At the time of writing this article commentators in the wine trade are lamenting the fact that sales of champagne are languishing around 305 million bottles. They might do well to reflect that back in 1900 the entire world market was just 28 million bottles and there were just 33 maisons doing the selling. If you had suggested to them that a century later sales would be more than 10 times greater they probably would not have believed you and that was despite the fact that the 20th century started on a high
As the century opened La Belle Epoque was in full swing founded on a sustained period of peace and prosperity. In Paris places such as Le Moulin Rouge, Les Folies Bergère and Le Casino de Paris caught the heady mood of the day
In the Champagne vineyards too the news seemed promising. The harvest in 2000 was one of the best for many a year, but problems underneath the surface were about to emerge that would plague the first decade of the new century. To understand one of the causes we need to look back to the year 1888, the year that Phylloxera first struck the Champagne vineyards.
By October 1901 Champagne had been officially declared a Phylloxera zone and 600 hectares of vineyards were deemed to be affected – that was a much more significant proportion of the vineyards than it would be today. Every conceivable measure to combat the bug was tried: burning the vines and replanting, flooding the vineyards, treating the vines with chemicals, disinfecting the soil and no doubt many more, all to little effect except to arouse stiff opposition and resistance amongst the vignerons, a reaction that was perhaps understandable, but nevertheless disastrous because Pholloxera continued to spread.
Things got worse. The 1902 harvest was badly affected by humid weather and disease; 1906 was a bigger harvest but of poor quality and 1908 was dreadfully small, but even that was bigger than in 1910 which was catastrophic!
Export sales offered no comfort either. The Boer war was affecting sales in Great Britain, Germany was in the midst of a financial crisis and punitive customs duties on exports to the USA and Russia made life very difficult for anyone trying to develop those markets.
Despite all this, sales reached 39 million bottles in 1909 of which exports represented 26 million, a figure that was not to be equalled until 1956.
One imagined that the champagne producers must have looked back at the first 10 years of the century with mixed emotions. They had been through some tough times, but things weren’t all that bad. Surely things were now on the up... how wrong can you be.
In 1911 Phylloxera struck with a vengeance. 6,500 hectares of vines (50% of the total) had to be destroyed. By this time the remedy of planting new vines grafted onto American root stock had been discovered, but it would be several years before this would bring any tangible results in terms of the harvest. With fewer vines and not much harvest, the vignerons had no income and hardship in Champagne was both severe and widespread. Discontent was bubbling under the surface and eventually erupted in the form of riots in the streets.
Meanwhile sales were doing no better. With drastically reduced harvests, there were fewer and fewer bottles to sell to the extent that in 1914 the local magazine Vigneron champenois reported that “ We have nothing more to sell”.
A confirmed optimist might have tried to put a more positive gloss on the situation by pointing out that demand was falling drastically too, although that would have been a very small comfort.
In the USA the anti-alcohol lobby was gaining in influence to the extent that shipments of champagne fell from a peak in 1905 to well below their level at the turn of the century.
In Russia, the third biggest export market in 1900, the market was to disappear entirely with the outbreak of the revolution in 1917.
Meanwhile, sales in the UK, the biggest export market in 1900 were doing reasonably well thanks to low customs duties and a growing demand for the new Brut style that was specially developed for the British market. Any signs of recovery were however snuffed out by the advent of The Great War in 1914.
This was not to be a war like the last one involving France in 1870 when a sense of gallantry and chivalry seems to have lingered. The Great War was to be like nothing anyone had ever experienced.
Against the background of the horrific suffering on the front lines it seems almost irrelevant to speak of the woes in Champagne, except for the fact that Champagne was literally on the front line and many of the towns and villages of the area were reduced to rubble.
The vineyards suffered too and by the end of the war 40% of the vines had been so badly damaged as to be unworkable.
Under the circumstances it is surprising that any champagne was produced at all, but it was, thanks to the dogged determination of the vignerons who carried on through thick and thin. Nevertheless export sales in 1915 slumped to the level of 1855 and production during the war averaged just 14 million bottles.
What could possibly lie in wait for Champagne in the next few decades?