On 7 May 1889 the Foudre Mercier made its eagerly-awaited entrance at the Exposition Universelle in Paris. Drawn by a team of 24 oxen all the way from Epernay, Mercier’s giant Champagne barrel was greeted as a worthy rival to the Eiffel Tower and received a rousing reception from the audience.
Sixteen hard years in the making.
Eugène Mercier was committed to furnishing his clients with wines of a consistent character year after year. But for that, he needed a container big enough to allow blending on a grand scale. The answer was to build a giant barrel, a project that began in 1870 with a detailed planning and troubleshooting phase that took two years to complete — under the supervision of aptly named cooper, Jolibois (literally "pretty wood" in French). The raw materials came from Hungary: 170 oaks in all, felled every autumn from 1872 onwards for five consecutive years.
The year 1879 saw completion of the finished structure, which was painstakingly loaded onto 11 huge carts for transport to Strasbourg. From there it was taken by train to Epernay where a waiting Eugene Mercier eventually took delivery on 11 September 1881. On 7 July 1885 the House of Mercier updated its inventory ledger as follows: "One tun containing 200,000 bottles, with a holding capacity of 1,600 hectolitres, weighing 20,000 kilos and assembled from 800 elements". All that remained was to check the barrel for leaks. The 1887 vintage marked the barrel’s long-awaited christening: newly filled with 1,600 hectolitres of wine, the Mercier foudre was ready for the grandest blending ever conducted.
Exposition Universelle of 1889: the barrel’s epic journey.
Eugène Mercier was a great communicator who never tired of telling the world about his giant barrel that took 16 years to make. In 1889 he seized his opportunity to make a splash, announcing that the barrel would be among the flagship exhibits at the upcoming Exposition Universelle in Paris. On 17 April that year a team of workmen wielding demolition hammers broke through the walls of the immense Mercier cellar and duly extricated the barrel from its resting place. It was then mounted on four enormous wheels, specially built by the Chemins de Fer de l’Est (eastern railway) to support its hefty 20-tonne weight, and hitched to 12 pairs of Morvan oxen — helped on the steepest hills by a team of 18 horses, not to mention the crowds of spectators who walked alongside it. Mercier’s giant barrel was a sight to behold. Schoolchildren were allowed out to see it. Factory workers downed tools to join the onlookers lining the streets. Where these were too narrow for its great girth, the barrel would take the long way round. Sometimes there was no other solution than to knock down any trees or walls blocking its path. One week later, the outlandish cavalcade arrived at the gates of Paris, only to find that the only way to manoeuvre the barrel inside the city walls was to "shave" a bit off the five corner buildings — having first paid through the nose to acquire them.
Once through the Porte de Pantin, the barrel made its way down the Rue d’Allemagne, then the Rue La Fayette, before taking the Avenue de l’Opéra and following the Orsay embankment. Now it only remained to widen the entrance to the exhibition hall and wheel the barrel inside. With his giant baby in place, Eugène Mercier could finally sit back and savour the taste of victory. Knowing that his barrel’s only rival was the Eiffel Tower made that victory even sweeter.