There are many special tastings in the world of wine and many special bottles – some of them with plenty of bottle age. But the tasting that took place three days ago in Epernay was in the realm of ‘I was there’. 119 years after its cellars collapsed Champagne Pol Roger opened the first two intact bottles it had managed to retrieve from the rubble of the 1900 catastrophe. So what would be inside the bottles? sludge? vinegar? surely not drinkable Champagne? Peter Dean was there to witness the preparation, painstaking disgorgement and taste the two wines, one most likely from 1897, the second from 1895 – the first vintage that was bought by Winston Churchill.
To put the 1895 into context, this is the year when the first game of rugby league was played, the diesel engine was patented, Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest had its premiere and the first moving picture was shown by Lumière in Paris.
It sounded like two trains colliding. In fact at 4am on the night of February 23rd 1900 that is exactly what Maurice Roger and his chef de cave M. Leclerc thought that’s what awoke them – an unimaginable train disaster.
Until then it had been a normal sleepy February night in Epernay, the spring rains had started in earnest and the workers were a few hours from starting the morning shift at Champagne Pol Roger on the rue de Commerce. But the cacophony changed all that
Dashing out to see what had caused the noise, Maurice stared in disbelief – part of the immense cellar system under the property had caved in causing the adjoining buildings to collapse. There was a sinkhole some 15 metres across and reaching down 20 metres into the earth.
Three storeys of Pol Roger’s cellars had collapsed in on themselves burying 500 casks of wine and over one and a half million bottles of Champagne
Luckily no one was killed on account of the catastrophe occurring at night, but for brothers Maurice and Georges Roger this was the second disaster that had befallen the house, founder Pol Roger having died prematurely just three months earlier.
After some tentative tunnelling to try and retrieve the wines, a cave-in at an adjacent property forced them to retreat and write-off the stock as lost for good.
Instead of it being ‘The Fall of The House of Roger’ other Houses in Champagne rallied round and saved Pol Roger from almost certain financial collapse – Champagne Pol Roger was one of the three largest Champagne houses at the time and had been making wine ‘sur latte’ for other houses. The ‘favour’ was returned so that the company could have some bottles to sell and get over the loss of the better part of three vintages. Maurice and Georges then changed their names from Roger to Pol Roger in order to signify a new beginning and they started rebuilding the business.
118 years after the cellar collapse, a drilling session on the site ‘struck gold’. Pol Roger had started building a new packaging facility, part of a €40m refit, above the site of the historic cellars and, during foundation work a cavity was discovered – inside was mountains of broken glass and, amongst this, was one intact bottle
Rumours that some bottles had survived the cellar collapse had become the thing of Epernay legend, of course, although few believed that anything could actually have survived the impact of thousands of tons of chalk and clay.
For outgoing cellar master Dominic Petit and his successor Damien Cambres the excitement was palpable… what if this bottle was not the only one? Could there be more? The date was January 15, 2018 and for a few days the cavity was expanded until 19 more bottles were retrieved. Over the next 12 months the operation started and was stopped by rising water levels and further collapse, but close to 100 bottles had been successfully removed
No-one knew which vintages the bottles were from nor what they contained – would this be the world’s most prized condiment for fish and chips perhaps? The wines looked clear enough, the levels correct, corks depressed and the wines still on their lees. So perhaps not.
There was always the possibility that, sealed hermetically in chalk for 118 years, the Champagne would not only be drinkable but actually very good.
Or perhaps the bottle’s opening would be like the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where the power contained within would escape centuries of confinement to destroy the expectant onlookers?
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