UMC - Grandes Marques et Maisons de Champagne

The grand history of the Champagne Houses


Portrait de Robert-Jean de Vogüé, délégué général du négoce au CIVC, réalisé par l'un de ses compagnons de cellule à Ziegenhain. Before ever the German army set foot in Champagne, it appointed former Lanson agent Otto Klaebisch as sonderführer (special leader) in charge of managing the Champagne cellars – a war chest much prized by the Nazis. Anxious to preserve their precious bottles, the Champagne Houses joined forces with Growers and set up the Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC) – an extension of the former Commission de Châlons that wrested new powers from central government, neatly sidestepping the corporatist ideology of Vichy France in the process.

Co-chaired by Maurice Doyard, on behalf of the Vignoble (winegrowers) and Robert-Jean de Vogüé on behalf of the Négoce (merchants), the CIVC was mandated to spread the burden of the Occupation fairly between all branches of the industry. Its responsibilities included allocating bottles and copper sulphate but also setting harvest yields (using a system that remained in force until 1990). The priority for the CIVC was to prevent fierce competition and with it a widespread shortage and rocketing prices that only served the interests of the big players. At the same time, however, there was also the need take the pressure off those big brands – prevent the Nazi occupier from overwhelming them with orders simply because it made logistics easier. Never mind if it meant the civilian clientele going without. So Robert-Jean de Vogüé suggested leaving it to the largest Champagne Houses to supply the Wehrmacht, with their smaller counterparts supplying bars requisitioned by the Germans.

The German army also had to be made to understand that those millions of bottles kept in the Champagne Houses’ cellars were not so much reserve stocks as a vital part of the production process, with the finest cuvees being laid down for at least three years. Cellaring, explained the CIVC, was essential to safeguard the quality and reputation of Champagne, so if the Germans would be prepared to accept smaller consignments the Houses would reduce their bottle price. In the event the Nazis were having none of it, but they did agree to give the Houses the advantage with respect to raw material allocation. For instance, by classifying them as “V Betrieb” (priority factories like arms manufacturers); or providing them with the manpower required to produce 25 million bottles of Champagne: at least 2,500 workers, including 500 cellar workers and French prisoners sent home for the purpose. In exchange, the Houses had to prove that they pushed workers to their limits, forcing them to work 54-hour weeks – an achievement only possible thanks to the support of trade union leaders.

Vogüé also struck a deal whereby part of the consignment destined for the Nazis consisted of still wines, leaving it to “Sekt” producers to put them through a secondary fermentation – with uncommonly excellent results, if reports are to be believed. The Champagne Houses meanwhile wanted other sparkling wine regions to contribute some of their wines but since Otto Klaebisch insisted on tasting every consignment, they continued to bear the brunt of Nazi plundering.

Through it all the Champagne industry pulled together, perhaps the finest expression of its solidarity being the general strike called by cellar workers in response to Vogüé’s arrest in 1943 for resistance activities. Employers on the board of the Syndicat du Commerce itself even had a hand in printing the strike leaflets – amazing but true – with Champagne Houses everywhere putting up signs in protest under penalty of being fined 600,000 francs each.

In 1945, it was this united front that gave birth to the Syndicats du Commerce des Vins de Champagne or what is now the Union des Maisons de Champagne: a federated union of merchants, headquartered at the same address as the Syndicat du Commerce. The Champagne Houses could henceforth speak with a single voice.