UMC - Grandes Marques et Maisons de Champagne

The grand history of the Champagne Houses


Carte postale patriotique, Première Guerre mondiale. For most of the First World War, the Champagne region was right on the front line. Reims was destroyed along with all of its industrial buildings. Through it all the Champagne Houses somehow kept going, their cellars now peopled by the wives of men departed for the front, their crayères repurposed as shelters for the local community. Schools, chapels, sleeping quarters, offices, packaging facilities – a whole new way of life sprang up underground.

In 1914 the Syndicat du Commerce was caught napping. New president Raoul de Bary, confident the hostilities would be short-lived, preferred to suspend activities in the meantime rather than risk meeting in Reims with the bombs raining down from above. As it turned out, the fighting dragged on, putting a strain on the economy and mobilizing France’s entire industrial sector. With the war here to stay, Raoul de Bary announced the resumption of the Syndicat’s activities, now operating out of Moët & Chandon’s Parisian premises.

The priority was to keep production going despite wartime rationing and an acute labour shortage. Grape harvesting, for instance, was carried out by soldiers on leave, specially arranged by the Syndicat; muselets and plaques were made of metal begged by the Syndicat from the Bureau des Métaux. This against a backdrop of raw materials shortages that saw munitions factories commandeer the alcohol normally used to make liqueurs, and artillery foundries requisition the coal used to fire glass furnaces…

The French Government meanwhile, obsessed with things running out, declared that domestic production would be reserved for the French and all exports were banned. The news spelled disaster for the Champagne Houses, which exported 70% of their production, and it took all of the Syndicat’s powers of persuasion to convince the powers that be that Champagne could not be considered an essential product…

The Syndicat also strove to protect the Houses from allegations of “trading with the enemy” following reports that bottles of Champagne supplied to intermediaries in neutral countries had been offered for resale in Germany. To prevent this from happening again, the Syndicat compiled a blacklist of shady importers to be avoided at all costs. Then there were the German names of so many of the Champagne Houses – evidence of German roots that became a major stumbling block. Where possible, the Syndicat would provide customers with certificates attesting to the French identity of the House owner. Champagne Houses whose owners had not taken French citizenship saw their assets confiscated, G.H. Mumm being a famous example. The Syndicat campaigned to prevent their stocks being sold off, ultimately hoping to compensate Houses that were destroyed in the process or whose bottles were placed on deposit outside France and looted.