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.
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.
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.