I’ve been studying Champagne and sparkling wines for my WSET3 class, so I’ve got bubbles on my brain.
Today’s words come to us from British statesman and Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill. Sir Winston’s affinity for alcohol (and Champagne in particular) is well documented.
By the age of 24, Churchill had already figured this out:
A single glass of Champagne imparts a feeling of exhilaration. The nerves are braced: the imagination is agreeably stirred; the wits become more nimble. A bottle produces the opposite effect. Excess causes a comatose sensibility.
Of all the sensibilities, comatose is the worst.
Churchill was an ardent fan of Pol Roger Champagne. He and Odette Pol Roger were besties. Every year on his birthday, she sent him a case of Champagne. (Why I’m not best friends with the grande dame of a famous Champagne house, I do not know.) And when Churchill died in 1965, Pol Roger changed its iconic white-foil Champagne label to include a black border on bottles bound for Great Britain. Well played, Pol Roger.
The region of Champagne is drenched in history. During the merciless, four year slog of World War I (1914-1918), Champagne provided the setting for some of the most decisive battles of the war. But perhaps the most enduring feature of the war in Champagne was its role as unintentional, but official host of the Western Front.
After the Allied victory at the First Battle of the Marne in 1914, both sides dug in, and adapted to the realities of a new kind of warfare — trench warfare. A criss-cross network of trenches weaved and stretched its way across the chalky vineyards of Champagne, becoming the scene of a four year impasse in which neither side gained significant territory.
The men of Champagne were at the front (in the trenches). So, the task of bringing in the harvest fell to the women, the elderly, and even the children of Champagne. Often targets themselves (because World War I was a total war — civilians were considered collateral damage), they picked grapes under nearly constant artillery bombardment.
The vineyards continued to be tended. Many growers needed a military permit to get to their plots; many found that shells rained down on them the moment they showed themselves among the rows; but so great was their love of the vine, so strong their determination to save something for those who returned, that day in, day out, they risked — and sometimes gave — their lives for the vines.1
By March of 1918, civilians were ordered to evacuate Champagne. And Churchill rallied the troops with these words:
I suspect Sir Winston was eternally grateful to the people of Champagne for their love of the vine.
1Forbes, P. (1967). Champagne: The Wine, the Land and the People. London: Gollancz.