Sunday, September 23, 2012

Champagne Houses in the Nineteenth Century and Cunard's Offerings

A confession:  When it comes to champagne, I am ignorant.  I’m too poor to buy bona fide champagne on a regular basis, and for my tastes, I would rather spend what money I do have on the dry red wines that British people often refer to as clarets, and what Americans call Bordeaux.  I also have a passion for the sparkling dry wines from New Mexico, USA, such as Gruet’s.  (
But in researching Cunard’s Bill of Fare, circa 1840-1870, I have been familiarizing myself with its champagne offerings.  That it has taken me a long time to write this post is evidence of just how little I know, and how long it is taking me to ramp up my knowledge.

While one could order other wines aboard a Cunard ship, including claret, hock, chablis, port and sherry (more on these in my next blog), champagnes dominated the list.
The World Wide Web offers hundreds of authoritative websites to help the uninitiated understand and appreciate champagne and its history, and of course there are hundreds of authoritative books to choose from as well.  My blog is simply to determine what happened (if anything) to the various Champagne Houses from which Cunard bought its stock, as well as record any interesting, historical bits along the way.

First, for those interested in understanding champagne in the nineteenth century, a gem of a book is Champagne and Other Sparkling Wines, by the English journalist and publisher, Henry Vizetelly (1820-1894).  Exhaustive in its information, Vizetelly’s guide reads like a travelogue, a history of France, and like a guide to culture all combined.  It’s available via Google books in full text.

8 champagnes topped the Cunard “Wine, Spirits, and Other Liquors” menu.  All of these champagnes sold for 7 shillings, 6 pence a quart, or 4 shilling a pint.  From what I can determine, the champagnes on offer were of comparable quality.
Wachter’s, extra Cuvée, topped the Cunard menu. 
The label indicates that Wachter’s had a royal charter to Her Majesty the Queen and the Prince of Wales. The Cunard menu likewise notes that Wachter’s cuvée (its house’s secret blend) was especially created to please Her Majesty and the Prince of Wales. Wachter’s Champagne, from what I can determine, is no longer available. 
It is interesting to note that Reims, in the Champagne region, was the site of royal coronations. 
                    Cathedral of Reims, Site of French coronations.  Courtesey of bodoklecksel, Wikimedia Commons
When Louis the XIV was made King at age 16, he was introduced to the still wine (not yet carbonated) of the region and from then on, he drank wine exclusively from Champagne.  He set the fashion for nobility throughout France to eat and drink as he did, according to C. Michael Hall and Richard Mitchell in Wine Marketing: A Practical Guide (2008).  Champagne houses from that point on promoted the association with champagne and royalty, and the importance of serving champagne at any celebratory and exclusive event stems from that connection as well.  Travel aboard a steamship, no matter the difficulty of the journey or its presumed dangerousness, was often treated by a shipping company as a celebratory affair for its first-class passengers, and while plum pudding and roast turkey—foods associated with holidays in both Britain and the United States—were often featured on the bill of fare, champagnes were at the top of the drinks menu for similar reasons.
Second on Cunard’s menu was Heidsieck & Company’s champagne.  Founded in 1785, Heidsieck is now owned by EPI (Societe Europeenne de Participations Industrielles).  Vizetelly offered a great deal of information about Heidsieck.  It gained in prominence and respect when in 1877, the English market was flooded with cheap and crude French wines from 1874 vintages.  Heidsieck instead exported its 1870 and 1872 vintages to England, ones that were “beautifully rounded by keeping, and of fine flavor and great delicacy of perfume” (Vizetelly, p. 182).   Heidsieck was famous for a dry variety of the Monopole brand that was exported regularly to England, as well as for its dry Grand Vin Royal.  Apparently, Heidsieck’s was very popular aboard transatlantic ships.  In 1998, according to Wikipedia, the Hiedsieck Cuvée, Diamant bleu, vintage 1907, was found in the shipwrecked Swedish freighter, Jönköping, in the Gulf of Finland.  Around 2000 bottles were salvaged and sold quickly at auction. 

Roederer, short for Louis Roederer, was next on the Cunard menu. 
                         Roederer Vinyard, Courtesy of Champagne Louis Roederer, Wikimedia Commons
Based in Reims, France, Louis Roederer was initially founded as Doubois Père & Fils in 1776.  To this day, Roederer remains one of the most famous icons in the champagne industry, along with Dom Pérignon (from the champagne house of Moët & Chandon) and Krug’s Grande Cuvée. Dorling Kindersley’s Wines of the World: Your Essential Handbook, notes that Roederer wines are “exemplary; elegant, subtle, complex, and long-lived.”  Most distinguished are its non-vintage Brut Premier and Cristal.  A wonderful and more affordable option is Blank de Blancs.  I plan to search it out now that I have read of its affordable price and its wonderful flavor.
Both Carte Blanche and Extra Dry by G. H. Mumm were next on Cunard’s menu. 
Like Roederer, Mumm is situated in Reims and remains one of the largest champagne producers in the world today.  The three brothers who founded the champagne house were German winemakers from the Rhine Valley who established their company in Reims in 1825.  Mumm is now owned by Pernod Ricard.  Vizetelly wrote that Mumm’s “Carte Blanch is a pale, delicate fragrant wine of great softness and refined flavor; a perfectly dry variety.”  He went on to write that Americans in particular held Mumm in great repute, with the champagne house shipping nearly half a million bottles to the United States alone—more than twice the quantity shipped by Roederer (Vizetelly, p. 61).
Ruinart Pere Et Fils came after G.H. Mumm on the list.  Vizetelly wrote that Ruinart claimed to be the oldest existing champagne house in Champagne. It was headed by Vicomte de Brimont (Vizetelly, p. 66).  The fascinating website, ChampagneJayne ( agrees:  In September, 1729, the champagne business as we know it began when a wealthy cloth merchant from Epernay, Nicolas Ruinart, opened the first official champagne house.  Now Ruinart is a subsidiary of luxury conglomerate, LVMH: Moët Hennessy, Louis Vuitton S. A. 

Champagne Jayne, incidentally, is the champagne educator, Jayne Powell, who is a Sydney-based Welsh-Australian.  I loved her site.
Krug & Co. came next on the Cunard list.  It, too, is located in Reims.  Champagne Krug was one of the famous champagne houses to form part of the membership of the Grand Marques.  It is now one of the brands of the LVMH division mentioned above.  Its champagne was known for its oaky undertones and is an extremely dry champagne.  Krug was established in 1843 by Johann-Joseph Krug, a German immigrant from Mainz. 

Last on the Cunard list was Bollinger.  Founded in 1829 in Aÿ, a commune in the Vallée de la Marne, by Henniquin de Villermont, Paul Renaudin, and Jacque Bollinger, the House of Bollinger remains to this day proudly independent. It also remains a favorite champagne of the Brits, who affectionately call the champagne, “Bolly.”  In pop culture, the champagne is also closely associated with James Bond, as many are bound to know already.  ChampagneJayne notes that Bollinger only uses the first press of high-quality grapes from the vineyards exclusively in the Marne, never grapes that come from the Aube region.
Wealthy Victorians and Edwardians loved champagne, and it was acceptable for women to drink it with all courses of a meal, not just as an aperitif or with the fish and dessert courses.  It is fair to say that vast quantities of champagne continue to be drunk by passengers on cruise ships and ocean liners all over the globe for the same reasons that it was popular in the nineteenth century:  it signified sophistication, wealth, and celebration.  It also helped take people’s minds off the anxieties of crossing the ocean, and it was considered by many to be an excellent cure for sea-sickness.  (But what alcohol would not be!?)