do not give champagne the cold shoulder
Churchill with favorite
horse Pol Roger
WORLD AWASH IN CHAMPAGNE
by Jean-Pierre Jumez
has now become phenomenally popular just about everywhere in the world.
The drinks delightful taste and the uplift it gives certainly go a long
way toward explaining this popularity. But the champagne success story
is also the tale of those pioneers whose job it was to sell the bubbly
In France as in other countries, champagne is often drunk on special occasions
where it spells merriment and togetherness. This is no mere accident,
however, but the result of an extraordinary sales pitch. The Champenois,
as the inhabitants of the Champagne area are called, were specialists
in marketing long before the word itself was coined. Competing with one
another in far-flung corners of the globe, champagne salesmen in the nineteenth
century pulled out all the stops to promote their beloved product. If
some organized lavish banquets, during which, bien sûr, champagne
flowed like the River Seine, then their competitors had to go one better
by staging star-studded shows at the same time.
Of kings and champagnes
gimmicks were used. One export whizzkid rode from Paris to Moscow on a
white horse to promote his particular brand, and another covered himself
in diamonds before giving thousands of bottles away Io New York's Delmonico
Champagne soon became the drink of royalty. As far back as the eighteenth
century Czar Otto was supplied by Ruinard, the oldest of all champagne
firms. The following century Czar Alexander II sent his winemaster to
Louis Roederer's to oversee the annual composition of his own special
champagne. On a visit to Paris in 1876, the Czar noticed that when champagne
was served, a linen cloth was always wrapped around the bottle. This meant
that he couldn't show off the label of his own brand to his dinner guests.
His Imperial Majesty therefore ordered crystal bottles to be made, the
necks of which became an infallible means of identification. Thus was
born "Cristal Roederer", whose bottle has remained unchanged
to this day.
some producers were busy on the Russian front, other had heard the sirens
sing "Go west, young man". The American champagne odyssey often
reads more like a far fetched novel than the real life story of travelling
salesmen. This couldn't be truer than for the incredible adventures of
champagne pioneer Charles Camille Heidsieck, probably the first Frenchman
to explore and exploit the US market.
Charles Camille soon became a popular figure in the United States thanks
in part to his prowess... as a hunter! He was given the nickname "Champagne
Man" before being immortalized in the New York ditty "Champagne
Charlie is my name."
During his third visit in 1862, things got a little complicated for him.
In the midst of the Civil War, Charles Camille was asked to deliver some
French diplomatic mail to the South. Arrested in Mobile, Alabama, he was
incarcerated by General Butler in the infamous Fort Jackson jail. He was
freed four months later on the personal request of Abraham Lincoln, but
a furious Butler sent trigger men hot on his trail. When he got wind of
what was in store for him, Charles Camille decided to set sail for France,
even though he was trying to get business back on its feet after the serious
setbacks caused by the War and his own imprisonment. He also left behind
him recently acquired and very extensive lands in Colorado.
Some time after he got back to France in 1870, the situation was not much
better as the county was torn apart by a war with Prussia. Things certainly
did not augur well for the champagne trade! With a rough share of bad
luck on both sides of the Atlantic, Charles-Camille couldn't see how he
was going to pay off the huge debts he had contracted. It was then that
he heard that his lands in Colorado were situated on the site of the booming
State capital, Denver, and that properly managed, they would enable him
to get the firm out of debt. Charles-Camille's two children, after their
father's death, did just that. But not only did they get the firm out
of the red, they also tried to make a comeback in America.
Meanwhile, though, other champagne producers had understood just how important
the American market had become and they had been quick to make their presence
felt across the Atlantic. If Charles Heidsieck champagne could no longer
reap the rewards of a virtually virgin market, then there remained one
weapon at its disposal that competitors had to reckon with superior quality.
first bottle of Pol Roger champagne ever exported was to England. During
the course of a dinner in 1944 at the British Embassy in Paris, Winston
Churchill met the glamorous Odette Pol-Roger and soon became Pol-Roger's
bestknown rowing ambassador. His preferred vintages were the great 1924,
1928 and 1947 ones whose sediment was especially removed for him. He drank
the 1947 vintage throughout the rest of his life.
Mumm's Paris agent, Mr. Jourdan, the legendary "Welby" spent
an enormous amount of energy in getting his brand to the top. He prided
himself on having drunk 40.000 bottles of champagne -- Mumm, naturally
-- over the course of his 94 years.
In the nineteenth century, the final assemblage (blend*) was made according
to specific foreign tastes. Russian customers craved after really syrupy
wines with 275 to 300 grams of sugar per bottle. "American style"
champagne had 110 to 165 grains, "English style" only 21 to
66 grains and "French style", sold in France and everywhere
else, had 165 to 200 grams per bottle, that is, fifteen to twenty times
more than brut champagne today.
Follow-up on history
sales abroad have followed the ups and downs of history. Veuve Clicquot
had to break Napoleon's blockade to reach her English customers. Not surprisingly,
1917 was not the test year for exports to Russia! Canadian "dry conditions"
and total US prohibition in 1919 did not help matters either. But very
soon after, sales shot up on the tiny French islands of Saint Pierre and
Miquelon off the Newfoundland coast, and the same thing happened in The
Bahamas, Bermuda and Mexico... quite by accident, of course!
Champagne producers have often shown their mettle in tunes of hardship.
During the First World War, the wife of Joseph Krug (himself a prisoner
of the Germans) became a director of the Red Cross, but that didn't stop
her from seeing to the affairs of the family firm. Unfortunately, some
of the vineyards, where white chardonnay grapes were grown, and which
were traditionally used for making Krug champagne, were no longer accessible.
Madame Krug decided to make do with grapes -- mostly of the black pinot
noir variety -- from the nearby Viner-Marmery vineyard, making that year's
wine a bit short on juice from chardonnay grapes. The outcome was quite
unexpected, as a telegram sent by Krug's British distributor shows. "1915
vintage exceptional STOP Almost sold out STOP".
champagne on a grand scale sometimes involves major transportation and
customs mishaps. In 1957, fifty sealed cases of Joseph Perrier Champagne
were delivered to Puerto Rico. When the customers opened their crates,
they found them full of pebbles and straw. After an exhaustive enquiry
that lasted years, it was finally discovered that the sailors aboard the
Sobrino de Izquierda had had a very merry crossing! They had carefully
taken out some of the nails from just one of the wooden slats on each
crate and then broke the first bottle they saw inside to enable the others
to slip out!
In Africa, champagne is not always served as cold as it should be. Nevertheless,
customs officials sometimes decide to give it the cold shoulder instead.
In the 1970's, a complete cargo of Bricout had the misfortune to be shipped
to the port of Cotonou while the country was in the midst of changing
its naùe from Dahomey to Benin. The old name "Dahomey"
had been stamped on the crates, which meant that they were not accepted
by local customs officials. A registered letter was sent to the Paris
exporter, demanding a daily penalty amounting to 25% of the total value
of the goods. The letter took ten days to arrive...
Traditional methods of promoting champagne are still very much in' use.
Jacquart champagne, for instance, has become the official champagne of
the Court of Prince Hans Adam of Liechtenstein. A "Champagner Platz"
has even been inaugurated in the principality's capital, Vaduz, and a
special monumental stone from the Jacquart vineyards now decorates the
best restaurant in town, the Real (three stars in Michelin).
firms such as Cartier, Lancel or Vuitton know only too well, imitation
is a form of flattery. A host of different names is found on the bottles
of fizzy wines produced under all latitudes. Some countries have decided
to pass laws controlling the appellations of such wines, and so we now
have German Sekt, Italian Spumante, Spanish Cava and US sparkling wines.
However, the term "Champagneskoi" is still printed on Soviet
labels (even if it's in Cyrillic characters) and the word "Champagne"
even appears on bottles produced in certain far-off countries which do
not hesitate to slap punitive taxes on the genuine French product. Within
the European community it is now forbidden to apply the méthode
champenoise to wines not originating from the Champagne area. But there
is really no substitute for champagne.
factors determine the quality of a wine: the soil, grape variety, microclimatic
conditions and human skillfulness. The geology of the Champagne area is
very special. The soil is composed of chalk, so the vines draw very few
nutrients from the ground. It is also in this thick layer of chalk that
the labyrinthine champagne cellars have been hewn. The region's soil,
plus the north facing slopes where the vines are planted, mean that the
pinot noir grapes, (the same variety as used for red burgundy wines) have
less color than they do elsewhere and that the chardonnay grapes (the
same ones that give white burgundies) are more acidic. As for making champagne,
the locals have certainly had enough time to perfect their techniques
since the days when the monk Dom Pérignon first came up with the
méthode champenoise nearly three centuries ago.
But if producers have no need to worry about the quality of their wine,
they are concerned that demand might soon outstrip supply in an increasingly
champagne-thirsty world. 250 million bottles are now produced each year
from 60,000 acres of vineyards. Faced with these relatively cramped conditions,
major Champagne producers are now buying up and exploiting vineyards abroad,
with the result that these marketing magicians have now become their own
competitors! Bollinger, which exports 82% of its production mostly to
the United States, Australia and Great Britain (where the firm is official
purveyor Io Her Majesty The Queen), has a 10% stake in a five hundred
acre vineyard in the Napa Valley. It also owns 37% of the Australian wine
producer Petaluma. Since 1973, Moët et Chandon has invested in the
Napa Valley too and the firm also controls more than half the sparkling
wine market in Argentina. With further interests in Australia and Spain,
Moët et Chandon had a total output of nearly five and a half million
bottles of wine in 1988.
as we can see, a joyful blend of emulation, competition and effervescent
free marketeering has accompanied champagne sales abroad, which is really
just as it should be for the glamorous star of French wines!
*N.B.: '89 has made history, both for the bicentenary
celebration and the birth of one of the greatest champagne vintages ever.
A votre santé!
* The wine production of different years is usually blended to make champagne.
This ensures that each particular brand keeps its distinctive flavor.
If the wine production from an single year is of exceptional quality,
and is not blended with champagne from other years, then, and only then,
can it become vintage champagne.