the same, regardless of the brand or type of champagne. But we also noticed bottles of Cava, Vonkelwyn, Sekt and Crémant de Bourgogne have the exact same number of turns. So I got really curious. I kept on asking myself ‘Why does it take 6 turns to open the muselet?‘.
By the way, this is the moment where you may think “Nah, that’s not true, I don’t believe this guy. All these thousands of champagne houses all use the exact same number of turns… yeah right”. I challenge you. Go buy a bottle, count and let me know.
As I didn’t know the answer I started asking people that really should know this: people working in the champagne business. I asked the owner of my local liquor store, some importers of champagne, the owner of a champagne bar in Amsterdam and even the guide of a tour through the cellar one of the big champagne houses. Answered ranged from “Good question, I never noticed that” , “I don’t know” and “I guess it’s because of the tradition” to “6 refers to the pressure of 6 atmosphere in the bottle” and “6 is what French see as the number of intense happiness”.
None of the answers were spoken out with confidence. Not happy with these answers I kept on asking. And after searching for a long time, hearing many different answers and checking online I have come to the conclusion that it has to do with pressure, standardization, ease of opening and manufacturers of the muselet.
Sources are not very clear on who exactly invented the muselet. But is is clear that Dom Perignon and Adolphe Jacqueson made important contributions. Dom Perignon is believed to have made important improvements to the production process of champagne. Including a wire caging on the cork. At that time a lot of bottles were lost during production because the cork or the bottle was unable to withstand the pressure of the Champagne. Dom Perignon’s invention made it better.
But it wasnt until 1844 that Adolphe Jacqueson made the muselet in the shape and form as we know it today. Perhaps Adolphe also decided that six turns, or 3 full turns, was the best way to do it back in those days. Perhaps the number 3 for the full turns was an optimum between the amount of power to resist the pressure from within the bottle and the length of the wired leaflet so that you can remove it easily.
During the years many things got standardized. From the grapes to use, the area where it may be produced to the size of the bottles. This is all agreed by the Comité Interprofessionnel du vin de Champagne. In the end also the amount of turns of the muselet was agreed upon.
Ease of opening
Having it standardized makes sense to have a strong brand. But in this case it has second added value: ease of opening by the sommelier. A sommelier should provide good hospitality and service to it’s guests. It was (and still is) regarded a good manner when the sommelier can open a bottle whilst looking to his guests instead of the bottle. So, having a standard number of turns makes it easier for the sommelier and keeps the guests happy.
Manufacturers of the muselet
So now we know why Champagne bottles all have muselets that require 6 turns. But, that still doesn’t explain why Sekt, Vonkelwyn and Cava also require 6 turns. Turns out there is a pretty easy explanation. There aren’t that much manufacturers of the machinery that can put a muselet on a bottle. These manufacturers create the machines that are sitting in the production line at the perimeter of the Champagne houses, and can process up to hundreds of bottles a minute. I was told by a spokesman of a famous Champagne brand that there are only two manufacturers in Europe that deliver to Champagne houses. One in the Champagne region, the other in Italy. And they produce all the machines used for putting the muselets on the bottle. So let’s say you want a muselet that requires 10 turns for your Prosecco. Then the manufacturer needs to alter their machinery. This results in more expensive machinery and you probably going for the cheaper 6-turns option. And the cheaper option also happens to be supported by a great tradition of Champagne. So, easy choice.
So, there you have it. One more answer to a question you probably never asked. But sure a fun little topic you can entertain your guests with the next time you open a wonderful bottle of champagne. Cheers! Oh, and let me know if you heard a different answer or if you happen to find a bottle of champagne that does not require 6 turns!
Update 2011-03-27: declared more specific that the machinery of the manufacturers are situated at the perimeter of the Champagne houses and that the muselets are not shipped to the Champagne houses.
Update 2011-06-05: I was at my little niece’s birthday party recently. Learned that kids champagne (not with real alcohol, just soda that looks like champagne) also comes in bottles of which the muselet requires six turns. I did not expect this, but it does make sense.
Update 2011-06-15: I’ve visited the champagne region as I was in the area after the 24 hours of Le Mans. I did the tour through the cellars of Mumm. After the visit I asked the guide about the mystery of the 6 turns. Apparently I was the first ever to as this question, and clearly they did not have the answer.
Update 2012-02-06: Magnum champagne bottles also require six turns. Sounds logical, but just wanted to let you know.
Update 2012-04-12: I’ve tried champagne beer a few days back (= beer modified to taste a bit like champagne, also called a ‘Gueuze‘). More specifically I tried ‘Oud Beersel’ and my friends tried two other brands. They comes in a small bottle, with a champagne cork and a muselet. They all required 6 turns to open.
Update 2013-01-12: Hungarian sparkling wine also requires six turns.
Update 2013-04-18: based on comments updated and included Adolphe Jacqueson as an the inventor of the muselet in the shape and form as we know it today.