In the third part of this historical series, we look back to the world of Champagne in the 1880’s.
The previous decade of the 1870’s had seen some fundamental changes to the landscape of Champagne production and consumption. No longer were people craving a sweetened heavy drink mighty enough to withstand the production process, but were now demanding a style similar to that which we enjoy today: light and refreshing and capable of expressing the subtle differences of a particular year.
Demand had begun to rise and producers were therefore enthusiastic to keep up the pace. The vintage of 1880 granted them the quality but, with only a small quantity being produced they were unable to capitalise on its success. Further disaster lay before them with the vintages of 1881 and 1882 as both were deemed failures.
All hopes were resting on the vintage of 1883, and with initial weather reports being of a positive nature, the summer sunshine was warmly greeted. It was, however, not enough to ripen the fruit to a point where it was considered to be of vintage quality. Under severe pressure from the lack of recent success and lack of available product, both producers and merchants went in to panic mode and were quite happy to receive and push through the ‘sub’ vintage of 1883 in order to keep the market stimulated and well fed.
As a juxtaposition to this side-lining of quality, an interesting parallel was the introduction of vintage branded corks. Even today this simple piece of the packaging jigsaw endorses a bottle of Champagne, acting as a guardian of quality and prevents any fraudulent activity in trying to pass off an inferior vintage as something more special. Perrier Jouét were one of the first producers to recognise this as a symbol of quality, branding the corks of their 1870 vintage and giving their customers a clear sign of provenance.
Many other shippers soon followed suit, with Heidsieck Monopole finally jumping on board with their 1892 vintage released in 1889. As a statistic worthy of the best pub quiz, the last shipper of them all to adorn their corks with the vintage year was Pommery who finally adopted the scheme with their 1892 vintage.
This shift to total product transparency cannot be understated. Up to this point wine connoisseurs were used to judging a wine by its visual quality and, as such, an 1874 would exhibit a mahogany streak, or an 1889 would have a golden green sheen. As production standardised and the quality between each vintage became less pronounced, many Champagnes looked increasingly the same from year to year.
After the run of poor harvests, the year of 1884 ended the bad spell and produced wines of the same excellent quality as 1880 but, in a welcome turn of events, in a much greater volume. Indeed if 1880 had been seen as the benchmark of the decade, 1884 would soon usurp it and, unlike the ‘flat’ long term ageing of the ‘80’s, the ‘84’s would see the century out.
Sadly though, just as the quality had been revived, the weather played its cruel twist and the next three vintages were deemed unsatisfactory and irregular. Although each of the vintages would have its own champion, the 1885 and 1886 both suffered from quantity and quality issues. The 1887 saw a step up from both of the previous years but still failed to make the ‘vintage’ level and rounded out a miserable trio for producers.
The quality of the 1888 grapes were only deemed as moderate and the size of the vintage recorded as the smallest on record. Producers had spent the best part of a decade weathering a particularly harsh storm and could probably well sympathise with Napoleon who was once quoted as saying “In victory, you deserve Champagne, in defeat, you need it”.
In the true tradition of the peaks and troughs of the Champagne story they went from disastrously bad to fortuitously good. The vintage of 1889 with its distinct balance, colouring and ageing potential was deemed the best wine of the decade. Even though small in quantity and coming as it did after several years of scarcity, this brought about a renewed vibrant market all of its own.
It wouldn’t be long before bottle prices would rise again.
I am indebted to the works of Mr. Andre Simon for inspiring the bringing of this historical information back to the public eye.