Century ago: Great War, great champagne vintage
Epernay, France — Deep in the labyrinthine cellars of the Pol Roger champagne house, rows of century-old bottles caked in mold bear testimony to perhaps the greatest, and surely the most heroic of vintages.
As champagne goes, 1914 was a superlative year when the warmest of summers left the richest of grapes. As war goes, gunfire could be heard just beyond the hills and most men were off fighting in the horrors of World War I.
Yet, even in those dark days, France without champagne would simply not be France. And somehow, the heady mix produced a vintage for the ages in which dedication beat fear. On Friday in London, Pol Roger will auction off one of those 1914 bottles — minus the mold — with the proceeds going to the recently renovated Imperial War Museum.
If the usual harvesters had turned into soldiers, there were women, old men, and sometimes even children to take their place. They picked and pressed in the face of German enemy fire to produce a drink which is still celebrated 100 years later.
“Those who were still in town went into the vineyards. Even the schools were closed,” said Hubert de Billy, the great grandson of Maurice Pol-Roger, the wartime mayor of Epernay, which along with Reims is the heart of champagne production. “Obviously everybody was scared. There was bombing all around.”
The war hit the Champagne region hard and it was not only the wine industry alone that suffered. In Reims, the Notre Dame cathedral, one of world’s greatest Gothic treasures, was badly bombed in an act of cultural destruction that helped turn international opinion against Germany.
For the citizens of Champagne, some weeks were so tough that all they could do was seek refuge underground. And Champagne houses obliged — opening their cellars, many going 100 feet (30 meters) below the earth. School was held, mothers gave birth and some denizens used chalk to scrawl graffiti in endless subterranean corridors now owned by the Taittinger champagne house.
“The soft chalk was ideal to express a strong emotion,” company president Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger said of the scratches, some depicting pointed German helmets.
Above ground, it was not only the honor of a nation that was at stake but, just as importantly, the livelihood of a whole region. The winegrowers dealt in the effervescence of joy at a time of moral desolation, yet they had no choice.
“It is the purpose of the city,” said de Billy. “Even the lawyers are devoted to champagne. Without champagne, the life of the town is gone. It was the same in the war.”
That sense of purpose pushed his great-grandfather, mayor Maurice, to go all out for the 1914 vintage even though the town had briefly fallen to the Germans and war was still in earshot. Maurice even printed his own “currency” to pay pickers, assuring them they could turn them in for real francs after the war.
Even in times of desperation, wine growers looked beyond the immediate. The great vintage was only to be ready for drinking a decade later, when, they imagined correctly, the war would be won.
“The 1914 is a vintage that has been picked at the sound of bullets and drunk at the sound of trumpets,” said de Billy.
Even in those days, the lore of champagne was already well established. Winston Churchill had been a devoted fan of Pol Roger since 1906, de Billy said, and later in life the British leader famously said “Remember, gentlemen, it’s not just France we are fighting for, it’s Champagne!”
Americans, too, had already found the love of fizz. Poet Alan Seeger, the uncle of folk singer Pete, has become a favorite subject for Taittinger, who celebrates him with a plaque decorated with the verses at the family’s chateau just outside Epernay.
Seeger was looking for the bohemian life in Paris but ended as a volunteer for France in the Great War. He died on the Western Front close to Champagne in 1916, but not before writing an ode to the “sweet wine of France that concentrates/The sunshine and the beauty of the world.”
Seeger already mourned “those whose blood, in pious duty shed/Hallows the soil where that same wine had birth.”
Even now it jars how close the horrors and joys of life stand side by side. Past the last vineyards close to Reims, cemeteries and monuments dot the landscape where thousands of crosses, German and French, stand with the same precision as the long rows of vines.
For Pol Roger, it is also that interplay of triumph and tragedy which must be savored when the 1914 bottle is auctioned on Friday.
The price is expected to go as high as 5,000 euros ($6,400), or some 700 euros a flute. The taste, however, won’t be anything like the full, yet crisp taste of the 2004 vintage.
“The bubbles that you know when you pour a glass have disappeared,” said de Billy. “The taste will be more coffee, more chocolate. To give you an image, it will be more like a Madeira or a Sherry.”
Yet even one century later, de Billy has to acknowledge the vintage is still strong enough to show its origins.
“You can feel a bit of fizziness on the tongue.”