Postcard from... Epernay


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The Independent Online

Deep in the cellars of the Pol Roger champagne house, rows of century-old bottles caked in mould bear testimony to perhaps the greatest and most heroic of vintages.

As champagne goes, 1914 was a superlative year when the warmest of summers left the richest of grapes. As war goes, gunfire could be heard just beyond the hills and most men were off fighting in the First World War.

Somehow, the heady mix produced a vintage for the ages in which dedication beat fear. Today in London, Pol Roger will auction off one of those 1914 bottles – minus the mould – with the proceeds going to the recently renovated Imperial War Museum. If the usual harvesters had turned into soldiers, there were women, old men, and sometimes even children to take their place. They picked and pressed in the face of German enemy fire to produce a drink which is still celebrated 100 years later.

“Those who were still in town went into the vineyards,” said Hubert de Billy, the great grandson of Maurice Pol-Roger, the wartime mayor of Epernay, which along with Reims is the heart of champagne production.

Some weeks were so tough all they could do was seek refuge underground. And Champagne houses obliged,  opening their cellars.