In the fourth part of this historical series, we look back to the world of Champagne at the start of the 1890’s.
The final decade of the 19th century was known by some as the ‘gay nineties’, a time of peace and prosperity where the notion of care-free enjoyment spread throughout the population. Catering for people who were keen to see and be seen, London was a vibrant hive of new restaurant openings including the Savoy in 1888 and the Trocadero in 1896. The thriving rail network was also growing in expanse and prominence, opening up socialising opportunities to an ever growing number of people in the provinces. When celebrating the good times there was only one drink to be seen with; Champagne.
If this all paints a rosy picture in England, for the French the beginning of the 1890’s would see their worst expectations realised, and the beginning of a battle that would haunt them for many years to come.
They would have begun the decade in an optimistic mood. The 1889 had been the best wine of recent times and, although it had only yielded a small crop, this scarcity led to higher prices achieved in the market which was clearly good news. In the end, they would need this extra revenue to carry them through the poor harvests of both 1890 and 1891, neither of which were considered of vintage quality. This process of taking the rough with the smooth was very much part of daily life for wine producers at this time, but there would have been one additional problem lurking in the back of their minds.
Thus far Champagne had managed to avoid the widespread devastation caused by Phylloxera (the vine destroying louse). Although most of France had already succumbed, the louse had yet to affect the northern French vineyards of the Loire and Champagne, as well as those in the lower half of Germany. Many believed that it was the cooler climates of these northern European sites that kept them safe but, as they would soon find out, they were wrong.
The Marne was the first area to report a problem. Champagne giant Moét & Chandon immediately bought the affected vineyard and burnt every last vine in an attempt to curtail the outbreak but it was too late. The only let-off they would get would be that the louse took it’s time with the Champagne vines, attacking at a much slower pace than elsewhere. By 1897 only 13 acres of vines had been affected but this figure would quickly rise to 90 acres the following year and balloon to 237 acres by the close of the decade. This meant that for all the usual struggles vignerons went through to get bottles of Champagne to the market, there was a constant backdrop of trying new pesticides, vineyard flooding and numerous other witches brews to drive the Phylloxera away.
1892 was one of the smallest vintages on record with only 12.7 million bottles produced. To put this in to context the yearly average at this time was just over 24 million bottles, so it was virtually half of what they needed to survive. Once again, this scarcity had an effect on bottle prices which steadily rose up as consumers continued celebrating the ‘good times’.
Quantity would be more than catered for with the harvest of 1893 which brought in a whopping 74 million bottles. Both the 1892 and 1893 were of vintage quality yet each completely distinct in terms of profile. Whilst the 1892 showed more under-ripe fruits and had a steely acidity, the 1893’s were well ripened and described as ‘luscious and delicious’. Over time though the 1892’s softened down and went on to be considered the better of the pair, with the 1893’s gaining a beeriness and dark gold colouring. It seemed as though their muscle had soon turned to fat.
The unwanted consequence of such a large volume of Champagne hitting the market at the same time meant that the price per bottle changed again – this time downwards. The persistent warm weather that had well ripened the fruit of 1893 had caused a drought in many of the Champagne vineyards, with the wells in some smaller villages drying up completely. With small farmers having little else to barter with it was said that if you were to deliver water supplies to these remote areas you would be paid with bottles of Champagne.
It may seem like a dream, but there truly was a time and a place where Champagne was cheaper than water.