Champagne in the 1890’s (Part 2)

In this fifth and final part of my historical series, we look back to the world of Champagne at the end of the 1890’s.

The vintages of both 1894 and 1895 were poor, but whilst the former year went universally undeclared, several of the better growers attempted to salvage something from the latter.

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From a weather point of view growers would have been glad to see the back of the damp dismal spring conditions which saw much of the crop blighted by mildew.  By harvest time the sun was shining again and spurred some of the better growths to attempt a Vintage wine.  Many of the lesser growths avoided the exercise, probably all too aware that there was still a substantial amount of the massive (and better quality) 1893 Vintage still in the market place.  In time they would be the ones shown to be vindicated.

Only those who purchased and quickly consumed the wine would manage to avoid a sediment that many of the bottles gave off, even with just a small amount of ageing time.  The particles and their associated ‘smoky’ quality completely ruined the crystal clear aesthetic that consumers had come to expect and, even though the wines tasted fair, in the end much of it was returned to the shippers as ‘faulty’.

One London entrepreneur, keen to capitalise on the situation, was reported as foregoing his opportunity to return the bottles for a full refund (plus interest) and sold on the 1895 vintage as either ‘thick’ or ‘clear’.  With the thicker wine sold at a slightly cheaper price-point to acknowledge the quality difference, this was a very early example of giving the customers the option of tasting Champagne in varying styles.  The experiment worked and despite him technically only having half of his stock in saleable condition he soon sold out of his allocation completely.

1896 provided a yield as prolific as the 1893 but unfortunately it did not have the quality to match and was not offered as a vintage Champagne.  1897 was an even worse failure being only of average quality and with a tiny yield akin to the low level of the 1892.

Whilst 1898 saw an average sized yield, quality ranged from very good to very poor which created something of a mixed final product.  Only those shippers who were prepared to sacrifice any harm to their reputation in favour of having a product in the market after several lean years shipped this as a Vintage year.

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As if to save the best for last, the final year of the decade (and indeed the century) saw wines of great quality produced.  The 1899 was a spectacular return to a quality not seen since 1892, but like this earlier vintage it also only delivered the quality in a small yield.  The forefather of modern wine writing Andre Simon described it as having the greenish tint of ‘Australian gold’ (as opposed to the reddish gold of a UK sovereign), and that it had a finality of expression unlike any other.  In addition, due to the fact that good quality Champagne had been some years in coming forward, merchants were happy to keep prices realistic and even swallowed a duty rise of 5 shillings per bottle up to 7 shillings per bottle so that they could keep their allocations.

Due to a strange quirk of fate and in spite of the demand it wasn’t just the limited number of bottles available that meant that this great wine would disappear from shelves fairly quickly. As they sat ageing in the cellars the Vintage of 1900 came along and being of equal quality and of much greater quantity it was widely favoured over the 1899.

At this point in time, due to the varying weather conditions seen from year to year, in was unlikely that you would get a Vintage release in consecutive years.  It even became something of an unwritten rule in the industry that consecutive vintages would not be released as it would help to preserve the notion that any declarations reflected the pinnacle of a growers offerings.  It seems unthinkable today that such a good wine would be kept aside when there was a perfectly good market awaiting it although it does occasionally happen (the 1990 over-shadowing the also great 1989 vintage is one recent example).

This side-stepping of a Vintage could have marked a somewhat muted end to the century that had seen Champagne come of age, but with exports to the UK higher than ever before (10 million bottles shipped across), producers would have been content enough.

The following century, which saw Phylloxera finally taking hold and the physical destruction and financial instability caused by both World Wars, was now only just a blur on the horizon.

That, as they say, is another story.

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Champagne in the 1890’s (Part 1)

In the fourth part of this historical series, we look back to the world of Champagne at the start of the 1890’s.

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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.

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