Given the paucity of true statesmen or stateswomen in the British political spectrum, it is hard to imagine a Champagne house wanting to name its top cuvée after one of our Prime Ministers, let alone whether any have got the palate to discern true greatness. Sir Winston Churchill did, of course, and his love affair with Pol Roger is the thing of wine legend. Churchill is reputed to have drunk 42,000 bottles of Pol Roger in his life and he only discovered it aged 34. David Kermode was granted a rare behind-the-scenes visit to the House where he saw first hand the extent of this great relationship as well as how it is still impacting Pol Roger’s sales and market share in the UK.
Early last year, during excavation work, dozens of surviving undisgorged bottles, dating from 1888 to 1897 were discovered.
“Champagne imparts a feeling of exhilaration. The nerves are braced, the imagination is equally stirred, the wits become more nimble.” So said Sir Winston Churchill, in praise of his favourite tipple.
His penchant was, of course, Pol Roger. And it was some penchant: he is reputed to have worked his way through 42,000 bottles of it over his life. What’s more he didn’t apparently discover it until 1908, by which time he was 34. That equates to around two bottles per day. So it is little wonder that the house named its top cuvée in his honour.
Perhaps surprisingly, Churchill never actually made it to Epernay, to visit the house he described as “the most drinkable address in the world”. It is a shame as he had promised to press the grapes with his feet, which would have been an unforgettable picture.
A visit to Pol Roger is something money cannot buy – they do not ‘sell’ the experience, there is no ‘visitor centre’, there is no ‘gift shop’ – so you have to be invited. It is one of a number of things about the house that helps define it as different.
A family affair
Set back slightly, just off Epernay’s famous ‘Avenue de Champagne’, the location of Pol Roger could actually be a metaphor for its raison d’être. A ‘Grand Marque’ that defines itself in subtly different terms, standing a little away from the fray.
Established in 1849, it remains family owned, in the hands of the fifth generation of the Pol Roger and De Billy families. Its President, Laurent D’Harcourt, only the second non-family member to lead the company, works closely with members of the current generation, including Evelyn De Billy, who oversees the 92 hectares of owned vines that contribute around half of its needs.
Rather like its Champagne, the philosophy of Pol Roger is one of elegance and restraint. Production at around 1.7 million bottles per year makes it a relative minnow, compared with many of its rivals, yet it undoubtedly enjoys a reputation as one of the greatest names, punching well above its weight in sheer numbers.
Driven by a reputation for quality and respect for tradition – ‘riddling’ is still done by hand – its celebrated ‘white foil’ non-vintage is defying gravity in the UK, still growing share in a declining market for Champagne. As is the case with most producers, the company is discreet about numbers, but Britain is its biggest customer, with more exported to the UK than is consumed in France. The USA is next, followed by Sweden and Australia. Britain’s share of the NV product is now on an ‘allocation basis’, putting the brakes on serious growth, but doing wonders for its exclusivity.
Although they do not say as much, it is clear that Pol Roger could probably produce more if it wanted to. The fact that it doesn’t is very much to its credit, underlining that sense of class and calm that Churchill may well have found so beguiling in Madame Pol Roger all those years ago.
A lasting friendship
Pol Roger’s success owes much to its carefully curated connection with Britain’s war time Prime Minister. He was already an enthusiastic fan of the product by the time he met Odette Pol Roger – a member of the Wallace dynasty and volunteer for the French Resistance – at a party at the British Embassy in Paris. Served Pol Roger 1928, Churchill began a love affair with that particular vintage, and a lasting, entirely platonic, friendship with its custodian.
Each year on his birthday, she would send him a case of his favourite. He lived a long life and appears to have polished off the entire inventory of the 1928 vintage before moving on to his second favourite, the 1934. On his death in 1965, Odette attended the funeral, at St Paul’s Cathedral. On her return to Epernay, she declared that Pol Roger’s distinctive white label should be edged in black by way of a tribute, something that continued for decades.
Vintage rules the house
Appropriately for a house with such a rich tradition, there is a greater emphasis on ‘vintage’: it only began producing its top-selling ‘white foil’ NV product in 1955 and, unusually, still declines to make rosé in anything other than a vintage format, reinforcing that sense that Pol Roger does things ‘the Pol Roger way’.
Around a quarter of its UK sales are vintage-specific, with the 2012 release now available in the market (see tasting notes below) through Pol Roger Portfolio, its UK agency business that represents a complementary selection of upmarket brands, including Drouhin and Grand Tokaj.
With a capacity of well over 500,000 bottles, Pol Roger’s 8 kilometre cellar system holds its own vintage secrets: the scene of a disaster in 1900 when significant parts collapsed during a storm. Almost one and a half million bottles were lost and the company came close to collapse as a result. Early last year, during excavation work, broken glass was found, leading to the discovery of a tunnel with dozens of surviving undisgorged bottles, dating from 1888 to 1897.
Pol Roger is planning an event to allow experts to taste these ancient treasures, possibly later in the year – the most exclusive of invitations that will no doubt impart a feeling of exhilaration worthy of Churchill’s words.
Tasting through history
Pol Roger Brut Reserve NV – equal parts Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier, focused on freshness, with an elegant mousse, aromas of citrus blossom, crisp green apple and stone fruit on the palate, complemented by nutty crumble topping. An absolute classic. (RRP £45)
Pol Roger ‘Pure’ Extra Brut NV – zero dosage, but there’s nothing missing. Crisp, fresh and tight, the ripe citrus fruit brings weight and depth. A triumph of precision and finesse, they worked hard to get this right – and it shows. (RRP £50)
Pol Roger Vintage 2012 Blanc de Blancs – pale gold, a pretty nose of honeysuckle, mountain honey and raw almond, all Grand Cru Chardonnay delivering a beautifully balanced palate of lemon drizzle cake, peach and yellow apple. (RRP £75)
Pol Roger Vintage 2012 – 60/40 Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, with just 7g p/l of dosage, dandelions, grapefruit and gingerbread lead into a complex feast of citrus and toasted brioche. Enticing and very open. (RRP £75)
Pol Roger Rosé Vintage 2009 – 35% Chardonnay, the remainder Pinot Noir, with around 15% vinified as red. Bright red cherries, watermelon and redcurrant, with a mineral streak and a thrilling grip. (RRP £70)
Pol Roger Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill 2008 – the first “Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill” was from the 1975 vintage and was released in 1984, with the launch taking place at Blenheim Palace. Only released in the best years, rich and opulent, with extraordinary concentration of citrus, dried apricot, and ripe red apple, perfectly poised, with notes of crumbly puff pastry. (RRP £180)
Pol Roger Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill 2002 – one of the best vintages in recent times, ageing beautifully. Still fresh, with mango, ginger and dried fig, structured, with delicious lemon shortbread and creamy lemon posset. Outstanding. (no longer on sale)
Pol Roger Vintage 1914 – harvested early by women and children, to the sound of not-so-distant gunfire at the start of the Great War, enjoyed with dinner as the “Vin Surprise”, this retains a delicate bead of bubbles which gently fades. Nutty, with orange peel and honeycomb, rich, but dry, retaining extraordinary structure and depth for its great age. (most definitely no longer on sale)
Pol Roger Portfolio is a Supplier Partner of The Buyer. To discover more about the company click here.
David Kermode is a wine presenter, writer, broadcaster, judge and consultant to the Lanchester Group with his own website vinosaurus.co.uk.