Pol Roger could unearth stash of Champagne from nineteenth centuryBy Patrick Schmitt
Pol Roger is to find out in the next few days whether a stash of nineteenth century Champagne lies beneath its site in Epernay, which, it is believed, was trapped underground following a cellar collapse in this month, 118 years ago.
In February 1900, after heavy rains in Champagne, Pol Roger’s cellar on the Avenue de Champagne in Epernay caved in, bringing down both levels of the facility, and destroying as well as burying the equivalent of two million bottles of Champagne – barrels of wine were lost as well as bottles.
The site of this catastrophe is now covered over with concrete, but without any structure above it, leaving Pol Roger with 20,000m2 of free space on the Avenue de Champagne that is it planning to fill with a new disgorging line and packing facility.
However, before it can build on this site, it must study the stability of the underlying soil, and for this reason, it has also decided to investigate the possible presence of trapped Champagne that would predate the disaster in 1900.
But is it likely that Pol Roger will find any bottles from the nineteenth century, and, if so, will they be in tact?
Speaking to the drinks business in Champagne last month, Laurent d’Harcourt, president of the house, is quietly confident that they will find something of value.
“We don’t want to build anything [on the site] before making sure [that there isn’t buried Champagne beneath], and we have started to investigate already, and we think we might find something,” he told db.
Continuing, he said, “We know where the [historic] cellar is, and we’ve done some tests, and found some broken glass, so we think we will find some bottles too.”
Ground penetrating tests have shown that there are cavities beneath the site, and Pol Roger has, for some time, been considering digging up the area to see if there are buried bottles from the nineteenth century.
“It has been part of the daily dreams, or nightmares, of Pol Roger for some time,” said d’Harcourt.
However, even if the bottles weren’t broken, the seal of the time – a cork held in place with a large metal staple, called an agraf – may have disintegrated.
On this point too, d’Harcourt is optimistic, telling db that they have found already the broken neck of bottles with the corks still tightly housed within them, suggesting that the conditions and the quality of the stoppers have been good enough to preserve the seal.
As for what Pol Roger might unearth in terms of vintages, d’Harcourt says that he doesn’t know how far back the library stock of the house would have stretched at that time.
“There could be Champagnes from the 1870s, 80s or 90s, but they weren’t ageing the wines so long then, so the Champagnes are probably from the few years before the end of the century, so there could be wine from the 1898 vintage, or 1892 – which would be even better,” he said, noting that this was a legendary vintage in the region – although Pol Roger in fact already has a couple of bottles from this harvest, which survived the cellar collapse as they had been stored elsewhere.
Finally, if Pol Roger is to unearth potable Champagne from the nineteenth century within the month, d’Harcourt said that the timing would be perfect – Dominic Petit, chef de cave for the house for the past 19 years, is retiring.
“If we find a bottle [from the nineteenth century] then it will be the best farewell present to Dominique,” he said.