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23 December 2014updated 30 Jun 2021 11:55am

Nina Caplan: Raise a glass to peace in the Champagne empire

Even I willingly acknowledge that the damage to the vineyards of Champagne was one of the lesser tragedies of the First World War.

By Nina Caplan

There has been a lot of debate over the new Sainsbury’s Christmas ad, which reconstructs the Christmas truce of 1914 for the noble purpose of selling us stuff. The arguments indicate that we are still, a century on, a species notable for its quarrelsomeness, quite prepared to row over a truce if no better excuse presents itself.

That Christmas – when warring soldiers laid down their arms, exchanged presents and, in some places, played football – has to be one of the most poignant interludes in the pitiable history of war. Why did they obediently pick up their guns again? Having proved that they could communicate with their opposite numbers, even if their superiors could not, why didn’t they place a table on those mud-drenched battlefields and commence negotiations? They would even have had appropriate oil for the wheels of compromise to hand: the Western Front ran right through Champagne.

Even I willingly acknowledge that the damage to the vineyards of Champagne was one of the lesser tragedies of the First World War. The ancient cellars beneath the grapes served as shelter for the population, complete with cellar schools, cellar newspapers and workers who nipped out, when the Hun wasn’t looking, to work the vineyards. They had braziers and a great deal of fine liquid to warm them up: apparently, the cellar dwellers of Reims got through five million bottles in four years. Still, cellars are not meant to be lived in any more than vineyards are meant to be fought in and the First World War was a four-year distraction from the business at hand.

Not that the Champenois aren’t used to it. Their land has been a major European intersection since before the Romans kicked out the Celts; the vines get trampled every time one European state picks a fight with another. Champagne may soothe these woes (as Napoleon said, in victory one deserves it; in defeat one needs it) but sometimes the locals, like their warring visitors, seem to emulate the agitation of their famous liquid.

That’s what happened in 1911, when several poor harvests, plus the government’s decision officially to delineate Champagne’s borders, provoked riots. Winemakers in the Aube, which was going to be excluded, were outraged. The vintners of the more favoured Marne retaliated by pointing out that when they accused merchants of diluting their product with cheaper “foreign” grapes, they meant, in part, those grown in the Aube. Vineyards burned and wine barrels  were upended in the streets as the incensed peasants foreshadowed the more deadly rivalries to come.

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These days there’s peace, give or take the tensions between the big brands and the grower producers. To make their magnificently consistent, globally marketed wines, Veuve Clicquot, Bollinger, Louis Roederer and others must buy in grapes from smaller fry. Some of those fry now bottle their own output and these are the “grower champagnes”, wonderful reflections of individual terroirs: the creamy hazelnut of Egly-Ouriet or Tarlant’s glacial lemon freshness; the zinging minerality of Champagne Peters or the warm, apricot lusciousness of Alfred Gratien.

These small producers aren’t a threat to the big boys, any more than the Celts were to the Romans or, come to that, Belgium was to the Kaiser’s Germany in 1914. Nonetheless, as we peer across the Channel from our outcrop of Cretaceous chalk to theirs, it is worth considering that the English, erstwhile French allies, are now competitors in sparkling wine. And while our tiny market of fine fizzes is even less of a problem for the Champagne empire than its own small growers, we should be wary: if those belligerent incomers have taught the Champenois anything, it’s that you don’t win the game by leaving the competition in peace.

Next week: John Burnside on nature

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