The end of the beginning

Part 4 of my Dom Pérignon History Series

Many valuable lessons had been learned from the First World War, and it’s testament to many canny vintners that such large stocks of wine from the period between then and the end of the second war existed. This forward thinking included storing better vintages or large volumes of wine in spacious out of the way areas in their cellars, and then blocking them off behind false bricked walls. This allowed vast stores of bottles to escape the thirst of the invading German soldiers. The post war years saw a battered Champagne in a time of reflection and re-building that would take nearly twenty years to complete but, unlike the first war where they could only slake the local thirst, this time they had both large stocks, and a world market.

Both the now mature 1928 and 1929 vintages were waiting in the wings as was the 1934, and these were released one after the other in 1948, 1950 and 1951 respectively, really making a statement in the marketplace. The harvests for 1928 and 1929 had both commenced at the end of September but, whilst the 1928 only yielded an average crop (albeit of exceptional quality), the 1929 harvest had followed a glorious summer and it produced the largest crop since 1904. 1934 also saw a generously sized harvest, with rapid flowering from the good weather conditions, and no notable impact from disease or insects.

As you can see from the adverts below (dating from 1950 and 1951), the 1928 vintage sold out quickly, and that by the time the 1934 came on to the market in 1951, there were still stocks of the 1929 to push in conjunction. As mentioned above, the 1928 crop was only an average yield, but both the 1929 and 1934 were larger than normal in size. It’s important to remember that in these post-war years when sales were really starting to take off, the double bonus of a good vintage also being a large yielding year was extremely important to keep a producer in operation. Bearing that in mind, whilst it is strictly true, it’s interesting to note that both of these adverts use the words ‘limited quantities’, really pushing the wine as a rare thing. This follows through with the way the brand uses the heritage of Champagne, citing Dom Pérignon as the ‘father’ of it all, delivering the (now) well told tale of ‘drinking stars’, and even going as far as to label the wine as the ‘aristocrat of Champagne’! Very rich words for a Champagne only releasing its fourth vintage.

DPAdverts

Looking back at how the Champagne had performed over this period can easily be seen from their sales figures. When the 1921 was released in 1936 they initially had just the 100 cases sent to the USA. By the outbreak of war in 1939 when shipments ceased, this demand had increased three-fold. As sales resumed with the three new vintages, demand increased ten-fold on the original shipment, and by 1954 yearly sales sat at 1000 cases. By the beginning of the 1960’s this figure itself would further increase again (4500 cases in 1960, and 6000 cases in 1961).

Wine experts are in clear agreement that 1934 and 1937 were by far and away the best vintages for Champagne in the 1930’s, so why was no Dom Pérignon 1937 produced? Or was it produced? Whilst no paperwork exists in the Moét archives relating to the vintage, renowned Champagne expert Richard Juhlin claims to have tried it (in fact, he claims to be the only palate in the world to have tried every vintage of Dom Pérignon, including the rare 1926). Describing it as “very good”, he goes on to acknowledge that he is aware that it is a rogue vintage, yet finds it difficult to believe that the wine he tried, complete “with its original cork” isn’t genuine.

To try and qualify the tasting note, it’s interesting to offer that perhaps any paperwork relating to the harvest and blending slipped through the cracks during this time, either in the lead-up to war or during any periods of occupation. Given that the resulting wines would have been released sometime in the 1950’s when clear documentation exists this does seem unlikely (unless the invading forces drank virtually every bottle and it was never offered for sale). It’s also highly suspicious that no other bottles or label images for the 1937 have turned up, so a head scratcher it must remain.

Overall, less champagne was made during the Second World War, but both 1943 and 1945 were excellent years. Whilst the 1943 would go on to be released as a Dom Pérignon vintage, no 1945 Dom Pérignon was produced. As Moét released a Vintage Champagne for the year, it’s likely that this was simply down to the fact that the 1945 harvest produced only a small crop, and there wasn’t enough to go around.

A small point to note – there was no 1944 vintage as ordered in the UK sitcom Red Dwarf series 2 episode ‘Better than life’. Curiously, James Bond author Ian Fleming would also make a similar mistake, inventing the 1946 vintage in the paperback version of ‘Moonraker’, the third Bond book in the series, published in 1955. With this example I can only assume that at the time of writing (January/February 1954) Fleming was trying to keep Bond current by predicting the next vintage, which were running something like 10 years behind now that all the longer matured vintages were out on the market/sold. The ’43 came out in ’53, the ’45 in ’55, so it’s not unreasonable that he thought that the ’46 would be up next. As it transpired it was the 1947.

Anyway, I digress.

The 1943 appeared in 1953 (commanding $10.50 per bottle according to a US sales advert from the time), and was extra special for several reasons. Firstly, it contained a special label (the first of many!) commemorating the 200 year bicentenary since the Moét house was founded, proudly stating ‘Cuvée du Bicentenaire’ at the top of the shield. Secondly, the release was timed/coincided nicely with the UK Royal Coronation celebrations.  Elizabeth II had succeeded her late father, King George VI, the previous year, and she officially took the throne on the 2nd of June 1953 at Westminster Abbey.  At the Buckingham Palace ceremony that followed, the new Queen was served the 1943 Dom Pérignon.

Whilst that all makes nice easy reading, here’s where it gets a little more complicated. The last special thing to mention about the 1943 vintage is the subject of ‘transvasage’ – in essence the moving of liquid from one vessel to another. Dom Pérignon comes in the famous squat green bottles to mimic those from the late 18th century, and this was part of the luxury premise that Robert-Jean de Vogúé formulated in 1932 and finally released to market in 1936. This being the case though – how was it that the 1921, 1928, 1929, and 1934 vintages were already stored in those bottles when the time came to release them? A key element of the process of making Champagne (in the traditional French way) is that the wine undergoes its’ second fermentation in its own bottle, and they go to a lot of trouble to ensure that this is the case.  In order to keep the liquid inside whilst removing any remaining deposits or dead yeast cells (AKA the lees), the necks of the bottles are flash-frozen and the deposits expunged in a quick process known as disgorgement. This surely meant that the early vintages, bottled before Dom Pérignon was conceived, were stored and matured in the cellars in their standard Moét bottles? I certainly can’t think of another way that they could have been maturing wine in a special bottling years before the idea was mooted, and it makes sense that at some point, the original bottles were opened, and the liquid poured (or transvasaged, if you will) in to the special green bottles, ready for release as Dom Pérignon. I was very interested to read then, that Dom Pérignon winemaker Richard Geoffroy has never fully accepted the idea that the bottles were tranvasaged. No true evidence exists either for or against the idea (any invoices for thousands of green bottles would be a good start!), and so it technically remains a mystery.

It’s likely that the 1943 vintage also underwent the transvasage process. Even though Dom Pérignon had commenced production by this point, the war would probably have been driving different vineyard priorities. So, for me, it was the 1943 vintage that saw the end of the first era for the brand.

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