One of the world’s oldest champagne makers has just struck liquid gold.
Pol Roger, the French champagne house whose bubbly was famous for being Sir Winston Churchill’s favourite tipple, has unearthed a treasure trove of bottles that lay hidden in the ruins of collapsed cellars for more than a century.
Experts say the 26 bottles so far recovered could well still be drinkable, and that there may well be many more from the million or so lost at the time.
The fate of the bottles has been the stuff of “dreams and nightmares for generations of the family and cellar masters,” Pol Roger CEO Laurent d’Harcourt told The Telegraph.
The story began in nightmarish fashion on February 23, 1900 when two floors of cellars collapsed overnight.
Le Vigneron Champenois, the local trade paper, reported at the time that “at about two o’clock in the morning, a dull rumble similar to the sound of thunder” awoke Maurice Roger, who had taken over the house with his brother Georges from their father Pol in 1899.
Another “much louder noise” ensued, prompting Roger and his chef de cave to get up. To their horror they found part of the huge cellars had caved in, along with the adjoining buildings. The waterlogged earth had given way, the ground sinking 13 feet.
“When the workers arrived a few hours later, the disaster was complete,” it wrote.
Thankfully nobody was hurt. But in terms of champagne the loss was devastating as around 1.5 million bottles and 500 casks of the legendary fizz had been buried in the process.
The Roger brothers mulled tunnelling into the cellars to retrieve the wine. But when a neighbour’s cellar also collapsed the following month, they ruled it was too risky and chose to give up the hunt for the lost vintages.
Instead, they built new cellars on Avenue de Champagne, and despite the setback, their house went from strength to strength.
The wine was not totally forgotten but previous, tentative bids to salvage the bottles came to nothing.
However, more than a century later, a new project to build a packaging facility on the site of the historic cellars gave the fifth generation of the family another crack at locating them.
On January 15, construction workers digging underground came across a “void”.
Dominic Petit, who retires next month as cellarmaster, and his successor, Damien Cambres, widened the cavity further.
“We found a lot of broken glass. Then we found one bottle on the first day, six the second and 19 on the third,” said Mr d’Harcourt. “We think we’ll find more.”
The hunt for more is now on hold, however. “We’ve had so much rain in the past two months that the chalk is saturated with water and it could be dangerous. We don’t want to have a new drama in Epernay,” said Mr d’Harcourt.
Encrusted in chalky soil, the hand-blown bottles are in good condition. The wines are clear and the levels are correct, said Pol Roger. The corks, held in place by a metal staple, have withheld the test of time.
Records suggest the vintages are between the years 1887 and 1898. Many would have been destined for Britain, Pol Roger’s prime market then as now. A fair few may well have ended up drunk by Sir Winston, who ordered his first Pol Roger, a 1895 vintage, in 1908, and, it has been claimed, drunk 42,000 bottles in his lifetime.
In the coming weeks, the bottles will be hand-riddled (shaken, tilted abruptly downard and placed back in the rack to move the sediment to the neck), and disgorged.
"They’ll definitely be tasted, but we’re taking our time," said Mr d’Harcourt. “We’re pretty sure they’re drinkable”.
Previous tastings of ancient champagne suggest he may well be right. In 2015, researchers tried 170-year old champagne recovered from a Baltic Sea wreck.
The initial aroma was off-putting, with smells of animal, mushroom and cheese. Once exposed to oxygen, however, “the wines became more pleasant, with a lot of flowers,” as well as oak, leather and tobacco. Upon tasting, Dominique Demarville, chef de caves of Veuve Clicquot, was pleasantly surprised by the wines’ sweetness and discernible acidity and freshness.
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Mr d’Harcourt said he had already tasted a 1892 vintage and found it had “amazing youth” if a little like an “old Burgundy”. “It had a little maturation, what we call ‘goût anglais’ (English taste), which I like,” he said.
In this case, the wine “has not been touched and has been in a quiet environment for so many years”, so likely in good condition.
News of the discovery came as Champagne’s wine board announced record sales of French fizz of €4.9 billion (£4.4bn) last year, boosted by exports to markets “outside Europe”.
However, the French market fell by 2.5 per cent, with a major drop of around 10 per cent in December – normally the festive month. Figures for the UK will be released next month.