July 11, 2014 4:31 pm

The Slow Lane: The grapes of war

Schools and hospitals moved underground; an opera was held in the Louis Roederer cellars

I’ve been reading the technical document provided for the 1914 vintage in Champagne by the largest house, Moët et Chandon. The growing season was far from straightforward. Flowering was somewhat delayed and suffered from shatter in places. Then in early July came an attack of mildew, which produced only minor damage. Grape worm caused more serious problems.

None of these afflictions was unusual: all part of the grape-grower’s calvary, especially in those times when remedial treatments were more limited. But the summer was fine and the grapes presented a beautiful appearance leading up to the harvest, which began slightly earlier than usual around September 28 (as early as September 21 in some places). Yields were low, at an average of 2,200kg per hectare, partly because the vineyards had not fully recovered from the plague of phylloxera, which had struck Champagne last of all the major French wine regions. As late as 1920 more than 40 per cent of the Champagne vineyard was either uprooted or uncultivated.

The harvest was brought forward, as you may have guessed, because of non-viticultural events. Germany declared war on France on August 3. Not for the first time in history, the Germans invaded France through the endless flatlands of the Marne Valley, perfect for tank advances. Troops and reserves were mobilised in Reims and Epernay on August 4. The German army entered Epernay on September 4 and drew up a huge requisition order, which the mayor, Maurice Pol Roger (who had remained at his post while other functionaries fled) was charged with completing on pain of death.

Things began to look up (from the Champenois perspective) during the second week of September, when the French army bravely halted the German advance in the First Battle of the Marne. The Germans withdrew from Epernay on September 11, and the mayor (who had been arrested four times) could breathe a sigh of relief. Not that Epernay escaped lightly from bombardments during the war: nearly 300 people were killed, 400 injured and 1,800 buildings were destroyed.

The reason life could carry on reasonably undisturbed, especially in Reims, where hardly a single building was left standing, was closely connected to the production of the famous wine

The sufferings of Epernay, though, pale by comparison with those of Reims. The city was almost flattened by 1,000 days of shelling, and the magnificent Gothic cathedral used for the crowning of the kings and queens of France was reduced to a blackened ruin. Amazingly, though, life continued with relative normality in both of the centres of champagne production during the four years of the war. Harvests were gathered, largely by women, helped by children and men too old to fight, and not without cost: 20 children lost their lives during the 1914 vintage, with other casualties uncounted. As it turned out, not just the 1914 vintage but those of 1915 and 1917 were of exceptional quality.

The reason life could carry on reasonably undisturbed, especially in Reims, where hardly a single building was left standing, was closely connected to the production of the famous wine: people retreated to the chalk cellars, dug originally by the Romans, which extend for scores of kilometres under the two towns, and where hundreds of millions of bottles of champagne rest for years, patiently undergoing the secondary fermentation in bottles which gives them their fizz.

Offices, schools and hospitals moved underground; there were social events, concerts and even an opera performed in the Louis Roederer cellars. The couturier Paul Poiret recalled retreating into a tunnel during an air raid, and finding himself in part of the Veuve Clicquot cellars where 40 people were seated at dinner, with candelabra, hams and bottles of champagne.

I revisited one of those cellars recently, belonging to Pol Roger, and was struck again by the eeriness of these vast underground tunnels. Pol Roger still conducts remuage, the process by which the lees produced during the secondary fermentation are coaxed into the neck of the bottle, by hand, and we met two surprisingly cheerful remueurs, whose job is to twist the necks of 50,000 bottles a day.

After the cellar tour, we went upstairs to taste a few wines. They were not ordinary wines. After introducing a few more recent vintages, the commercial director, Hubert de Billy, said he wanted to show us one or two older bottles. The first of these displayed a beautiful golden colour, had a fascinating bouquet of marmalade and old flowers, and tasted magnificently rich yet still fresh: not really old at all. This was the 1921 vintage.

The second of the older bottles was a slightly deeper colour, but showed even more sappy vitality on the nose. “Quite a lot of bubbles and absolutely beautiful,” my notes read. “More rounded and pretty, superb balance.” This was the 1914 vintage.

If the soul of this bottle could sing, as Baudelaire imagined in his poem “L’Âme du Vin”, the song might go like this: “Remember, you who drink me, that my harvest cost many lives. You are drinking the blood of France. But my survival bears witness that the arts of peace outlast the arts of war, that vines still grow where the tanks briefly rumbled.”

harry.eyres@ft.com, @sloweyres

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.

LIFE AND ARTS ON TWITTER

More FT Twitter accounts
SHARE THIS QUOTE