Standing on the steps of a farmhouse north of Reims, it is easy to see why most Champenois stay here for generations. From the back door, the carefully tended fields of barley and Pinot Noir grapes are flanked by rows of beehives, which all tell their own story. This is deep, rich, agricultural France. This is a place where the locals are in tune with their environment. From this place comes the most delicious wine in the world: champagne.
The village of Brimont is part of one of the most northerly champagne communes and the villagers are justly proud of their terroir. They tend the land with the diligence and care of a community working together; but theirs is a land that is militarily significant too. The farmhouse has been in the family for 200 years: during this time, its key strategic position has led to repeated devastation by war. First by the Prussians in 1870, then, when the Germans occupied it again in 1917, by the French artillery, and finally by Stuka dive-bombers in 1940. The vista from the terrace stretches more than 40 kilometres across the Marne Valley to the Ardennes. On a clear day, it is possible to imagine the hordes of invaders who have transited this area north of Reims. From the Romans to General Rommel, the raiders have come and gone. But Champagne remains.
The magnificent village church harks back to richer times, perhaps, its sturdy sandstone walls lit by a dozen floodlights at night. Lit, too, are seven contiguous gravestones, memorials to a crew laid to rest here. Lying beneath are the mortal remains of seven young men from a World War II Avro Lancaster W4854 that crashed in the village on April 17th 1943 – all were members of Royal Air Force Squadron 156. Their tidy, well-tended graves remind visitors that the link between England and Champagne is strong and often sealed in common adversity.
Winston Churchill is reputed to have said: ‘Gentlemen, it is not just France for which we fight, it is Champagne.’ Even before the first panzer rumbled along the boulevards of eastern France, the Champenois acted, sending over two million bottles to England for safe keeping – fine wine merchants Berry Bros & Rudd are known to have stored a proportion of them. At home Reims and Epernay, the clever houses took steps to ensure the best vintages remained untouched. New brickwork was created, sealing off tunnels containing many thousands of bottles. To create the impression of a steady-state, these bricks were white-washed, and the resident cave spiders (the dark-loving, prolific weaver Meta menardi) gathered in the hopes they would spin a disguise of webs overnight. (This trick had been used before, in 1870 and 1914, to thwart German invaders in previous conflicts.) The crafty Champenois used German cement to finish the work, and some houses, presuming that many German soldiers were Catholic, placed crucifixes to add spiritual power to that of the humble spider.
The Champenois were right to be cautious. By late 1940, with France now under German occupation, German foreign minister and fervent Nazi, Joachim Ribbentrop, a French wine importer in a previous life, was demanding half a million bottles a week. For the Champenois he was a problem. He recognized good quality, and wouldn’t settle for inferior cuvées. To make matters worse, the occupation undermined production: it reduced the workforce, the number of horses available and the supply of fertilizer. And while many local houses managed to benefit from the German occupation – the third time in 70 years – others did not. They suffered considerable looting, and while some wines were paid for, the currency or rate of exchange left many houses impoverished.
On the other side of the Channel, champagne was playing its part in the Allied war effort. The Free French leader, Charles de Gaulle (in exile in England during the Nazi occupation of France), was a lifelong devotee of Drappier – he even insisted on paying for his own stock in the Elysée when he became President of France (1959–69). He managed to obtain supplies from France, often courtesy of the Royal Navy’s small-scale raiding force and sometimes courtesy of the Special Duties Squadrons of the Royal Air Force which flew Lysander aircraft into French fields on moonlit nights. These hazardous flights were primarily for agent swaps for the Special Operations Executive and the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) but often carried champagne and Chanel goods back to their base at RAF Tangmere, West Sussex.
Drappier deserves some amplification as it is not as well-known as perhaps it should be. To the fervently Catholic de Gaulle, Drappier’s close relationship with the magnificent Clairvaux Abbey at Urville, where grapes have been harvested since Roman times, was key. But it was also the dry palate and use of the older grape varieties which inspired the young Cavalry officer to drink Drappier rather than more fashionable wines. In 2016, Drappier became the first ‘carbon neutral’ estate and even the bottle it uses has been crafted with less glass and using less energy to make it. De Gaulle would have been proud.
The Epernay house of Pol Roger also had a World War II role to play. Although he first found a taste for champagne at Sandhurst and campaigning in Sudan, Winston Churchill brought champagne to prominence as part of his war effort which a wag said included denying the enemy champagne by drinking as much of it as he could. His favourite champagne? Pol Roger 1928. He is said to have found the cuvée his favourite in the mid-1930s when although impoverished (in Churchillian terms) he still ordered cases of the nectar frequently from Berry Bros & Rudd in St James’s. Rumour has it that the very last case of the 1928 was delivered to No 10 Downing Street for the prime minister’s consumption.
Churchill wasn’t the only one to relish the 1928. Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, Hitler’s deputy and commander of the German Luftwaffe, also favoured Pol Roger and the 1928 cuvée – in fact, he sent Luftwaffe troops to Epernay to ‘buy’ as much vintage Pol Roger as they could find. He is even reputed to have ordered that the last supply flight into the ravaged Stalingrad salient (in 1943) would not carry medical aid to the beleaguered troops but Pol Roger for the army officers, so they might be fortified sufficiently to shoot themselves rather than be captured by the Soviets. They certainly drank the wine, but few elected to use their pistols – although history shows that might have been a better alternative to a Russian gulag.
At the same time as the Russians were smashing through the German defences on the Eastern Front, General Bernard Montgomery’s forward cavalry units in the Western Desert were forcing the Germans out of Libya. The Hussars found cases of Pol Roger, and 1928 at that, when they captured a forward Deutsches Afrikakorps panzer unit’s headquarters. Apparently, they were under orders to keep it cool until they overran Cairo and then Göring would fly in to celebrate. Somehow, taking vintage champagne through heat and cold of the desert, along bumpy tracks and at speed, doesn’t seem like the best way to transport nectar. The Hussars made short work of the champagne to ‘prevent it going off’.
British and Commonwealth troops fought hard to liberate the Champagne region in 1944. Many fell; some on Avenue de Champagne in Epernay. This sacrifice is not forgotten by Pol Roger who release a specially made non-vintage cuvée to honour them. And in return, the British have never given up their adoration of champagne. The love story continues.
You can learn more about Champagne’s great history in the Académie du Vin Library’s latest publication, On Champagne, published this October.