Churchill and Champagne Pol Roger: charting an extraordinary connection
As Pol Roger unveils the latest vintage release of its Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill, we look back at the strong bond between the Champagne house and the British statesman.
Last week, the 2012 expression of Pol Roger’s top end expression, Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill was launched, marking the nineteenth vintage since its creation with the ’75 harvest, which was released at Blenheim in 1984 in magnums only.
Introducing the latest vintage over zoom last week, James Simpson MW, managing director of Pol Roger Ltd – the Champagne house’s UK office and agency business – traced the origins of the label’s close links with Sir Winston Churchill, which led him to name a horse after the Champagne and, it’s reputed, drink two bottles a day
As recorded in a timeline below, Churchill’s penchant for Pol Roger is evident as early as 1908, proven by an invoice that year from his wine merchant, Randolph Payne & Sons, recording an order of ‘1 dozen bottles 1895 Pol Roger’ and ‘1 dozen half bottles 1895 Pol Roger’ for the former British prime minister.
However, his loyalty to the brand was undoubtedly sealed at a lunch given by the British Ambassador to France, Alfred ‘Duff‘ Cooper, on November 12, 1945 – some months after the liberation of Paris.
Attending the lunch was Odette Pol-Roger, with whom Churchill struck up an instant rapport, giving rise to a friendship which continued until Churchill’s death, creating links between the Pol-Roger and Churchill families which are still as strong to this day – indeed, each bottling of Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill, requires the blessing of the Churchill family before it is released.
The pressures of his post prevented him from ever paying a visit to 44 Avenue de Champagne, the home of Champagne Pol Roger, but Churchill nonetheless proclaimed it “the most drinkable address in the world”.
As recompense for breaking his promise to visit, he sent Odette a copy of his memoirs inscribed ‘Cuvée de Réserve, mise en bouteille au Château de Chartwell’.
He even named one of his racehorses Pol Roger, which strode to victory at Kempton Park in 1953, the Coronation Year.
Shortly after Churchill’s death in 1965 aged 90, Odette Pol Roger ordered black-bordered labels to be placed on all their bottles.
10 year after his death, the Champagne house felt that the time was right for a more more lasting memorial to Churchill, and a prestige cuvée carrying his name was launched by the house at Churchill’s birthplace, Blenheim Palace, in 1984.
The expression’s creation was also due to the friendship between the Pol Roger family and Mary Soames (who was at that famous lunch in Paris in 1945, and the youngest of the five children of Winston Churchill and his wife, Clementine). She approved the 1975 and then, subsequently, every new Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill until her death in 2014.
More recently, around a decade ago, the street running behind Pol Roger’s headquarters in Epernay was renamed Rue Winston Churchill in his honour, after a long campaign by former Pol Roger CEO Patrice Noyelle and Pol Roger family member, Christian de Billy, who was born in 1928 in what is now the Pol Roger office and, db has been told, “is still going strong”.
A timeline of Churchill-Pol Roger connections
- 1874 – Churchill was born
- 1908 – Churchill becomes a Pol Roger customer for the first time purchasing a dozen 1895 bottles and half bottles from Randolph Payne & Sons. (This is the same year he get gets engaged to Clementine Hozier)
- 1915-1916 – Churchill served on Western Front with Grenadier Guards, appointed Lieutenant-Colonel, commanding 6th Battalion Royal Scots Fusiliers, France.
- 1917 – Churchill says: “Remember, gentlemen, it’s not just France we are fighting for, it’s Champagne.”
- 3 October 1944 – “It was a beautiful morning and I walked to the Embassy through the Champs Elysées with Teddie. He and Freddie had been on a champagne-buying expedition the day before and had lunched with the Pol Rogers, from whom he had bought four dozen Pol Roger 1928 at 82 francs a bottle, which seems extraordinarily cheap.” (The Duff Cooper Diaries: 1915-1951)
- 11 November 1944 – A lunch took place at the British embassy in Paris after the Armistice commemoration and marked the first time Churchill had visited Paris since the liberation. This is where the Pol Roger 1928 was served. De Gaulle, Coulet, Massigli, Jean Chauvel (Secretary-General to Bidault) and Palewski, Anthony Eden, Alec Cadogan and Churchill were present at the lunch.
- 5 July 1945 – Churchill loses the General Election.
- 12 November 1945 – This was the lunch where Odette Pol Roger was introduced to Sir Winston Churchill. (Odette Pol Roger, née Wallace (1911-2000) was married to Jacques Pol Roger, a director of the family Champagne business). “Winston wanted to go to the Louvre this morning – so we got it specially opened for him. I think he enjoyed it. For lunch we had the Blums, Charles-Roux, Odette Pol Roger, George Lansdowne and Penelope and Eric. Winston was in great form after lunch and very funny with Blum, whom he urged to fight the communists rather than make an alliance with them.” (The Duff Cooper Diaries: 1915-1951)
- 19 May 1946 – Odette Pol Roger visits Churchill at Chartwell, along with Susan Mary Alsop, wife of William ‘Bill’ Patten (who worked at American Embassy in Paris – she also had an affair with Duff Cooper).
- 1965 Churchill dies on 24th ;The State Funeral followed on 30th January. Odette Pol Roger gives instructions that all labels to the UK are to be bordered in black.
- 1975 – The first Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill is composed from this classic vintage and dedicated to Sir Winston’s memory. This was launched at Blenheim Palace (his birthplace) in 1984 (magnums only).
Some further Churchillian facts
- Every year on Churchill’s birthday, Odette Pol Roger sent him a case of Champagne. (His other great friend, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, sent him caviar — until they fell out over Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech, delivered 3 March 1946.)
- Churchill’s favourite cheese was Stilton
- Churchill was a prolific painter and painted over 550 pictures in his lifetime.
- Churchill is of course best known for his huge consumption of drink, and almost ceaseless puffing on cigars, supposedly smoking over 250,000 of them.
- As for his Champagne consumption, Pol Roger estimates that Churchill drank 42,000 bottles of Pol Roger in his lifetime.
- This total equates to roughly 2 bottles / pints (a measure formerly used for Champagne bottles destined for the UK) a day from 1908 – which was the date of the first invoice – until his death in 1965.
- Churchill only drank vintage Champagne, with his favourite harvest-dated Pol Roger release being the 1928, and, “when he drank Pol Roger out of that, he moved to 1935, then 1945 and, finally, the 1947.”
- Churchill liked older vintages of Champagne, and, because he drank it with food, he favoured a robust style of fizz, which was made possible because Pol Roger and Champagne more generally would have been dominated by Pinot Noir in the statesman’s lifetime – Chardonnay, which now represents over 30% of Champagne vineyards, would have covered fewer than one fifth of the region 50 years ago.
- This is why the cuvée Sir Winston Churchill created in his honour, contains over 80% Pinot Noir, and, before release, spends a minimum of 10 years ageing on its lees in Pol Roger’s cellars in Epernay.