Treasure trove of long-lost 19th century Champagne unearthed in France

The Champagne house Pol Roger has unearthed bottles of vintage bubbly from the debris of cellars that collapsed in 1900 and buried more than a million bottles of the luxury wine.

Treasure trove of long-lost 19th century Champagne unearthed in France
1.5 million bottles of Pol Roger bubbly lied buried . Photo: AFP

Experts say the Champagne may well still be drinkable and the producer is hoping to retrieve many more bottles from the cellars in the town of Epernay in the heart of the Champagne region of northeastern France.

The story began on 23 February 1900 when two floors of cellars collapsed overnight.

“At about 2 am 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, according to an account by local trade paper Le Vigneron Champenois.

The firm’s vast cellars as well as some of the buildings above had collapsed, burying 1.5 million bottles and 500 casks of Champagne.

“It was the beginning of both the dreams and nightmares of generations of the family and cellarmasters,” Laurent d’Harcourt, the current president of Pol Roger,” told Wine Spectator news site.

The owners at the time considered tunnelling in to retrieve the buried wine gave up the idea when a month later another nearby cellar caved in. They instead decided to build new cellars on Avenue de Champagne.


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B Rosen/Flickr

Tentative attempts over the years to find out if the wine, famous for being Winston Churchill’s favourite tipple, had survived and to get it back came to nothing.

But last month during building works for a packaging facility on the site of the  cellars, workers found a cavity while drilling.

“We found one bottle the first day, then five or six the next day,” and then they had 26 in total, said d’Harcourt

But the hunt for more is now on hold due to recent heavy rains that make the ground above unstable for the moment.

The wine in the surviving, hand-blown bottles, is clear and the levels are correct, while the corks, held in place by metal staples, have survived the test of time.

“They’ll definitely be tasted, but we’re taking our time,” said d’Harcourt.


French Champagne makers threaten boycott of Russia over ‘sparkling wine’ label

Russian elites could soon find themselves without their favourite French bubbles if Moet Hennessy makes good on a threat to halt champagne supplies following a new law signed by President Vladimir Putin.

French Champagne makers threaten boycott of Russia over 'sparkling wine' label
Russian lawmakers adopted legislation saying the word "champagne" can only be applied to wine produced in Russia. Photo: Alexander NEMENOV / AFP.

Moet Hennessy’s Russia office warned local partners it was suspending supplies after Russian lawmakers adopted legislation stipulating that the word “champagne” can only be applied to wine produced in Russia, while the world-famous tipple from France’s Champagne region should be called “sparkling wine”.

Leonid Rafailov, general director of AST, a top liquor distributor which works with a number of brands including Moet Hennessy, said on Saturday his firm had received a letter from the French company notifying it of the suspension.

“I confirm that such a letter exists, and it is justified,” Rafailov told AFP.

He said that in accordance with the legislation – signed off on by Putin on Friday – the company would have to undergo new registration procedures, among other requirements.

Sebastien Vilmot, Moet Hennessy managing director in Russia, declined to speak to AFP.

But in a statement released through Rafailov, Vilmot called the suspension a “temporary” measure before a solution could be found.

Moet Hennessy is part of French luxury goods group LVMH and known for such brands as Moet & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot and Dom Perignon.

The French are fiercely protective of the term “champagne”, and it can only be made in the French region of the same name.

A copy of Moet Hennessy’s letter was first published on social media on Friday by a representative of a Moscow-based liquor importer and distributor.

Drinks market expert Vadim Drobiz suggested the legislation was open to interpretation but added that Moet Hennessy’s share of the Russian market was relatively small and well-heeled clients could find a replacement.

“If there is no Moet, there won’t be a state coup and Russian elites will not commit suicide,” Drobiz quipped.

But wine consultant Anna Chernyshova questioned the purpose of the amendments. “My phone has been ringing off the hook,” she said. “Me and my clients are thinking what to do next.”

Chernyshova, who helps people build wine collections, said she was not sure why the Russian parliament had passed such a law. “How will they walk back on it?” she told AFP. “So many officials love this champagne.”

Social media was abuzz with jokes, with wits making fun of the latest piece of Russian legislation. “Now it’s necessary to ban Scots and Americans from using the word “whisky”, joked restaurateur Sergei Mironov.

Popular singer Vasya Oblomov said Russian lawmakers could now adopt similar legislation regulating the use of the name “Mercedes” and even place names.

“I thought it was a joke,” wrote Putin’s self-exiled critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky. “I was wrong.”