It is surprising to think that Champagne – that most elegant, romantic, joyful and celebratory of wines – comes from an area in northern France that has been devastated for centuries by war, destruction and bloodshed. From the bloody battles between the Romans and Attila the Hun in the 5th century, to the Russian invasion and later the Franco-Prussian war in the 19th century, to the near utter destruction of the area in the world wars of the 20th century, Champagne has endured some very hard times.
Perhaps the worst was exactly 100 years ago, when Europe was deep in a war that offered no foreseeable end. Caught in the midst of the war-torn Western Front, with many vineyards in the middle of No Man’s Land, several properties had to be abandoned.
The first year of the war – 1914 – also happened to produce one of the greatest vintages of Champagne in the 20th century, but it almost didn’t happen. An Allied offensive managed to push back the Germans from Epernay just one week before harvest.
The actual grape picking – performed chiefly by women and children, as most men were in uniform – occurred amid gun and cannon fire.
Reims Cathedral, at the spiritual heart of the Champagne region and where most of the French kings were crowned, was shelled and near enough destroyed by fire in September of that same year. To this day you can still see bullet holes in the walls of this great edifice.
Many Champenoise took shelter from bombardment in the 150 miles of limestone caverns beneath the city where the bottles of Champagne were (and still are) aged.
By Armistice Day on November 11, 1918, over half the population of the Champagne region had died as a result of the war, and about 40% of the vineyards had been destroyed.
But even the end of war did not see the end of Champagne’s problems. The Russian Revolution, as well as Prohibition followed by the Great Depression in the US, effectively put an end to two of their largest and most lucrative markets.
World War II was not quite as damaging to the region though still tragic. Finally it was in Reims on May 7, 1945, that German Chief of Staff Alfred Jodl signed an unconditional surrender to Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower and the war in Europe was over. The following morning, the victory was celebrated by popping the corks on six cases of 1934 vintage Pommery. And here also began the resurgence of Champagne. Today Champagne is still the drink of celebration and romance, with production of over 300 million bottles a year.
Perhaps tonight would be a good time to pop the cork on a bottle of your favorite Champagne, first to enjoy its joyful elegance and romance, but also to remember all those many men, women and children who kept the greatest of sparklers going through the most difficult of times.
Bill Stobbs, Wine & Spirits Supervisor
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