Pol Roger, Churchill, and Lunzer
By Peter Lunzer
“My tastes are simple: I am easily satisfied with the best.”
Winston S. Churchill
Everybody knows that Pol Roger was a great favourite of Churchill. In fact, they formed a close friendship before the war. There are many fun and fascinating stories about the special bond, but I think one of the best statistics is that he got through 42.000 bottles in his lifetime. I tried to work it out, it’s about 560 a year, which is fine if you are the prime minister and have lots of parties at Chequers. However, I do have a sneaky suspicion that he got through quite a few on his own and there is no doubt he loved the stuff - to the extent that he named one of his racehorses Pol Roger.
Anyway, Pol Roger has been a favourite of mine for many years not least as we were serving this delicious champagne at my wedding, which took place in Gothenburg on a wintery December day.
I think my father-in-law was enthusiastic about how many magnums of Pol Roger we had delivered, but less so about how many we managed to get through. I don’t recall specific numbers but there were not many left over for him.
However, we are still on speaking terms, and Pol Roger served from magnum or any other size you care to mention remains a firm favourite of mine and I do believe that the best bespoke events start with a good bottle of fizz.
And when we are talking Churchill and Pol Roger, it might not be coincidental that it was a British prime minister who became associated with this delicious brand.
After all, the thing about Champagne is that of course it is not really a French product at all, and I find it rather fascinating how fizz lovers owe a lot to the British.
Champagne as a region dates back many, many years and the wines produced were overshadowed by wine from places nearby such as the beautiful Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs made in Burgundy to the South and Chablis’ steely and refined Chardonnay to the Southwest.
As no one really put any investments into the area, one of the problems for Champagne was that the wine would often bubble up as temperatures rose in the spring of the year following the harvest caused we now know, by residual yeast in the barrels. So, the French saw the wines from this area as a flawed whereas the British rather liked that the wine sparkled.
Already in 1662, a British man, Christopher Merret, presented a paper to The Royal Society in London, describing how to create Fizz using yeast and sugar.
This was decades before Dom Perignon dedicated his life to removing bubbles from wine to elevate the perception of the 'still' wines of the Champagne region. Ironically, his name is forever associated with the bubbles he tried so hard to avoid.
Fast forward to 1715, when King Phillipe came to the throne in France, it marked the first time any monarch had said, “I quite like sparkling wine”. As a result the Champagne industry was born using a British recipe.
Basically, they were adding in the sugar and the yeast to the still local wines and hoping for the best, and according to the recipe the pressure inside the bottle rose to about 7 atmospheres, and this is another reason why the champagnes are more associated with the British than the French.
In the 1620s Admiral Sir Robert Mansell advised James I of England to use sea coal furnaces to fire glass and thus preserve Oak for the Royal Navy’s battleship. What the king probably did not know was that admiral had a patent for a sea coal furnace and I think he left the navy shortly after and made a lot of money.
But meanwhile, the glass makers turned to using the coal furnace to make glass bottles, and the high temperature at which they were fired resulted in strong glass, much needed in the Champagne production. Going back to the early days of champagne it was incredible dangerous to go into a cellar where the bottles were maturing, and the second fermentation was happening. You had to go in with an iron mask and long leather coat to avoid being hit by flying shards of glass from exploding bottles. Along came the British who created glass strong enough to make sure what that what you created would stay in the bottles as intended.
Before the glass problem got solved, you could order 100 bottles and would only be invoiced for what arrived on your doorstep. The reason was that very often when the horse and cart would go down the road and hit a rut, one bottle would explode, and it would take with it all the bottles in the near vicinity. In the early days of champagne, it was normal that out of 100 bottles ordered only 25 bottles turned up intact. Once again, the British glass solved the problem.
I can only guess how Churchill would have found this piece of history stimulating, I know I do, and my wife and all the guests certainly appreciated when all the bottles arrived unharmed in Sweden for our wedding.
We can all understand why Churchill loved Pol Roger so much since it is a great house with a reputation and popularity which doesn’t diminish. It is not one of the big Champagne houses by any stretch. Out of the total 330 million bottles made in Champagne every year Moet et Chandon makes about 30 million bottles, roughly 10 percent, while Pol Roger makes a modest 1.8 million bottles. That is still a lot of fizz, to the extent that Churchill’s 42.000 bottles sound almost reasonable, and long may that continue. I am grateful that the only dangerous thing about champagne is it’s tempting taste. We will be opening a bottle of Pol Roger on our anniversary just before Christmas. And no doubt another one for New Year’s Eve. And for that matter, any other day of celebration...
Cheers to whatever you are celebrating,
The battle of the fizz goes on beyond the stories about French Dom Perignon and British Christopher Merret.
But this is becoming irrelevant since there is now no doubt in my mind that the Fizz produced either side of the Channel can be equally delicious. Pour a glass of each and decide which you prefer - this is a frequently used concept with New World - Old World and their styles of Chardonnay/Cabernet/Pinot etc. so lets do the same with things which are Fizzy.
Time to put things to the test... You may discover that you really like both!
MORE ABOUT POL ROGER… check the article Champagne for Celebration on our blog.