November 5, Mayfair, London. At the InterContinental Park Lane hotel, I am ushered into the taupe private room of the Theo Randall restaurant. Spotlit, tableaued on a white tablecloth, sit 14 magnums and a single four‑bottle jeroboam of Pol Roger’s top champagne: Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill. The dark labels lie stark on white ice in shiny champagne baths, a collection of every vintage made of this rarefied wine, the A-list stars we have come to taste. And then drink. Filling the room is the polyglot chatter of 18 European champagne devotees from 14 countries. Most have flown into London, more private champagne collectors than wine trade, spending £1,000 each for their tasting ticket with dinner to follow.
Intriguingly, this was not orchestrated by Pol Roger to tempt its well-heeled fans, although Pol Roger UK managing director James Simpson MW introduces the wines. The instigator was physiotherapist Peter Crawford, from Scottish farming stock (and formerly the Scottish Polo team), an irrepressible collector since a wine-shop student job. He cellars exclusively champagnes, with Pol Roger the most prized bottles.
Most of those attending work in finance, one in telecommunications and another as a vascular surgeon based in Düsseldorf – part of a small international geek network who study, collect and taste champagne, mainly in its vintage form. Half are from Finland, Norway and Lithuania, adding a Baltic-Scandinavian twist. Providing Gallic ballast is Paris-based retired steel magnate François Audouze, a veteran organiser of 212 meticulously arranged and stellar dinners that match fine (French!) wine and (French!) cuisine.
Churchill was Pol Roger’s greatest customer. The 1975, only in magnum, was launched exclusive to the UK in 1984 at Churchill’s birthplace, Blenheim Palace, to mark the 20th anniversary of his death in 1965. Churchill’s champagne consumption, more a sybaritic trove of food, alcohol and cigars, is legendary. To call him a bon viveur sounds limp. In 1928, for example, he spent £100,000 on wine at present prices and in his last decade alone ordered 500 cases of Pol Roger. There were other champagnes too: Mumm 1929 on the Queen Mary in 1943; and in Yalta with Roosevelt and Stalin while carving up the east and central Europe of 1945 he drank “buckets of Caucasian champagne (sic)”. But Churchill adored Pol Roger above all, long before, at the age of 70, he set eyes on Odette Pol-Roger, wife of Jacques Pol-Roger, over the famous 1928 at the British Embassy in Paris in November 1944. A deep amity grew and every year on his birthday she sent him a case of the 1928, then the 1934.
The Churchill has a tiny production even for a top prestige champagne, just 25-50,000 bottles, according to Hubert de Billy, Pol Roger’s commercial director. The exact blend is a closely guarded family secret, but with Pinot Noir dominating Chardonnay in the blend and 10 years in bottle before release, it mirrors Churchill’s penchant for full-bodied mature vintages. “Dry” champagne was all the rage in Churchill’s London but it was sweeter than the 8g/l of balancing sugar Cuvée Sir Winston has now. Churchill ordered Imperial Pint bottles as well as bigger bottles. Pol Roger tells me it will consider Pint bottles again when Britain leaves the EU.
But back to the tasting. This first complete Churchill vertical line-up comprises 2004, 2002, 2000, 1999, 1998, 1996, 1995, 1993, 1990, 1988 in jeroboam, 1986, 1985, 1982, 1979 and the pioneer 1975 launched in 1984. We sit down with 285 Riedel white wine glasses. Champagne aficionados prefer them to the narrow surface of flavour-constricting flutes these days, with one CEO of a leading house saying flute glasses are like “wearing ear plugs to listen to opera”. Camera shutters skitter. Scurrying sommeliers pour, and we are off.
Trade pundits often taste but say little, guarding embargoed assessments, but these champagne hobbyists talk in vinous hubbub all night. It dawns on me that the room has more experience and knowledge, and more of its own money behind fine champagne, than most wine professionals. As we warm up in the foothills of the more recent vintages 2004, 2002 and 2000, I study my companions’ tasting form. All have the connoisseur sequence: hold the stem, look, smell gently, swirl, smell again, a modest mouthful, “chew” and draw in air, cogitate, spit. Cogitate more. Write note. The swirling is virtuoso stuff, but, for most, the spit is missing. It’s just too tempting to share the historical experience with the bloodstream.
The 2004 shows how compact but lively this year often is – what merchants call “charming” – but keep it and it will open more. The 2002 also represents a powerful, concentrated vintage, humming with intensity but still with many years ahead. Then everyone frowns as their noses find the 2000; the table nods “corked” in instant assent. Press on.
I notice the 1999 makes people linger. A teenager now, it looks duskier than the first three, a whiff of enticing gunflint, bright and pointed. I murmur a private “wow!”. The 1998 impresses too, a miracle sun after appalling weather, softer than the 1999 but with orange chocolate cream notes. I find myself using primary flavour notes for fruit and food rather than the mineral gunpowder, mocha and smoke details of other top champagnes. There’s a mature fruit purity in the Churchill, with flavours of grilled apricot and dried peel; I can see why so many collectors keep them to drink rather than sell. The 1996 divides tasters, some finding a year with record ripeness and acidity, still too dramatically polarised. The 1995, 1993 and 1990 impressed for their honeysuckle grown-up flavours and creamy sparkly texture.
The pouring of the 1988 is like a paparazzi hotel siege, lenses popping as a starlet arrives – except here it was all iPhone-Instagram, not Nikon. At 28 years old, this Jeroboam was wine of the night, with shy cooked plums and churchy vellum notes but all long flavoured and tissued texture: quite possibly my champagne of the year, and we are in December. I notice the champagnistas discuss its score out of 100 or 20 – winey people use both scales. I wrote an admiring note, not too over the top, and reflect that I’m a lucky man to have tasted it. Then I gave it 19 out of 20. The fresh but golden 1986 maybe suffers in its shadow but is no slouch, being appealingly marmaladey but dry; and the 1985 has the same freshness and elegant mid-weight but more quince and Portuguese marmelada, with a streaky vinosity. The 1982, however, disappoints; it’s eccentrically oxidised, with rubber-smoke and burnt sugar, but that is sometimes the risk with champagne over 30.
A much more athletic, lithe and impressive 1979 brings us to the first Churchill: 1975. It is mid-gold, still with a gentle spritz and a mordant cut of dry hay and seaweed, something beyond fruit but still refreshing. Very good indeed. I pull myself together, quickly throttling the genie jumping into my notes jabbering hyperbole like “liquid history”. In the dying moments before dinner I glance up to a sea of craning necks asking sommeliers if there was any left of the 1988.