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Friday, 13 February, 1998, 16:47 GMT
Bon Appetit - The King of Wine
Bon Appetit - Part Three of Four
BBC correspondent Kevin Connolly reports from Paris and, not surprisingly, loves French cuisine. However, there are some aspects of French cooking which make an Englishman's eyebrows rise. So one day, after a good meal, Kevin sat back and wrote down his impressions of the French love affair with food. BBC News is publishing online the four parts of his report, and Kevin's third course is called "The King of Wine":

This particular war had not been going on long enough for anyone to have become an expert in camouflage. The only sign that the ageing Russian helicopter had been converted from civilian use at all was a wonkily-painted skull and crossbones flying off one of the radio masts at the front. It fluttered uncertainly in the churning air as the main rotors began to turn.

The bodywork was painted a livid shade of orange with a thick stripe of blue around the top of the cockpit. Notideal for concealment on snow-capped mountains, pointed out a smartly dressed French photographer and, he added irrelevantly, dreadful colours too.

I remembered buying a tie somewhere the previous year with a remarkably similar combination of shades and said nothing.

We were on our way from the Armenian capital Yerevan to Stepanakaert, the capital of the beleaguered enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh at the beginning of the first and most savage of the wars which marked the collapse of the old Soviet Union.

Karabakh was a mountain region, peopled by Christian Armenians, which the Soviets had in the 1920s skilfully placed within the frontiers of Muslim Azerbaijan. By the 1980s a war of almost biblical savagery ensued in which prisoners were crucified, civilians tortured and whole villages razed.

At this particular time the Karabakh civilians were fighting desperately to hold off the Azerbaijani armed forces which were shelling and occasionally even bombing Stepanakaert.

The fighting began shortly before the conflict in Yugoslavia erupted, giving this forgotten war a reasonable claim to have seen the first serious ground fighting in Europe for decades.

Flying with Lucky

For foreign journalists in a world with no accreditations, no restrictions and no reassuringly irritating presence of international organisations, the only way to see what was going on was to take a resupply helicopter from Armenia, over the Azerbaijani lines and into the besieged city.

A prematurely grey pilot with deep worry lines assured us we would be flying too high to be hit from the ground by any weapon the Azerbaijanis were known to possess. We all liked him instinctively, if only because the ground staff called him "Lucky".

Still, as we flew it was hard to look at the rotor blades and not see them as hands desperately grabbing at the thin air in an attempt to keep us up. If anything happens to the main rotor during a flight, a helicopter has the aerodynamic properties of a grand piano.

Fighters in Nagorno-Karabakh
When is the next champagne flight coming in?
Luggage inspection

Sitting in the back surrounded by dozens of boxes and cases, we began to grow curious about exactly what supplies we were carrying in.

A crate marked "potatoes" turned out to contain rocket-propelled grenades. "Must be for King Edward's Own Infantry," remarked an English cameraman.

A box marked "champagne" we reasoned would therefore presumably contain some other type of ammunition. Wrong. It really did contain bottle after bottle of sweet, fizzy Soviet wine.

I mentioned this with some surprise a few days later to one of the leaders of the Armenian fighters as we sprinted from doorway to doorway during the regular late afternoon mortaring.

"We had to bring it in for you," he said. "How else would a foreign delegation like you be welcomed? We still know how to do things here."

I was quite used to the Communist bloc mindset which turned any visiting foreigner - even a handful of scruffy reporters - into an official delegation. But for once, as I remembered how the extra weight left the aircraft lumbering across the sky, visible as a Christmas tree on a billiard table, I felt the usual formalities could for once have safely been ignored.

Champagne? What champagne?

Now of course the highly litigious organisation which represents the champagne producers of France would point out that the drink we had unknowingly risked our lives to carry through those dangerous skies was not champagne at all, merely a sparkling wine manufactured in the Soviet Union.

The real thing
Only the wines produced in the relevant region of northern France can, properly speaking, be called champagne. Even where no real possibility of ambiguity exists, the producers are ruthless. They have even forced the commercial makers of a delicious English soft drink made from flower petals to stop using the name "elderflower champagne".

Now I can remember making this stuff myself in the kitchen with my mum and dad. They had certainly have been a bit less nonchalant as they sauntered round the house with carrier bags of flowers and measuring bowls of sugar if they had thought we were going to get a writ for my wobbly, hand-written champagne labels.

The producers, of course, do have a point.

Fighting off the competition

Chile, California, Australia, Romania, Bulgaria, Germany, Italy and South Africa all produce sparkling wines these days, not to mention dozens of other regions of France too. Improvements in grape production and the techniques of wine-making have narrowed the margins of difference between them all.

A friend of mine who works for one of the major champagne houses still gamely insists the real thing can be instantly told from its imitators, the result of a complex variety of factors ranging from climate and soil to expertise in blending and refining.

Stocking up

The coming of the next millennium and the worldwide celebrations which will accompany it mean these are fiercely competitive times among producers of sparkling wines. Rumours began to sweep the world's wine market last year that there might not be enough real champagne to go around when the night of the December 31, 1999, finally arrives.

cash for champagne
Getting ready for the millennium
This is of course a very convenient, price-increasing sort of rumour - and it is complete rubbish, too. There are miles of dank, chalky cave networks and cellars beneath the streets of Epernay and Reims - the two main towns in Champagne - and there are millions of bottles down there.

But it has turned out to be a strangely potent and persistent rumour. That is partly because no other drink exercises quite the same grip on the popular imagination as champagne. There are no music hall show-stoppers about the night they invented Chianti, for instance, or tributes to anyone called Bordeaux Charlie.

But it is also in part because, for whatever cultural reason, it would be hard to imagine a night of celebration without the stuff.

Think about it. You don't want to be the host at the millennium's eve party who's standing with the fridge door open as the bongs of midnight start chiming looking embarrassed and telling the guests it's come down to a choice between fruit juice and Tizer.

It is hard to say at what point it became synonymous with success and celebration, but the linkage has evolved into one of the most successful marketing strategies in history.

Inventing champagne

In theory, of course, champagne was invented by Dom Perignon and the potted histories you hear as a tourist in the region give the impression that the great man simply wandered downstairs in the monastery one morning and said: "Listen, everybody, I've had this really great idea."

This is the story of technological innovation as I like it, and as I learned it through children's TV in the 1960s. You know the kind of thing: There'd be two pencil-drawn storyboards, one after the other. In the first, James Watt would be staring thoughtfully at his mum's kettle boiling. In the next he'd be proudly coming downstairs with a detailed blueprint for a steam engine.

Sadly, in practice, it probably was not quite like that. The techniques for sweetening, adulterating and fizzing up the wines of the region evolved over centuries and involved a fair bit of trial and error too.

One of the main problems in the early years was the difficulty of getting good quality glass in large enough quantities to make bottles capable of holding the pressurised contents. For a long time it was not unusual for producers to lose half their annual production to explosions down in the cellars.

The mind's eye conceives a picture of monks staggering back up the cellar steps, pouring with blood from dozens of small cuts and announcing that the time had come to have another word with the bottle-makers.

Fans of the bubbly

Gradually, of course, the technical problems were ironed out and champagne became established as a fashionable adjunct to celebrations just about everywhere. Its main export markets though have not varied much in more than a hundred years. Britain, Germany, Switzerland and the United States have always been the big buyers.

So too was Imperial Russia until the Communist revolution brought in its wake a sudden slump in demand. After all, Lenin may have chosen to drive around in a Rolls Royce - presumably on the grounds that as a Bolshevik he thought everyone should have one - but even in those less image-conscious times he drew the line at a public taste for imported luxury wines.

It is a reminder too that champagne has a strange habit of popping up as a footnote to history in the unlikeliest of ways.

Hitler's Foreign Minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, for example, once sold the stuff for a living, an improbable line of work for a man now remembered for representing a policy of cynical and brutal expansionism in Europe. You can't help thinking he can't have been much of a salesman either, since his powers of persuasion weren't enough to prevent him being hanged as a war criminal after Nuremberg.

Winston Churchill
Can't be champagne, surely
And yet, on the British side Winston Churchill was one of the best customers for champagne and remained so throughout the war, with contemporary accounts describing him frequently taking a bottle at lunchtime.

In later life he is said to have been so impressed by a particular year's output from one house that he bought the lot. He was repaid with the ultimate compliment for a foreigner of having a particular type of champagne from the same house named after him, the sort of tribute otherwise reserved for people like Dom Perignon or Napoleon.

In a country which has not always found it easy or politically expedient to put its gratitude for its deliverance during the last war into words, I have always found that strangely moving. Certainly in French terms it is a much more heartfelt and powerful tribute than having a huge number of roads, squares and boulevards named after e.g. Franklin Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson.

Champagne country

The Champagne region itself is one of those melancholy cross-roads of history that litter northern Europe, with German and French military graveyards often side by side along the roads that saw the worst of the fighting in 1914 and 1915.

It is as good a place as any to ponder the scale of French losses at that time. They were so overwhelming that in 1915 the French National Assembly passed a law making it possible for women who had been engaged to soldiers who died in combat to go through a miserable service of marriage with their dead fiancée. To someone in power, at least, it had already become clear there wouldn't be enough young men left in the years to come.

There are buildings in Epernay that still bear the scars of street-fighting from both world wars and there are elegant war memorials that bear mute witness to terrible losses. It is not uncommon to find white stone crosses dumbly guarded by stone soldiers that show how six, seven or eight men of a single family died within hours of each other.

And yet this is the land that produces the drink that lubricates the world's celebrations. It even boasts villages with accidentally appropriate names like Dizy and Bouzy.

But you do not have to have a fanciful imagination to sit on the high ground at the top of the limestone slopes where the grapes grow and see this as haunted land. On weekend afternoons the towns and villages of this part of France are so quiet they resemble the areas invaded by aliens in old black and white science fiction films in which whole countries were put to sleep with clouds of invisible gas.

Mostly, this is a reflection of the generally somnolent atmosphere that pervades rural France most of the time. It makes those rather grim tourist drives through wine-producing areas seem so odd to anyone who actually lives in the country.

Certainly, anyone who ever chooses to follow the "touristique" road through Champagne will find more evidence of a sober obsession with excellence than any obvious association with celebration.

Lifting treasure

Consider, for example, what happened to the diving crew who after long and brave exploration in the cold, inky dark waters off the coast of Sweden finally found the wreckage of a freighter torpedoed by a German U-boat during the First World War.

Like all such wrecks, of course, it is first and foremost a graveyard. And yet the sombreness of that reflection cannot entirely still our sense of historical curiosity.

It was 1916 and the ship was bound for Russia from France. What does that tell us about the course of the Great War at the time? Well, it tells us for a start that the Imperial Russian court had the self-control to hide any fears about its military disasters and the rising tide of Bolshevik discontent which underpinned them.

The ship's hold contained case after case after case of French champagne, sweet in style according to Russian aristocratic fashion at the turn of the century and miraculously undamaged by the attack. In fact, it was not just undamaged but, in the dark waters with their temperature around the wreck a few degrees above freezing, it was surprisingly well preserved.

This kind of diving is risky and difficult and frequently fails to pay dividends. The divers must have felt it to be the find of a lifetime, a piece of history you can drink. The successor company to the champagne house which produced the wine was duly optimistically contacted.

Now, of course, experts in such matters are not given to euphoria. Anyone would have known the final value of each bottle would depend on the exact circumstances of the undersea storage and the degree of violence it was subjected to as it went down.

But even the most pessimistic of Swedish divers can't have been prepared for the response they got as they revealed their treasure house of wine from the beginning of the century. It was a response that summed up both the dryness of the Champagne region and the quality of perfectionism that makes the wine unique.

And what, they were asked, was the year of the wine they found at the end of their stirring tale of courage and perseverance?

"1907," they replied.

There was a pause.

"What a shame," said the French experts, 80 years on. "1907 - that really was a rather disappointing year."


Kevin Connolly: Bon Appetit - The King of Wine
Links to more Bon Appetit stories are at the foot of the page.

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