Crisis 1865: 150 Years of Phylloxera #MWWC18

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The below essay is in response to the monthly wine writing challenge (#mwwc18). The subject matter for this month is ‘crisis’.

I’ve read a lot recently about Bordeaux being in crisis, and how another year has crept by with a less than successful En Primeur campaign. With the top rated vintages of 2009 and 2010 now slipping further away, many drinkers around the world are slowly losing faith in the once exalted wines, and are seeking solace elsewhere. Whilst it is true that the Bordeaux En Primeur campaign only features what amounts to a handful of estates, the knock on effect is felt further afield and, along with the Chinese-Bordeaux love affair significantly cooling of late, ‘Brand Bordeaux’ has taken a knock that will affect any producer in the wider area. Customers are therefore having to be creative about where they spend their wine money, and the net result actually forms a positive, giving a spectrum of other producers an opportunity to increase their sales. With the limited Burgundy production pretty much already spoken for, people are reported to have been gravitating towards the Rhone as a quality French alternative.

My point is thus: From within a crisis, lies opportunity.

In contrast to the big money, sprawling chateau and significant foreign investment we see today, at one time wine production in France could have been a byword for disaster. In fact, disaster is too small a word for it, and crisis is far better suited. The diminishing En Primeur interest is small fry compared to the destruction seen during the years of conflict and occupation of the first and second world wars. Not only were the dreams and potential of an entire generation wiped out in the battlefield, but also those of a younger generation, as many children died in the vineyards collecting the grapes to keep businesses afloat.

France was in serious trouble and, adding insult to injury, the scars of war followed another crisis that was only just being resolved. A crisis that, even 150 years after it first occurred, still influences pretty much every bottle of wine that we drink today. From pretty much anywhere in the world.

Phylloxera.

I’m sure most readers of a wine website will be familiar with its cause, the effects, and the struggle to understand and combat it (If not, there are a handful of very good books that go in to immense detail about it). What these books rarely touch on is the opportunities that came out of the biggest crisis ever to hit winemaking. With hindsight, and with the ability to leave aside the human factor (the vineyards grubbed up, lost fortunes, and broken livelihoods and the debate of whether the end justified the means), Vintners were able to start afresh. With this came the ability to re-choose, or simplify the varieties that they were growing, perhaps even planting to fashions of the day. It gave them the opportunity to re-think their plots, and perhaps move away from the plains on to hillside slopes. It allowed the botanists to further their understanding in to the lifecycle of vineyard pests and what a vine needs to survive. It developed the concept of grafting vines, which is still practised today to be able to quickly change which varietals are being grown. In a perverse way, it even fuelled the notion of a wine nirvana – the untouchable ‘pre-phylloxera’ wine, which creates interest at auction, or provides a unique selling point. Champagne such as Krug’s Clos du Mesnil, for example, comes from a tiny walled and un-grafted plot, and because of this very fact sell for hundreds of pounds per bottle. The even rarer Clos d’Ambonnay can sell for thousands per bottle.

Following Phlloxera, and the destruction of thousands of hectares of French vineyards, cheap wines were imported from Spain and re-labelled as French, in order to satisfy the continuing customer demand. To stop this adulteration and to control production levels, the appellation contróllée system was developed and introduced. This fierce protection of place spearheaded by France has been now copied in virtually every part of the winemaking world, from American AVA’s to the German Pradikat system. If it wasn’t for Phylloxera, the appellation system may never have been developed, certainly not as early as it was, and perhaps even the notion of terroir would not be so prevalent.

Of course the stringent (certainly in France) appellation system has its critics, and I look on with amusement as the infant English wine market already looks to impose strict boundaries on production (based on county divisions as opposed to anything terroir linked). What does make Sussex better than Kent? Perhaps Kent will then try harder than Sussex, and go on to produce better wine?

From one big crisis 150 years ago, come so many opportunities.

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The name’s Pérignon, Dom Pérignon

Part 5 of my Dom Pérignon History Series

The 1950’s saw a post war boom in production and consumerism when rationing ceased and materials became available again. The optimism for the future, and introduction of inventions that would revolutionise the household (Television, Refrigerators etc) changed how people shopped, and what they shopped for. With paper shortages a thing of the past, lifestyle magazines became an ever present staple in the house, and Dom Pérignon were in from the start, advertising their 1929 and 1934 vintages in print in 1950/51. Sales began to rise accordingly (see previous chapter for figures).

The next vintage up for release was the perfect harvest of 1947. Picking of the grapes had started on the 5th of September that year, making it the earliest harvest since 1893. The 1955 release of the 1947 vintage was a first for the brand as it represented the first original blend made to a Dom Pérignon ‘style’ (previously released vintages had essentially been extra matured Moét champagne transferred to the DP style bottles). They would also fall in to the vintage/release cycle that is still going to this day for the standard vintage releases. Wines in their first plenitude of readiness will be offered to market after maturing in the cool chalk cellars for between 6 and 9 years.

With the brand now being fermented in their own bottles for the first time, and with glass shortages a thing of the past, the 1947 vintage was the first to be made available in magnums (1.5 litres, equivalent to 2 standard bottles). Bottle sizes were further diversified in 1949 with the double magnum being re-christened the Jeroboam, and the addition of larger sizes such as the Methuselah. The naming conventions all derived from biblical references with grand connotations, but it would be many years before the King of Champagnes Dom Pérignon would be released in either of these larger sizes. Importantly, the 1947 vintage also marked the first time that the brand was made commercially available outside of the US market.

The next vintage declared good enough for a Dom Pérignon release was the 1949. Harvest that year commenced on the 19th of September, and concluded quickly as rot threatened to destroy the grapes. Thankfully, due to the speed of picking, losses were minimal, and the vintage was released in 1957.

Late 50s Ad      Late 1950’s print advert for DP 1949

The next two harvests saw poor weather in the Champagne region, and 1952 didn’t immediately look like it was going to be any better, with harvesting commencing on the 8th of September in unfavourable conditions which continued throughout picking. The resulting dark amber wines were on the austere side and quite restrained/closed on their release in 1958 after just 6 years of cellaring. Rather than the characteristic toast, cream, bread and honey delivered by an atypical Dom Pérignon, the resulting wines erred towards deeper notes of meat, truffles and leather, and it seems a wonder that 1952 was declared a vintage at all. Roger Moore’s characterisation of James Bond seemed to enjoy it though, in the film ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’.

The 1953 vintage was up next with a harvest that began on the 15th of September. Following an uneven flowering, the good weather seen in August continued throughout September, producing a healthy crop. Champagne was an integral part of the glamour associated with the last ‘Golden age of Hollywood’ and actress Marilyn Monroe would cite the 1953 as her favourite vintage of Dom Pérignon. Indeed it was rumoured that at her last official photo shoot for Vogue magazine 6 weeks before her death (taken by photographer Bert Stern and posthumously released entitled The Last Sitting’) Marilyn drank three bottles of the 1953 to help her get through the sessions.

The brand was also getting a helpful boost by the big screen adaptations of the aforementioned James Bond paperbacks, and virtually all of the earlier movies had Bond drinking Dom Pérignon somewhere along the line. The first Bond film ‘Dr No’ (released 1962) is right up to date with the villainous Dr No opting to serve the current 1955 vintage, only for Bond to say he prefers the 1953. The harvest of 1955 began at the beginning of October, and produced a bumper crop ahead of all expectations. It has been widely hailed by many critics as the greatest vintage of the 50’s, and is described by current Dom Pérignon winemaker Richard Geoffroy as “the archetype of the classical vintage”. Is this one instance where Mr Bond was wrong? Interestingly Bond is still drinking his preferred 1953 in the film ‘Goldfinger’ (released 1964), but has moved on to the 1955 vintage in ‘Thunderball’ (released 1965).

Bond was certainly on poor form in the 1969 film ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’, ordering a vintage which didn’t exist. He erroneously asks for the 1957 which was a disastrous harvest ruined by frosts that reduced crops by as much as 75%. Given that the film was made in 1968 at a point when later vintages had already been released, this looks like a serious error in research by the production team (Moét have confirmed they only found about the reference once the film was released). Perhaps it is fitting that George Lazenby, whose sole appearance as 007 is largely viewed as a mis-step by the franchise, drinks the 1957 Dom Pérignon which also didn’t quite make the grade?

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Missing in action

With wine being such an everyday commodity, I find it fascinating that there’s the prospect of trying a magical elixir that we may never have been able to taste. The quest to taste the mythical ‘untainted’ pre-Phylloxera wines is something of a holy grail for both wine professionals and amateurs alike but, as time goes on its less and less likely that the opportunities will arise. There is an easy way, however, of getting a piece of the action when it comes to rare wine.

Something becoming increasingly common is the resurrection of lost or believed extinct grape varieties. In a market that probably doesn’t need another Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay, searching out these obscure varieties can be a clear path to creating a unique wine that really stands out. For me the quest conjures up images of an Indiana Jones type character searching around distant fields in forgotten towns – perhaps talking to old locals in the hope that one of them remembers an elderly man who once had a vineyard. Now this may sound either dramatic or romantic (or both), but with the wine industry going through several reboots due to issues like Phylloxera or prohibition, the world markets stopped and started. This meant that plantings were grubbed up or even abandoned, and it’s finding these forgotten outposts that is the gateway to tasting wine from another time.

A book entitled ‘The Wild Vine’ by author Todd Kliman follows the near extinction of the Norton grape variety, which hailed from the US state of Virginia. Once upon a time at the 1873 Vienna convention, a bottle of Norton was awarded the very grand sounding award for ‘Best red wine of all nations’. In spite of this, fate had a different idea and Norton was forgotten. It was re-discovered in 1965, and with the persistence of grape crusader Jenni McCloud, it has come back from the brink and is now considered to be the only American vine variety good enough to make premium wine.

Legendary Spanish wine producer Miguel Torres is also striving to rediscover lost vines. As part of a caretaking exercise to respect and understand the tradition and history of his region, Miguel began placing advertisements in the local Barcelona press asking if anyone knew of any obscure varieties being made in vineyard outposts. Fast forward to today and Torres lays claim to have resurrected 45 grape varieties from obscurity since 1984. Certainly the last couple of times I’ve tasted through their ranges at wine fairs, they’ve included some weird wonders such as Querol, or the Samso and Garro varieties blended in to their Grans Muralles.

Now you may be thinking that this is all very well, but you’re unlikely to bump in to any of these grape varieties with ease and be able to taste them. You may be surprised then, to hear that there are some grape varieties saved from near extinction that are widely available in any reasonable supermarket selection. Potentially you may even have a bottle of them in the house now!

Viognier is a grape hailing from the Northern Rhone in France, and whilst today it is common (France had 4,395 hectares (10,869 acres) given over to Viognier in 2009), it’s astonishing to think that as recently as 1965 plantings had dwindled to just 14 hectares (35 acres). That’s roughly the size of 27 football pitches, and could have been 100% wiped out by just one bad frost or serious hail shower. The Viognier vine has a tendency to suffer from coulure (the failure of grape development following flowering) and was prone to providing low yields, and so many farmers simply gave up and moved on to easier to handle varieties. To see its’ resurgence is remarkable, and it’s now produced across the globe, faring well in diverse regions such the USA, Australia and New Zealand.

And then there’s Carménère. This Bordeaux variety disappeared following the outbreak of Phylloxera (for the same reasons as Viognier), and was thought lost forever. Thankfully it was later discovered thriving in Chile where it was mistakenly thought to have been Merlot.

Incidentally, whilst some regions do have smatterings of plantings that managed to escape Phylloxera, as Chile is surrounded by either desert, sea or mountains, it’s one of the few wine producing countries not to have seen the Phylloxera outbreak. As the Bordeaux varieties were imported from France before they themselves suffered from Phylloxera, Chile still grow grapes on ungrafted vines, and therefore they are probably your best bet today of trying a ‘pre-Phylloxera’ wine. Obviously production methods, wine style and all sorts of other aspects have changed over the years, so I only mention it with tongue planted firmly in cheek.

Everyone loves an underdog story, and whenever I see or get to taste a Viognier or Carménère I tend to go for it. It reminds me that I may not have had the opportunity to do so, if things had been only slightly different.

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The ‘Lost’ wine region

For some time now I’ve been intrigued by the ‘Kimmeridgian Chain’ – numerous vineyards set within a belt of distinct soil (AKA Terres Blanches), that diagonally cuts its’ way across northern France (see picture below). The belt itself is a by-product of a geological feature known as the Paris basin – plates of land staggering progressively inwards. As part of this sagging process, a defined strata of land became exposed between two layers; an older Jurassic era ridge of crushed marine deposits, comprising a hard limestone top on a chalky marl base (marl is composed of lime-rich clay and silt). The name Kimmeridgian is said to originate from the village of Kimmeridge in Dorset,England where there is a well exposed coastline of similar age and soil composition.

map b

The distinct soil mix brings differing attributes to resulting wines, even those produced in the same wine regions, but not within the belt. In some cases, different grape varieties are used to compliment the soil variation. This being the case, why were these unique vineyards simply swallowed up in to other wine regions? Regions that are many miles away, across land not used for viticulture. Given that the French invented the concept of terroir – that the place is so important to the wines it produces – and that the French have the most delineated wine/land appellation system in the world, why were these areas not grouped together by themselves to form a new region?

Within this belt we find:

– The Aube – The southern vineyards of the Champagne region

– Central Vineyards (AKA Sancerre, Pouilly, and several other village sites) – The eastern end of the Loire

– Chablis – The extreme northern part of Burgundy

Parent region has had little effect on the reputations of world famous places such as Sancerre, Pouilly (as in Fumé) and Chablis. This fame though, is largely down to the unique expressions of the crisp white wines produced, and this stems from the unique soil. Chablis sits 75 vine-free miles north of the Cóte de Nuits in Burgundy, and the towns of Sancerre/Pouilly are about the same distance away from the next vines in the Loire. With the Loire valley being over 170 miles in length you will naturally find numerous grape varieties, soil types, and even climatic influences, but Sancerre/Pouilly find themselves planted over to Sauvignon Blanc/Pinot Noir as opposed to the main Loire white/red varieties of Chenin Blanc/Cabernet Franc. As the soils along the banks of the river have a greater composition of rock/schist compared to the chain, different varieties thrive. Co-incidentally, Decanter recently ran a feature on the red wines of Sancerre, suggesting they were more Burgundian in style, and unlike any red you would associate with the Loire.

In Chablis, they may use the Burgundian variety of Chardonnay, but they produce a very different style of wine. Chablis is widely respected for its crisp mineral whites full of refreshing acidity, and linear precision. This is streets away from the archetypal Burgundian Chardonnay; a deep brooding body with creamy/buttery textures from subtle oak barrel influence. Again this comes from differing production methods (favouring Stainless steel as opposed to barrel), and the unique terroir – the Chardonnay grape working magnificently on the cold limestone and clay.

It’s a different story when we look at the Aube in southern Champagne, as they haven’t yet managed to find real fame on their own merit. Just over 100 years ago, The Champenois – notorious for protecting their brand – drew up their permitted production zones, and excluded the Aube on the basis that their grapes were of a second standard (they had no Premier or Grand Cru sites). The Government even went as far as passing a bill to that effect but, unsurprisingly, this didn’t go down well with Aube vignerons, and the rioting that followed in 1911 saw a worried government hastily annul the original bill. The Aube were finally officially admitted in to the region in 1927, but their role has simply been to provide the grapes to round out Champagne blends. If the Aube vignerons hadn’t persisted in the uphill battle to be part of a region that was so dismissive of it, could they have pushed harder with their wines, achieving better than just producing grapes suitable to only form part of a blend? Being mainly planted to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, both key components of Champagne, but having the clay based soil of the Kimmeridgian chain instead of the deep chalk found elsewhere in Champagne, they’re capable of producing a Pinot more Burgundian in style. A feature late last year by US publication Wine Spectator suggests that wines from the Aube are on the up, but time will tell.

Should these villages have historically clubbed together and formed a mini-region of their own to produce world class Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot and Chardonnay to rival their Burgundian neighbour? Perhaps, due to the fact that quality will always shine through, maybe it hasn’t mattered in which region they sit. It’s interesting to ponder.

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Painting a picture

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

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