Champagne in the 1880’s

In the third part of this historical series, we look back to the world of Champagne in the 1880’s.

Old Champs

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.

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Champagne in the 1870’s – A double-edged sword

In the second part of this historical series, we look back to the world of Champagne in the 1870’s.

Champagne in the 1860’s saw the roots of style and prestige sown, and customer interest began to grow once producers had managed to deliver larger volumes of a sustainable product.

What they still hadn’t managed to crack though were the natural weather elements that winemakers now routinely correct with a standard toolkit.  This runs the gamut of the entire growing process beginning with different trellising systems to help the vines avoid frost damage, the use of chemicals and pesticides to keep fungus, disease or pests away, all the way through to the tinkering that can be done in the winery to ensure a balanced product is achieved year after year.

Bleak Champs

At the start of the 1870’s, winemakers would have been optimistic for the new decade.  Although 1869 hadn’t been an impressive vintage they were still basking in the success of the classic 1868, and the changeover from the old fashioned sweet Champagne style to the now classic dry style had begun.  Added to this sales were steadily beginning to rise, helping to keep their businesses ticking over in times of poor harvest.  The year of 1870 was one of those harvests where vintners would have been perturbed as, through careful selection to remove blighted grapes, they were able to produce wine of a good standard, but in only limited quantities.

When producing less volume whilst continuing to have all of the associated costs of a large crop it was a natural first step to increase bottle prices; after all, the market seemed to be increasingly buoyant.  There was one further factor to consider though, and this was the Franco-Prussian war which had broken out in the July of that year.  This uncertainty threatened the economic stability of the country and there was the real chance that, having now managed to bring a product to market, demand would be hampered with people tightening their financial belts.  Happily, the scarcity of the wine and a general understanding on the public’s part of the production risks in a time of war, meant that the market bore the higher prices regardless.  The smaller crop had come to the rescue.

Although they would be quite unaware at the time, this would be where their luck ended, and this smaller volume of higher priced wine would need to support their businesses for some years to come.  1871, 1872 and 1873 were all poor years, getting gradually worse with each harvest, and ending with a poor crop that was only one third of the size of a standard year.  Those growers and producers who managed to weather the storm desperately needed a good vintage, and they were rewarded with the magnificent 1874.

The sun was constantly shining throughout the summer and the resultant grapes were so ripe that the wines took on a deep, dark texture.  It was said that this ‘mahogany streak’ meant that it was easy to spot when the 1874 vintage was served to you, so distinctive was the colouring.  Being the first excellent vintage of the decade, this was also the turning point (see previous article) where the sugar levels were not heavily topped up and the drier style was born.

RueDlaAbbeye

The good times continued with the 1875 vintage which turned out to be the most prolific of the entire 19th century.  Approximately 98 million bottles were produced in the entire Champagne region (2.5 times bigger than the 37 million bottles of excellent 1874), and with most of it being of a good quality, it certainly held its own.

Conversely this bumper crop was both the making and the undoing of the year as, with such a deluge of grapes having been picked, the prices that the growers could achieve from them was severely diluted.  What this meant in real terms was that the winemakers were actually getting roughly just under half as much money per gallon as they had been paid for the 1873, and that was a significantly poorer wine.

Both 1876 and 1877 continued to give larger than average crops but they were not of vintage standard and deemed as failures.  The overall quality of the wine was thin and overly acidic in nature and therefore wouldn’t fare well in the ageing process.  Perhaps it is a little ironic that, at a time when Champagne had turned its back on a sugary sweet style, this may have been the one thing that could have saved the thin year?

Continuing the fluctuation between good and bad, 1878 was a healthy crop in both size and quality, but was followed by the 1879 which turned out to be the smallest vintage on record (at that time).  Although the quality of the wine was deemed as moderate, the scarcity of the product (less than 10 million bottles for the whole of Champagne!) came to its rescue again and resulted in both higher prices and strong market demand.

As the next decade loomed, growers and producers would have been no more certain of what fate awaited them, still being entirely at the mercy of the elements, continual political tensions, and a market that may finally be broken by price.

I am indebted to the works of Mr. Andre Simon for inspiring the bringing of this historical information back to the public eye.

Enjoyed this article?  Please take a moment to ‘Like’ and share using the buttons below. Keep looking around my site for more of the same.  Cheers!