Category Archives: On this day

Sovetskoye Shampanskoye – Stalin’s ‘plebeian luxury’

On 28 July 1936, Stalin signed Resolution no 1366 setting up three wine trusts that were tasked with making Soviet champagne. This was something of a challenge to Soviet vine-growers since until 1935 champagne or sparkling wine was seen as a ‘bourgeois luxury’ and they had been encouraged to root up the noble grapes planted in the nineteenth and early twentieth century in regions such as Abrau-Durso (on the Black Sea shores of the Crimea). These noble grapes had been the basis of a small production of Russian sparkling wine by the traditional method (what we now know as méthode champenoise) but official Soviet policy was to replace them with more prolific varieties.

Stalin (perhaps under the impulse given by Anastas Mikoyan, the People’s Commissar for External and Internal Trade), decided that champagne was ‘an important sign of material well-being, of the good life’. The pressure was on to show that under Communism goods such as champagne and caviar that were once the preserve of the wealthy were now available to Soviet workers.


Mikoyan, Stalin and Ordzhonikidze – the ‘Caucasus trio’ – with acknowledgments to Wikipedia

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The Kate Moss coupe: Caring’s champagne coup

London restaurateur Richard Caring (The Ivy, Annabel’s, Le Caprice, Soho House) has been described by restaurant critic A.A. Gill as aiming for ‘the restaurant equivalent of LVMH’. Fittingly then, it’s LVMH’s Dom Perignon champagne brand that – along with Caring and 34, another of his London restaurants – will benefit from a latest masterstroke of marketing.

Moss glass

The Moss glass (with ‘Kate’ signature on the bottom). Courtesy of 34 Restaurant

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‘Archer Up’ | celebrating the great Victorian jockey

Fred Archer committed suicide on 8 November 1886. Delirious with wasting and purging to make the 8 stone 7lb weight for the Cambridgeshire Cup (the only classic race he had never won) and suffering the effects of typhoid fever he shot himself. The gun is still in the National Horse-Racing Museum.Fred Archer_200913

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Miracle at Marino | wine on tap, in your house

Every October, there’s a Sagra dell’Uva festival held in Marino (15 miles or so the south east of Rome). The festival has its origins in 1571 when, on 17th October, the same day as the traditional processions of the Madonna del Rosario, the Christian fleet defeated the Turks at Lepanto.

The lord of Marino, Marcantonio Colonna, had taken part in the battle and in 1925 the Marinesi decided to link Colonna’s victory with a festival to celebrate and publicise their own famous white wine. Their link was that one of the group that went into battle with Colonna was a vine-grower who reputedly brought back to Marino a Malvasia vine from the island of Candia… . With me so far?

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Into the lions’ cage | adman wins a champagne bet

On 11th October 1890, The Oxford Journal reported that Mr James Dillon, an Irish ‘advertising agent’ had wagered £100 that he could enter the lions’ cage and “drink his share of a bottle of champagne before leaving.”

Thanks to the assistance of Muccomo (described as the ‘coloured lion tamer’) with both the lions and the champagne he succeeded.

Champagne was often part of 19th century wagers. If it wasn’t the ‘fumes’ of the drink that provoked some extravagant or intemperate behaviour, it was often the prize at stake. In February 1880, the South Shields Gazette featured a bet (for a sum unrecorded) that turned on the ability to drink a glass of champagne from an unopened bottle without piercing the cork or breaking the glass. It was won by the simple expedient of turning the bottle upside down and drinking from the punt (described here as “the hollow at the bottom”).

19th century French champagne bottles showing the depth of the 'punt'

19th century French champagne bottles showing the depth of the ‘punt’. Thanks to the Naked Winery for this image

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Graham’s 1948 Vintage Port | Would that it were mine…

As a post this is almost a week behind the time. The excuse is that firstly I’ve just found the reference (in an old copy of Decanter) and secondly, it’s just too good a coincidence.

Graham’s 1948 Vintage Port shares my name and my birth year – and now I find that on my birthday John D Symington whose family still own this legendary port house, reporting on the harvest prospects for 1948, wrote “Grapes looking healthy and nice and very sweet.”

Graham's 1948 label

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Who buried my cheese? | Samuel Pepys and the Great Fire of London, 1666

In early September 1666 the Great Fire of London swept through the medieval City, destroying more than 13,000 houses as well as 87 churches and St Paul’s Cathedral. It had started shortly after midnight on 2 September in Thomas Faryner’s Pudding Lane bakery. Samuel Pepys’s house in Seething Lane, just half a mile to the east, was in the line of the fire which was driven westward by strong winds and Pepys was worried. What concerned him was not so much for his personal safety as for his gold, his wine – and his cheese.

Faryner plaque

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Sam Pepys is hungover

Sam Pepys, bon viveur, ladies’ man, naval administrator extraordinaire and diarist, was no stranger to hangovers. A cup of morning chocolate was sometimes enough to get him fit for work but, typically he was consumed by guilt and self-loathing after over-indulgence – be it in food, sex or wine. 9th August 1660 was perhaps an exception. He’d started a long day with ‘a great deal of Rhenish wine’ before meeting up for dinner and more wine with his wife and friends. After dinner (probably around 2 pm) his wife went to visit another friend but Pepys ducked out to go back to work before returning later for beef and more wine. The next day he was very low – having slept badly and endured a ‘great loosing upon me’ – but struggled into work before watching a foot-race around Hyde Park.

Sam Pepys looks serious

Could he blame the wine? High sugar German wines are often accused of causing headaches; if the culprit is not the ‘Red Wine Headache’, dignified as the RWH syndrome. Some suggest it’s simply the result of cheap, short-cut wine-making; others that high levels of sulphur dioxide may be implicated – though fewer than 1 in 1000 has any true allergy to sulfites (the collective name for sulphur products used in wine).

Rhenish wine was a catch-all description for wines from the German Rhineland but there was a recognized set of London taverns (probably run by Dutchmen or Germans) specialising in such wines. The one Pepys went to was in King St, just north of the Houses of Parliament.

We don’t know what the wine that Pepys indulged in would have tasted like. It would have been ‘white’; it might have been made from Riesling grapes (first documented in 1435) but could have been Elbling (though this is very acidic) or Sylvaner. Hugh Johnson described in Vintage, The Story of Wine the experience of drinking a bottle of 1540 Steinwein from Wurzburg. Though brown in colour (like Madeira) this wine from a legendarily hot year was on first tasting “still alive”, though it quickly oxidised. This doesn’t tell us much and I’m sure Pepys knew little more. A day later (11 August 1660) he decided that the wine was to blame. It usually is.

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A bottle of claret a day | a Victorian doctor’s view of health

An Age UK study, released today (8 August 2013) has raised concerns that too many over-65s are drinking to excess. Many of the over-65s interviewed, however, did not see a particular problem. Drinking helped them relax, made it easier to socialise, and, in their view, wasn’t much of a problem so long as they weren’t out of control in any way.

Francis Anstie, the Victorian doctor whose 1877 book On the Uses of Wines in Health and Disease, I was reading yesterday might have shared their view.  He was concerned about the ‘grave danger’ of excessive drinking caused, in his view, by the “multiplication of alcoholic drinks, with different flavours, each tempting in its turn” and by the lack of accurate label information on the strength of drinks.  However, he was also determined (perhaps in the face of a temperance threat) “to demonstrate the prominent fitness of wine, above all other alcoholic drinks” as a remedy for a wide range of illnesses.

Francis Anstie

Francis Anstie, FRCP, MD

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Dom Pérignon|Did he see stars?

4th August 2013 seems like a good date to launch this blog since – by some accounts – it’s precisely 320 years since Benedictine monk Dom Pérignon reputedly ‘invented’ champagne in 1693. Others say June 1694 but I’m too late or too early for that.

I’m heading back to University this autumn to do a Masters’ Degree on the ‘Perception and Marketing of Champagne in Victorian England’ so this date has a special resonance for me. And Dom P himself is yet another entry in the catalogue of marvellous myths, brand management, white lies, counterfeit labels and dubious brands that make up much of the history of champagne when you leave the relative safety of the ‘celebrated brands’ that we recognise and salute today.

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