Saturday, 29 November 2014


I inherited a bound set of The War Illustrated from my paternal grandparents. One hundred years after publication I'm exploring its pages to discover the people and their times.
 "The average man soon grows accustomed to a strange environment.  This picture was taken in a vineyard of the Champagne region of France.  A few miles off, the heavy artillery of the contending armies was sending out thunder and death, and the air was reverberating with the din of war.  At the same time troops were marching past to the battle-lines, yet these peasants working in the vineyard pay little heed to the  world-shaking events close by.  Some of them do not even interrupt their work to look at what is going on around them" War Illustrated , 7th November 1914

The champagne produced in 1914 is considered the greatest vintage of the 20th Century.  Maurice Pol Roger famously said it was "harvested to the sound of gunfire but to be drunk to the sound of trumpets".  The weather that year had been perfect and by September 12th the grapes were ready to be harvested but with the men away fighting it fell to women, children and older people to harvest the vines (as can be seen in the photograph).  The schools even closed so that the children could be in the fields.  By October 11th the last accessible grapes had been picked but not without the cost of life (twenty children were killed by sniper fire or shelling).

Amazingly champagne was produced in every year of the war despite 40% of the vineyards being destroyed and fighting continuing in the area but it was 1914 that produced the once in a lifetime vintage.  Reims was also under continual bombarded and shelling so the Champagne houses opened their cellars as a refuge to the local population and also continued operating their businesses from the underground limestone cray√®res.

Recently one of the bottles produced in 1914 was taken from the Pol Roger cellars and has been auctioned for £5640, the proceeds will go to support the new World War One galleries at the Imperial War Museum.  The unusual longevity of the wine is attributed to the early picking of the grapes which initially gave it acidity but as it matured the flavour blossomed, just like the indomitable spirit of the French wine pickers and producers.     

Additional (with pictures)
1914:  Champagne's Violent Vintage by Tom Stevenson - Wine Searcher

1 comment:

Vanessa Morgan said...

"Harvested to the sound of gunfire". I love how this is phrased.