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November 1, 2006updated 10 Jan 2016 3:08pm

Champagne: How the World’s Most Glamorous Wine Triumphed Over War and Hard Times

By Spear's

Champagne: How the World’s Most Glamorous Wine Triumphed Over War and Hard Times
Don and Petie Kladstrup
Harpers Perennial

To the non-specialist man or woman, few books about wine are readable – we want to drink the stuff, not read about it. We particularly do not want to be swamped by the minutiae of grape-growing and wine-blending.

When we buy a car we do not wish to be lectured on how the sap was collected from the Malaysian rubber plantation in order to make the tyres; when we buy a shirt in Jermyn or Bond Street we do not need to know about the silkworms where our shirt began its life. But wine-makers and writers fall irresistibly into such nerdy traps (I know, I’ve met and been bored senseless by hundreds of them), convinced that we are riveted by malolactic fermentation and can’t wait to taste 193 different Pinot Noirs from the same vintage and the same valley.

Don and Petie Kladstrup, the authors of Champagne: How the World’s Most Glamorous Wine Triumphed Over War and Hard Times have avoided all such traps and produced a very different sort of book. They are an American husband and wife, both very experienced journalists, who live in France and have clearly fallen in love with the country in general and champagne in particular.

They acknowledge that their book is a sort of love letter, and there are the occasional sickly idiocies to be expected from lovers – ‘Just saying the word [champagne] is like waving a magic wand: people begin to smile, relax, and even fantasize’ – but this is a minor quibble. This is a wine book that can actually be read for pleasure, which is saying something, and some of the stories are hilarious.

The approach is historical, and the story is worth telling because it is so extraordinary. The basic problem for champagne (the wine) is that it is made in Champagne (the district), and Champagne (the district) is simply in the wrong place. It is about 100 miles east of Paris, towards the western end on the great plain of northern Europe that stretches all the way from northern France to beyond Moscow and the Ural mountains.

This is military territory, convenient for marching armies, and armies have indeed marched backwards and forwards across the plain for thousands of years. In particular, German armies have three times marched westwards through Champagne on their way to capture Paris: in the Franco-Prussian war (1870) and in the two World Wars of the 20th century.

What this did to the Champenois makes terrible but wonderful reading. In the first two years of WWI, 200,000 shells fell on Pommery alone. Reims, the principal city of Champagne, in whose cathedral all of France’s kings and queens had been crowned, suffered 1,051 days of consecutive shelling and bombing. The great gothic cathedral was reduced to a shell. It was a symbol of resistance for the French, like St Paul’s Cathedral to the British in WWII, and has now been completely restored. When I was a guest of Henri and Remí Krug they suggested I go to see the cathedral if only to wonder at the unique set of stained-glass windows depicting the entire cultivation of champagne, from grape to bottle.

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The WWI bombardment could be heard in Paris, and after the war the population of Champagne was less than it had been 120 years earlier. The Champenois lived underground, in the caves, tunnels and galleries where champagne was (and still is) traditionally stored. Anyone visiting Champagne for the first time should see these amazing underground cities – Moët and Mercier between them have well over 20 miles of tall, wide corridors whose alcoves house hundreds of millions of priceless bottles. In WWII the cellars of Champagne became barracks for 50,000 French soldiers – rarely were poor, bloody infantrymen so bibulously billeted.

Through all the frightful summers and autumns of wartime the Champenois tended and harvested the vines and made the champagne in appalling, and often fatal, conditions. There are echoes of other wars here. The underground system reminds me of the Cu Chi tunnels, built by the Viet Minh, ‘the dagger pointing at the heart of Saigon’. I’ve been down those tunnels and they are exceedingly uncomfortable, and not lined with full champagne bottles.

The heroic determination of the Champenois to harvest the vintage and make the wine recalls another old friend, Serge Hochar, the legendary winemaker and owner of Château Musar in the Lebanon. When I last saw him in Beirut he told me that only twice in nearly 20 years of civil war did he fail to make his wine, despite up to four armies fighting each other in the Bekáa Valley, where his vineyards are.

Champagne has truly lived through extraordinary times, and its story has now been told in full and in style. The book is packed with anecdotes and interviews from the start, right up to the present day. I especially liked a film reference, new to me, from Letter from an Unknown Woman, in which Joan Fontaine dreamily murmurs ‘Champagne tastes much better after midnight, don’t you agree?’ The Kladstrups have done a fine job; they deserve a drink.

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