UMC - Grandes Marques et Maisons de Champagne

Champagne Guest Book

The Second World War

During the Second World War, unlike during the First, the wine producing area of Champagne remained outside of the battle zone. In June 1940 the German Army swept into France from the Aisne to the Seine and crossed the Marne without meeting serious resistance, despite the individual and collective heroism of many involved. Vitry-le-François was burnt, there was appalling destruction in Châlons-sur-Marne, and around the bridges that the French Army blew up as they retreated, and also near the railway stations that were bombed by the German air force, but the wine producing areas were spared and the vine growers and merchants generally did not experience too much damage. It was the same in 1944; due the speed of the Allies’ advance and the help that they received from the Résistance, the Germans hastily evacuated the region which was spared any major destruction.

But, for four long years, Champagne was occupied by the Germans and, while its possessions were kept relatively safe, many of its men found themselves far away, in prison camps or taken over the Rhine as forced labour, or in free France or the French army in Algeria. Work was difficult in the vineyards. As well as the lack of labour there were chronic shortages of most things, including products to treat the vines and horses. Vine growers used oxen, as was the custom in the Médoc. During the harvests it was hard to find enough pickers, and even if they could be found there was no food to feed them!

Fortunately nature was fairly generous. Here is what appeared on this subject in the Vigneron Champenois of January 1945: Apart from 1940, when there were so many disasters that the harvest was lost, the drought of the following four years has made mildew a certainty (translator’s note: mildew was not always undesirable) and enabled huge economies in copper sulphate. oïdium, after being aggressive in 1943, has been benign during the other years. There has been no grape moth, little or no harvest worms, just one frost in the spring, but more in 1944...a good wine every year and even, in 1943, an exceptional wine which will be talked about for years to come. One might add that 1945 was also a fine vintage. For the production of champagne, as in the 1914-18 war, there were shortages in some materials and bottles were recycled, buyers being required to return them when they reordered.

Sales to the countries at war with the Axis were, of course, impossible and in 1941 the press signalled the return to the United States of the bootleggers offering champagne substitutes as well as authentic champagne, just as in the heyday of Prohibition. The production of champagne did, however, continue, not only because of its importance to the region’s economy but also because the Germans required a supply for their army and to use as currency in their exchanges with neutral countries. On their arrival in Champagne they carried out what Maurice Hollande referred to as, using a charitable euphemism, prélèvements incontrôlés ("uncontrolled levies") which resulted in the disappearance from the merchants’ cellars of more than two million bottles, and that does not, of course, include the thousands of bottles that were left in their personal cellars by inhabitants who fled before the invasion [1]. The occupation authorities soon established an office in Rheims charged with the coordination of German purchases and the fixing of levies. It was run by a certain Otto Klaebisch, who was immediately nicknamed the champagne führer [2] by the inhabitants of Champagne. The levies continued, varying annually until the end of the war from between 15 and 18 million bottles, but these were carried out in an orderly fashion; the merchants were paid and they were free to sell the surplus in France and to the neutral countries.

A certain agreement was thus established between the occupied and the occupiers, but at the end of 1943 the situation deteriorated because the Resistance movement started to become active in Champagne. The Germans hardened their attitude towards Resistance activities. Having been tipped off that an organisation existed within Moët & Chandon, they arrested those in charge; Paul Chandon-Moët was deported to Auschwitz and Robert-Jean de Vogüé, who was condemned to death and incarcerated in a fortress, narrowly escaped execution. They also arrested Claude Fourmon, the director of the Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (see below), who was sent to Buchenwald, and then to Dora. The repression continued. Numerous merchants and vine growers were deported; amongst them Bertrand de Vogüé, the brother of Robert-Jean and president-director-general of Vve Clicquot Ponsardin, and Gaston Poittevin, the president of the Syndicat Général des Vignerons, who were deported to Neuengamme and Buchenwald respectively. Some champagne houses were put under sequestration, notably Moët and Chandon, for the reasons indicated above, and Piper-Heidsieck, when English Army parachutes were discovered in their cellars [3].

Epernay was liberated on 28 August 1944 and Rheims on the 30 August by the Third American Army under the command of General Patton. One can only imagine the joy and relief with which the liberators were welcomed, and the ensuing libations of champagne, which had been walled up in cellars or hidden in wells since 1940. There was also a feeling of tremendous gratitude amongst the people of Champagne towards the architects of the victory, Eisenhower, Churchill, and de Gaulle, the first having had his headquarters at the end of the war in Rheims, in the Lycée Moderne et Technique where the capitulation of Germany was signed on 7 May 1945.

Churchill was known for his fondness of cigars, and equally of champagne. Born in the same year as the famous wine of 1874, it is no secret that he drank champagne almost every day of his adult life, his preference being for the old vintages of Pol Roger that came in imperial pints; he was in the habit of saying that his favourite champagne came from the best address in Europe [4]. In The Happy Years Sir Cecil Beaton recounts a dinner at which he was present in December 1945: I watched Churchill in silence: in his feminine hands with their delicate fingers and manicured nails he held a glass of champagne. It was so close to his face that the bubbles tickled him and being such a baby he wrinkled his nose and eyes.

General de Gaulle, like General Eisenhower, was much more abstemious but during an official visit to Champagne [5], he uttered the following words, which went straight to everyone’s hearts: I would like to say how much I have noticed a spirit of enterprise and of confidence that animates all those in France who concern themselves with our wine of Champagne. there is there, as everyone knows, a great resource and I would add, a sort of honour for our country, both amongst our citizens and abroad.

As during the First World War, champagne helped, wherever it was still available, to soften hardship and raise spirits between 1939 and 1945. In his autobiographical book, La Vie d’Artiste (The Artistic Life), Jean Oberlé recounts that, dining in London at the Coq d’Or with Jean Marin, when both of them were journalists for free France radio, four prostitutes approached them and asked if they would accept some champagne. Each of them had their say as they drank and Jean Obérlé wrote: The conversation was very dignified, the ladies asked us hundreds of questions about the war and displayed a touching patriotism. In Belgium, when Antwerp was liberated by Field Marshal Montgomery on the 3 September 1944, at the head of the brigade given the task of liberating the city were the Inniskillings dragoon guards regiment, of which King Leopold of Belgium was the honorary colonel. The soldiers advanced on Antwerp at an extraordinary speed, the brigade commander having promised champagne for all men of the first squadron to enter.


While the war may have been the source of innumerable problems for the inhabitants of Champagne, it also resulted in the creation of an interprofessional structure that helped champagne survive over the difficult years of the war and would be a key factor in its future success.

In 1939 there was already, in this domain, as we know, the Commission de Châlons. But its regulatory power was limited to the definition of quality standards and the fixing of the price of grapes at the time of harvest. It was not capable of resolving the issues that were raised by the war.

In September 1940 in accordance with the general directives given by the Ministry for Industrial Production to all sectors of the economy, a Bureau de Contact des Syndicats was set up by the wine merchants of Champagne, with a view to opening communication with the occupation forces. In this capacity it was designated to negotiate with the führer du champagne and and played a vital role in the monitoring of the German levies on the wines of Champagne, and in the fight against shortages, by ensuring the supply and distribution of the equipment and various products required for the cultivation of vines and production of champagne, in particular petrol and sugar.

However the Bureau de Contact had a limited purpose and the vine growers were not represented. At the instigation of Robert-Jean de Vogüé, secretary-general of the Groupement Syndical des Négociants en Vins de Champagne d’Epernay, and of Maurice Doyard, secretary of the Syndicat Général des Vignerons de la Champagne Délimitée, the Bureau de Répartition des Vins de Champagnest was created in Châlons-sur-Marne by the Ministerial Decree of the 20 November 1940, which took up the roles of the Commission de Châlons and, ipso facto, of the Bureau de Contact, the roles also being considerably expanded.

This foreshadowed, both in spirit and in structure, the Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne, known as the C.I.V.C. (Vignerons et Maisons de Champagne), which was formally established by the Law of 2 April 1941, supplemented by the Decree of the 8 September 1941, and which continued throughout the war, in the place of the Bureau de Contact, to distribute raw materials that were scarce or only available in quotas and to serve as an intermediary in the organization of deliveries to the Germans. There was now a proper interprofessional body, run by a Bureau Exécutif made up of two Délégués Généraux (General Representatives), one for the vine growers and the other for the merchants40, assisted by an Interprofessional Council made up of representatives from all the professions involved in the production of champagne, vine growers, merchants and cooperatives, employees, brokers, ancillary industries, a representative of the Comité National des Appellations d’Origine and, finally, a high ranking civil servant fulfilled the function within the bureau of Commissaire du Gouvernement.

The C.I.V.C. (Vignerons et Maisons de Champagne), like the Bureau de Répartition, was partly in line with the corporatism extolled by the Vichy Government. According to this approach when various professions contributed to the production of a product they were brought together in an organization in which the state was represented and which was charged with resolving "across the board" issues and with defending the various professions’ interests, the definition of the interprofessional policy and its application being entrusted to the professionals themselves rather than the state. This doctrine was, it must be said, particularly well suited to wine producing Champagne. Jean Piérard, the future director of the C.I.V.C. (Vignerons et Maisons de Champagne), acknowledged this in 1942 when he wrote in his work L’Organisation corporative du Champagne the following lines: In this way the vine growers on the one hand and the merchants on the other, are reciprocally linked, they cannot in our opinion escape from this interdependence; nor would they be able to do so if they thought it was not in their interests. Due to its location in the heart of the vineyards Epernay was chosen over Rheims for the Comité’s offices, which, on its creation, were set up in an attractive building at 41 Avenue de Champagne [6].

For thirty years the C.I.V.C. (Vignerons et Maisons de Champagne) successfully carried out various tasks which had a favourable impact on the development of sales, amongst them, fixing the price of grapes, the distribution of the harvest, technical research, inspections, the providing of information, and publicity for champagne and its defence against imitations.


[1HOFMANNSTHAL (Hugo von). Arabella. Vienna, 1932.

[2Kloebish came from a Rhenish family who were in the wine trade; he only occupied himself with the champagne in bottles. A certain Bart, who was before the war a broker bringing still wines from Champagne into Germany, was responsible for the purchases and levies of wines in barrels, of which 77,000 hectolitres were sent to Germany between 1940 and 1944.

[3The organiser in London of parachute drops to the Resistance was Colonel Maurice Buckmaster, who in 1960 became the Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne’s public relations adviser for Great Britain.

[4Jacques Manière created a Poularde Churchill at the Pactole restaurant, the recipe for which includes a half bottle of Pol Roger champagne.

[5An amusing cartoon of the period shows General de Gaulle inspecting a substantial formation of ...champagne buckets, in which the bottles are all pointing in the same direction, with the caption, General de Gaulle inspects the strike force in Champagne.

[6Lacking space the C.I.V.C. (Vignerons et Maisons de Champagne) was later moved to more functional premises, still in Epernay, at 5 Rue Henri-Martin, all of its departments brought together behind a monumental facade decorated by the sculptor Giot, a vine grower in Etoges. The building was inaugurated on the 14 April 1951 by Messrs Pflimlin, the minister for Agriculture, Schneiter, the minister for Public Health, Chayoux, president of the merchants, and Macquart, president of the vine growers. It was the Maison de la Champagne, a title that lent itself to ambiguity, because the C.I.V.C. (Vignerons et Maisons de Champagne) was not all of Champagne, but which was explained at the time by the presence in the building of certain bodies that were less exclusively concerned with champagne than the C.I.V.C. (Vignerons et Maisons de Champagne).