Author: Aoife Moriarty
A 100-year-old bottle of Pol Roger 1914 champagne is set to be auctioned at Bonhams Fine Wine Sale in London later this month. Expected to fetch £3000 to £4000 with the proceeds going to the Imperial War Museum, the story behind it is certainly an interesting one.
That year, the Pol Roger grape harvest almost didn’t happen as the German offensive took over the Champagne region. Women, children and men who were unable to fight took responsibility for the harvesting in Épernay. The vineyards were about 10 miles from the front line, meaning courage was something of a prerequisite.
Some grapes were picked earlier than usual, for fear the Germans would reinstate their offensive. This made the wine taste acidic until it matured, but it was this initial acidity that also contributed to the 1914 vintage’s unusual longevity.
Pol Roger’s head winemaker predicted that the champagne would be ready to drink by 1918, saying it was ‘harvested to the sound of gunfire but to be drunk to the sound of trumpets’.
However it wasn’t until 1944 that Churchill first tasted the historically significant vintage. He was at a luncheon hosted by the British Ambassador to France. At the same event was the stunning Odette Pol-Roger – wife of co-director Jacques – with whom Churchill struck up an instant rapport and a ‘harmless flirtation’ that was to last for two decades.
Although Churchill was already a customer of Pol Roger before the Second World War, it was that day that fully sealed his loyalty to the grande marquee. And from then on, he was to demand no other champagne.
Sir Winston even named one of his racehorses ‘Pol Roger’ and the filly galloped to victory at Kempton Park in 1953, the Coronation Year. When Churchill died in 1965, on Odette’s instructions all Pol Roger labels headed for the United Kingdom were bordered in black as a tribute to his loyalty and friendship.
It was the wartime PM’s regret that he never visited what he described as ‘the world’s most drinkable address’, the Pol-Roger family house at 44 Avenue de Champagne. Nor did he carry out his threat to ‘tread the vintage with his bare feet’. But on the joys of champagne, he is often quoted as saying: ‘I cannot live without champagne. In victory I deserve it, and in defeat I need it.’