By way of introduction to my upcoming series of articles on the history of Dom Pérignon, I thought I would offer up some general notes on the Champagne region from the start of the 20th century, leading up to the first release. Hopefully this will act as a primer for the general mood of France at that time.
Champagne remains a by-word for special occasions, celebrations and good times, but travelling back in time 100 years shows the region ravaged by war, vine disease and poor harvests. Today, all of the big Champagne houses produce a Prestige Cuvée, a showcase for their top wines blended to perfection, and made in limited quantities. Back in the 1930’s it was unheard of. Dom Pérignon was the first and is arguably still the King of them all. In such a time of austerity, why were Moét & Chandon even thinking about launching such an extravagant product?
The harvest of 1899 had been excellent and spirits were high. The next two harvests produced pleasingly large yields, but the resulting grapes lacked the acidity needed for ageing and thus produced wines suitable only for short term consumption. Subsequently, the prices paid to growers began to tumble, all the way down to the level paid for grapes destined to make simple ‘Vin Ordinaire’. Fluctuating quality across each of the Champagne houses meant that the good wines had to be sought out amongst the bad, and consumers began to rely on their personal stocks.
With the notable exception of 1904 which produced a bumper crop of slow maturing wine, and a ‘good’ vintage in 1906, the next few years all produced failures at vintage time. This came to a head with the 1910 vintage, which was severely blighted by insects, mould and mildew. The net result of this was that, instead of producing the usual 30 million bottles of Champagne, they only produced circa 1 million. Producers needed a good vintage to stay in business, and they certainly got that in 1911, but the good fortune would come at a cost.
The Champenois are notorious to this day for protecting their brand, and it was around this time that the first formal land classifications were being drawn up as to what vines could be included as part of Champagne. Without any Grand or Premier Cru sites to its name, the southern area of Aube was excluded as being of a second standard. Soon after, the Government passed a bill to this effect and the understandably angered Aube vignerons went in to revolt around the rest of the region, destroying whatever came in to their sights. Needless to say, a worried government hastily annulled the original bill, but not before several people lost their lives, and land and vines had been burned. The Aube were finally officially admitted in to the region in 1927, but their primary function to this day is rounding out Champagne blends, existing as something of a minority partner.
No sooner was this internal conflict coming to a conclusion, the shadow of war arrived, bringing four years of massive destruction. France’s involvement in the First World War in 1914 came towards the end of a blisteringly hot summer, and the Germans had reached the vineyards before the first grapes had been picked. The vineyards initially survived the early part of the war intact; such was the belief by the invaders that they would soon be the owners of the land. Following two average years, the harvest of 1914 was desperately needed, but again came at a price.
Continuing business as usual meant that just being in the vineyards was dangerous work, and many women and children lost their lives there whilst the men were fighting and dying at the front. At the conclusion of the war, Champagne had lost half of its residents, literally wiping out a generation, and forty percent of its vineyards were ruined or poisoned from shelling. Now in desperate need of physically rebuilding itself, Champagne was also financially ruined with the treasuries having been looted. In addition, many thousands of bottles of champagne had been destroyed – either being given to French soldiers to boost morale, or drunk by the invading army.
Understandably, the vintages between 1914 and 1918 had all fared as either modest or poor, and produced less than average yields. Nearly three quarters of the best vineyards no longer existed, and what vines hadn’t been destroyed outright were dying a slow death, through either lack of labour, or materials such as fertiliser. Whilst the vineyards were ripped up and replaced, the difficulty of exporting any Champagne out of France meant that there was no shortage fulfilling the thirst of post war euphoria, and both the 1919 and 1920 vintages were immediately consumed. The build up of stocks further continued due to the loss of sales to a post-revolutionary Russia, and would soon be further affected by an America dry under Prohibition (1919-1933), and then in financial straits following the Wall Street Crash of 1929.
The 1920s only managed a handful of excellent vintages – The 1921, 1928 and 1929. All three of these years would eventually be made in to the first commercial releases of Dom Pérignon.
Recommended Further Reading:
‘The Great Wine Blight’ by George Ordish
‘Champagne – How the World’s Most Glamorous Wine Triumphed Over War and Hard Times’ by Don & Petie Kladstrup