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!
Advertisements

1937 Dom Pérignon; Rogue or Reserved?

I was reading the website of Champagne expert Richard Juhlin recently whilst researching my on-going series of articles about the history of Dom Pérignon. Richard claims to be probably the only palate in the world to have tried every vintage of Dom, including the rare ‘not-quite’ year of 1926. What struck me of interest was that he also claims to have tried the 1937 which, according to Moét, never existed. 1937 was regarded as a top notch year for Champagne and Moét produced a standard Vintage, so a Prestige Cuvée was certainly on the cards, but who is right – Richard or Moét?

Dom Pérignon was first introduced in late 1936 to help perk up a depressed Champagne market following the austerity that began with the 1929 Wall Street crash. It would also help to slake the thirst of a newly invigorated US market following the end of prohibition in 1933.

It’s a rarity to have a vintage declared for standard Moét, without a corresponding one for Dom Pérignon, and there has only been a handful of times in the last 100 years when this has happened. The instant success of the first release of Dom meant that by the time of the 1937 harvest, Moét would clearly have been thinking about how they would present this 5-star vintage to market. So, based on that, 1937 Dom sounds like it should exist.

Playing devil’s advocate for a second, it would probably have made better sense for Moét to ensure that all they produced went in to the tried-and-tested Vintage wine which would be a definite seller, rather than diverting any in to a fledgling Prestige Cuvée. Moét were the first company to launch at the Prestige level, and the good demand for the first vintage could well have been a one-off – an enthusiastic response to a novelty product. There was simply no precedent at that time for them to fully gauge the on-going market.

In reality, they were able to hedge their bets somewhat as all wines were going in to standard Moét bottles, rather than any being placed in the distinctive green bottles used for Dom. Champagne goes through its’ 2nd fermentation in its bottle, but for the vintage years declared before the concept of Dom had been fully developed (i.e. any pre-1936) the liquid was simply transferred from their standard bottles in to the Dom ones. Even though the 1937 vintage obviously comes after the conception in 1936, it is unlikely that they had ordered multiple thousand custom bottles based on the sales of just one release.

It’s also interesting to ponder the impacts of the impending war, the signs of which had been on the horizon since the mid-1930’s. With the length of time needed to age a Prestige Cuvee in the cellars (at least 7 years) it is unlikely that Moét would want to tie up stock for any length of time. My conclusion is that by the time war broke out there were no specific bottles of 1937 Dom in the Moét cellars, but there was Moét 1937 which, if it survived, had the potential to be transferred to Dom bottles when ready for release to the market.

Nipping forward to the end of the war when sales of Dom Pérignon recommenced, the next 3 vintages (1928, 1929 and 1934) were released, but the company then skip on to the 1943. If the 1937 was ever to have hit the market it would have been at some point in the early 1950’s when perfectly good records for the surrounding vintages exist in the Moét archives. This tells us that it’s unlikely that the lack of paperwork is down to them being destroyed in the hostilities.

For a moment, let’s assume that it did exist, and Moét did have the foresight to put it in the iconic green bottles.  In the age of the internet, it’s very telling by itself that there are no pictures to be found of either bottles or labels for a 1937 Dom. It is possible that virtually every single bottle was either drunk or destroyed during the war as, once in occupation, the Germans were demanding something like 400,000 bottles of Champagne a week! The French vignerons were increasingly cunning with the way that they protected the wines in their cellars (thanks to the lessons learnt in the First World War), but the 1937 was still young and not yet ready to drink at the outbreak of war. Vignerons would have been far more likely to have been protecting older and more mature vintages.

1937 All

What clues can we get from any surviving bottles of 1937 Champagne? In the picture above we can see various bottles that survived (l-r Moét, Mumm, Bollinger, Veuve Clicquot), and experienced palate Michael Broadbent managed to get his hands on a few as he lists off tasting notes for several 1937’s in his thorough book ‘Vintage Wine’. With these varying survivors it seems extremely odd that no Dom Pérignon managed to.

1937 All v2

What’s interesting is that each of these labels have ‘Reserved for Allied Armies’ emblazoned across them. The Germans were really only interested in the mature vintages for themselves, and gave winemaker Otto Klaebisch the role (dubbed ‘Wine Fuhrer’) of ensuring that there was someone looking after both the quality and the quantity of what they looted. With the Germans not touching it, what seems more likely is that stocks of 1937, being allocated as they were to the Allies, were heavily depleted and there simply wasn’t enough to make both a vintage Moét and a Dom Pérignon.  Or, enough to make it worthwhile transferring what remained in to Dom Pérignon bottles.

To conclude, I think it’s unlikely that the 1937 Dom Pérignon ever existed and is therefore a rogue vintage, but am open to suggestion if others have any evidence to the contrary?

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!

The end of the beginning

Part 4 of my Dom Pérignon History Series

Many valuable lessons had been learned from the First World War, and it’s testament to many canny vintners that such large stocks of wine from the period between then and the end of the second war existed. This forward thinking included storing better vintages or large volumes of wine in spacious out of the way areas in their cellars, and then blocking them off behind false bricked walls. This allowed vast stores of bottles to escape the thirst of the invading German soldiers. The post war years saw a battered Champagne in a time of reflection and re-building that would take nearly twenty years to complete but, unlike the first war where they could only slake the local thirst, this time they had both large stocks, and a world market.

Both the now mature 1928 and 1929 vintages were waiting in the wings as was the 1934, and these were released one after the other in 1948, 1950 and 1951 respectively, really making a statement in the marketplace. The harvests for 1928 and 1929 had both commenced at the end of September but, whilst the 1928 only yielded an average crop (albeit of exceptional quality), the 1929 harvest had followed a glorious summer and it produced the largest crop since 1904. 1934 also saw a generously sized harvest, with rapid flowering from the good weather conditions, and no notable impact from disease or insects.

As you can see from the adverts below (dating from 1950 and 1951), the 1928 vintage sold out quickly, and that by the time the 1934 came on to the market in 1951, there were still stocks of the 1929 to push in conjunction. As mentioned above, the 1928 crop was only an average yield, but both the 1929 and 1934 were larger than normal in size. It’s important to remember that in these post-war years when sales were really starting to take off, the double bonus of a good vintage also being a large yielding year was extremely important to keep a producer in operation. Bearing that in mind, whilst it is strictly true, it’s interesting to note that both of these adverts use the words ‘limited quantities’, really pushing the wine as a rare thing. This follows through with the way the brand uses the heritage of Champagne, citing Dom Pérignon as the ‘father’ of it all, delivering the (now) well told tale of ‘drinking stars’, and even going as far as to label the wine as the ‘aristocrat of Champagne’! Very rich words for a Champagne only releasing its fourth vintage.

DPAdverts

Looking back at how the Champagne had performed over this period can easily be seen from their sales figures. When the 1921 was released in 1936 they initially had just the 100 cases sent to the USA. By the outbreak of war in 1939 when shipments ceased, this demand had increased three-fold. As sales resumed with the three new vintages, demand increased ten-fold on the original shipment, and by 1954 yearly sales sat at 1000 cases. By the beginning of the 1960’s this figure itself would further increase again (4500 cases in 1960, and 6000 cases in 1961).

Wine experts are in clear agreement that 1934 and 1937 were by far and away the best vintages for Champagne in the 1930’s, so why was no Dom Pérignon 1937 produced? Or was it produced? Whilst no paperwork exists in the Moét archives relating to the vintage, renowned Champagne expert Richard Juhlin claims to have tried it (in fact, he claims to be the only palate in the world to have tried every vintage of Dom Pérignon, including the rare 1926). Describing it as “very good”, he goes on to acknowledge that he is aware that it is a rogue vintage, yet finds it difficult to believe that the wine he tried, complete “with its original cork” isn’t genuine.

To try and qualify the tasting note, it’s interesting to offer that perhaps any paperwork relating to the harvest and blending slipped through the cracks during this time, either in the lead-up to war or during any periods of occupation. Given that the resulting wines would have been released sometime in the 1950’s when clear documentation exists this does seem unlikely (unless the invading forces drank virtually every bottle and it was never offered for sale). It’s also highly suspicious that no other bottles or label images for the 1937 have turned up, so a head scratcher it must remain.

Overall, less champagne was made during the Second World War, but both 1943 and 1945 were excellent years. Whilst the 1943 would go on to be released as a Dom Pérignon vintage, no 1945 Dom Pérignon was produced. As Moét released a Vintage Champagne for the year, it’s likely that this was simply down to the fact that the 1945 harvest produced only a small crop, and there wasn’t enough to go around.

A small point to note – there was no 1944 vintage as ordered in the UK sitcom Red Dwarf series 2 episode ‘Better than life’. Curiously, James Bond author Ian Fleming would also make a similar mistake, inventing the 1946 vintage in the paperback version of ‘Moonraker’, the third Bond book in the series, published in 1955. With this example I can only assume that at the time of writing (January/February 1954) Fleming was trying to keep Bond current by predicting the next vintage, which were running something like 10 years behind now that all the longer matured vintages were out on the market/sold. The ’43 came out in ’53, the ’45 in ’55, so it’s not unreasonable that he thought that the ’46 would be up next. As it transpired it was the 1947.

Anyway, I digress.

The 1943 appeared in 1953 (commanding $10.50 per bottle according to a US sales advert from the time), and was extra special for several reasons. Firstly, it contained a special label (the first of many!) commemorating the 200 year bicentenary since the Moét house was founded, proudly stating ‘Cuvée du Bicentenaire’ at the top of the shield. Secondly, the release was timed/coincided nicely with the UK Royal Coronation celebrations.  Elizabeth II had succeeded her late father, King George VI, the previous year, and she officially took the throne on the 2nd of June 1953 at Westminster Abbey.  At the Buckingham Palace ceremony that followed, the new Queen was served the 1943 Dom Pérignon.

Whilst that all makes nice easy reading, here’s where it gets a little more complicated. The last special thing to mention about the 1943 vintage is the subject of ‘transvasage’ – in essence the moving of liquid from one vessel to another. Dom Pérignon comes in the famous squat green bottles to mimic those from the late 18th century, and this was part of the luxury premise that Robert-Jean de Vogúé formulated in 1932 and finally released to market in 1936. This being the case though – how was it that the 1921, 1928, 1929, and 1934 vintages were already stored in those bottles when the time came to release them? A key element of the process of making Champagne (in the traditional French way) is that the wine undergoes its’ second fermentation in its own bottle, and they go to a lot of trouble to ensure that this is the case.  In order to keep the liquid inside whilst removing any remaining deposits or dead yeast cells (AKA the lees), the necks of the bottles are flash-frozen and the deposits expunged in a quick process known as disgorgement. This surely meant that the early vintages, bottled before Dom Pérignon was conceived, were stored and matured in the cellars in their standard Moét bottles? I certainly can’t think of another way that they could have been maturing wine in a special bottling years before the idea was mooted, and it makes sense that at some point, the original bottles were opened, and the liquid poured (or transvasaged, if you will) in to the special green bottles, ready for release as Dom Pérignon. I was very interested to read then, that Dom Pérignon winemaker Richard Geoffroy has never fully accepted the idea that the bottles were tranvasaged. No true evidence exists either for or against the idea (any invoices for thousands of green bottles would be a good start!), and so it technically remains a mystery.

It’s likely that the 1943 vintage also underwent the transvasage process. Even though Dom Pérignon had commenced production by this point, the war would probably have been driving different vineyard priorities. So, for me, it was the 1943 vintage that saw the end of the first era for the brand.

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!

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

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!