Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Napoleon and Champagne

Champagne’s location between French and German kingdoms has always left it open to the ravages of war and invading armies. Life in the vineyards had to go on throughout the Hundred Years War (1359), during which Edward III attempted to storm the city of Reims and be crowned king of France in its cathedral. During the First World War in 1914, German forces occupied Reims and Epernay but were pushed back by the French and in the Second World War in 1940, Champagne was again occupied by German troops and the wine industry was put under the control of a winemaker from the Rhineland. The Champenois hid as much wine as they could by sealing up some of their cellars and, before their retreat in 1944, the Germans had intended to blow them up. Fortunately, Patton’s army arrived just in time to stop this from happening!

However there is one figure in history who is famously linked with Champagne – and that is Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon's Hussars are credited with the invention of champagne sabrage (opening a bottle of champagne with a sabre) – which they used to impress the Widow Cliquot when they were garrisoned near her vineyards. Napoleon himself said: "Champagne! In victory one deserves it; in defeat one needs it."

Napoleon was a good friend of the Champagne maker Jean-Rémy Moët ever since they had in 1782 at the military academy of Brienne le Chateau when Moët was soliciting orders for his family champagne firm. During his military campaigns, Napoléon would always make it an objective to swing by the Moët estate at Epernay to pick up some cases of champagne. The lone exception was when Napoléon had to forgo his usual stop due to his rush to get to Waterloo.

Moët even built a replica of the Grand Trianon (originally built by Louis XIV at Versailles and later occupied by Napoleon in 1805) for Napoleon and the Empress Josephine to stay in when they visited. After Napoleon's abdication, Champagne was occupied by Russian soldiers and in retaliation for Napoléon's earlier conquest, the Champenois were subjected to large fines and ordered to pay requisitions. Most of Champagne's cellars were plundered with Moët's being particularly hard hit with more than 600,000 bottles being emptied by the Russian encampment. Instead of resisting, Moët told his friends "All of those soldiers who are ruining me today will make my fortune tomorrow. I'm letting them drink all they want. They will be hooked for life and become my best salesmen when they go back to their own country”. How right he was!

Images Courtesy of www.flickr.com

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