napoleon and champagne -- 10/10/14

Today's selection -- from The Widow Clicquot by Tilar J. Mazzeo. After years of brutal war on a scale never before seen in Europe, Napoleon was defeated in 1814 by a coalition of allies including Russia, Great Britain, Prussia and Austria and was exiled to the island of Elba. (He famously escaped in 1815 and was defeated a final time that July at Waterloo in present day Belgium). Many of the final battles of the 1814 campaign happened in the northeast of France near Reims in the heart of the Champagne district. The advancing coalition troops, led by the Russians, captured Reims, the French briefly recaptured it, and then it fell again to the Russians in the days before Napoleon's surrender. Both Russian and French troops celebrated their respective victories with a little-known local drink called Champagne. Thus began the ascent of Champagne to the world famous drink of celebration we know today:

"Champagne was not always big business. ... In the second part of the eighteenth century, champagne was in a slump, destined to become a regional curiosity. Local winemakers were struggling to drum up even modest sales, and champagne might have faded into obscurity...

"[However] the arrival of the Russians [in Reims in 1814] would ... prove a brilliant marketing opportunity for the winemakers throughout the Champagne ... These new men would never forget [the] sparkling wines [of Reims]. Watching the destruction of his cellars, Jen-Rémy [Moët] also saw the potential. 'All these officers who ruin me today,' he predicted. 'will make my fortune tomorrow. All those who drink my wine are salesmen who, on returning to their own country, will make the product famous.'

"These Russians, however, were not the only ones in the winter of 1814 to enjoy the champagne of [Reims] ... In early March, the French army under the leadership of General Corbineau recaptured Reims. ...

Battle of Reims Napoleon and his staff are retuning from Soissons after the battle of Laon.

"Of course, the French troops wasted no time in celebrating their victory, either. There is a legend, in fact, that it was during these days that the art of sabrage -- opening champagne bottles with military sabers -- was invented. According to the story, 'Madame Clicquot ... in order to have her land protected, gave Napoleon's officers Champagne and glasses. Being on their horses, they couldn't hold the glass while opening the bottle.' So they lopped off the necks of the bottles with their swords, and sabrage was born. ...

"The French victory was short-lived. A week later, the French were forced to retreat, and the Russians again occupied the town. ...

"Napoleon abdicated the throne of France in early April, and the Russians were briefly in Reims again, celebrating the end of the war in boisterous spirits. ... Russian officers toasting the end of the long campaign toasted with ... champagne. Everywhere in the city, 'Russian officers ... lifted the champagne glass to their lips. It was said even that many of them preferred the popping of the bottle of Rheims to the cannon of the Emperor.' After long years of war, the British were no less exuberant. Lord Byron wrote to his friend Thomas Moore in the second week of April, 'We clareted and champagned till two.' Already, champagne was on its way to becoming another word for mass-culture celebration. ...

"That the Napoleonic Wars should have ended in the Champagne region is mere happenstance, but it was a pivotal moment in the history of this wine, a moment that forged its cultural identity. Champagne wine was already enjoyed as the drink of festivity. It had been since the earliest days of its history. But a hundred little obstacles had impeded its broad commercial appeal. For centuries, it had been the wine only of the wealthiest and most discerning of connoisseurs, and the total production in France at its prewar height had never been more than four hundred thousand bottles. Within decades of Napoleon's defeat, it would multiply more than tenfold, to over five million."


Tilar J. Mazzeo


The Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It


HarperCollins Publishers


Copyright 2008 by Tilar Mazzeo


xvi, 103, 104, 107
barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment