It’s always a sad day when you have to tip some wine down the sink. Whether it’s because the wine has become tainted, isn’t to your taste, or has been left open for too long, you inevitably arrive at the same on-the-spot decision: “Could I feasibly use this in some sort of cooking”. Pouring wine away feels such a waste.
One can only imagine then how famed Champagne producer Pol Roger felt back in February 1900. The bumper harvest of 1899, the first of decent size and quality in over 5 years, was safe in their underground cellars. A new century was dawning, and hope was high despite the prolonged period of heavy winter rains.
But as the soils became more and more waterlogged, two cellar floors (and several adjoining buildings) collapsed into each other burying an estimated 500 casks and 1.5million bottles. That’s a lot of wine down the drain.
A rescue operation was prepared but, when poor weather continued and a neighbouring cellar also caved in, plans were abandoned as being too risky. Having to make the best of the losses and soldier on Pol Roger built new and improved cellars, going from strength to strength across the century and are still remembered as being the go-to Champagne of ex-British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
The landslide could have become a mere footnote of Pol Roger’s history; indeed, much darker times were ahead with the destruction and looting stemming from two world wars but, like in the movies, some things don’t like to stay buried forever.
In 2018, the Pol Roger family were looking to build a new packing facility on the ground above the old cellars. Construction began, moving away layers of earth with the sort of heavy machinery that is standard practice today, but unthinkable in 1900.
The diggers came across a small cavity beneath the surface which was then widened to allow access. As well as much broken glass they were astonished to find a still intact bottle, then 6 more, and then a further 19 bottles.
Incredibly the corks were still in place and the amount of wine in each of the 26 bottles was as packaged. This meant that the liquid hadn’t been evaporating and the bottles remained airtight. There was every chance that they were still drinkable!
The family were now very excited to push on, but in a cruel mirroring of the original rescue plan, two months of heavy rain once again saturated the soils and made further rescue attempts impossible.
Not being defeated though, Pol Roger have now announced that they will be continuing the rescue operation with a remotely controlled robot guided through small discovery tunnels to see what’s left to discover. A far cry from the shovels originally used to try and dig the wine out.
How incredible would it be for them to raise a commercially viable number of bottles so that everyone could taste a 120-year-old Champagne?