A Champagne Gaffe?

I was watching Netflix’s new series Transatlantic when I spotted this gaffe. I normally don’t catch errors in shows, or bad cuts, or those silly easter egg type things people see (like a digital watch in a period drama)… so I was truly amazed when I grabbed the remote and shared with those watching with me…

However, I’ve recently finished reading “The Billionaire’s Vinegar: The Mystery of the World’s Most Expensive Bottle of Wine” by Benjamin Wallace (Amazon) and “The Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It” by Tilar J Mazzeo (Amazon). Both of which deal in the fascinating history of Champagne.

Question: So what’s wrong with this picture?

Answer: Well, I’m not sure…. follow along below….

Transatlantic takes place in Marseille, France in the early 1940s. The screenshot above is from Episode 4: No Road Back. The dialog goes something like this:

Doug Nugent, American Computing Machines says to Graham Patterson (played by Corey Stoll) [pictured above] – I have one final gift. This one is a local product.

Patterson replies: A 1916 vintage? This must’ve cost a fortune.

The only problem is that something tells me this can’t be a 1916 vintage of Champagne.

I know that as a prop Netflix wouldn’t use a real bottle that rare – but why 1916 for the vintage. After all 1916 was a particularly bad harvest in Champagne region due to all the fighting in Rheims, Epernay and neighboring areas. The bombing of Rheims destroyed many of the vineyards (Rheims was bombed off and on for 4 years starting in 1914) and the harvests were bad because of the lack of men to harvest, which meant it was left to women and children [not to say they did a bad job, but to point out there wasn’t the labor to harvest.] Much of the wine (red, white and champagne) went to the soldiers in the war or was exported to Russia (until 1917) and England. By 1918 much of the area where Champagne was grown wasn’t usable because of the war.

By the time this scene takes place in the 1940s, the likelihood of a bottle of 1916 Champagne being available in Marseilles is very unlikely. I’d find the 1918 vintage to be more likely. Why – here are my thoughts.

According to a brief history of Champagne Cattier (more):

Fast-forward to 1916, when Jean Cattier returned to Chigny-les-Roses as a wounded veteran of the Great War. The city of Reims was under siege by the German Army, shaken by an onslaught of artillery shells which would destroy 60% of the city. Champagne traders tried to keep their businesses running under these harsh conditions, but it was an uphill struggle. Unable to sell his poor harvest in 1916, Jean Cattier decided to turn his grapes into wine and produce his own champagne, released at the end of the war in 1918. This signalled the birth of Cattier champagne.

But a Year in Wine: 1914 (more) shows that

England, however, managed to drink 20,000 cases of champagne every year between 1914 and 1918. The British had clearly taken a leaf out of Winston Churchill’s attitude to champagne and war: “In success you deserve it and in defeat, you need it.”

Given that the production of champagne was limited during the war years, it’s hard to believe that a 1916 vintage would have survived nearly 25 years.

During the second year of World War I, the French National Assembly voted to send champagne, the bubbly, celebratory drink, as a morale booster to troops and military hospitals on a regular basis. (source)

The next question is if the bottle would even be drinkable (in 1940) given that bottles had to be reused, muselet (the cage) and corks were hard to come by because of the war. It’s not impossible – there are sites on the internet claiming to have 1916 vintages of Château d’Yquem, Chateau Latour, Pauillac and Chateau Gruaud Larose – although they are mostly reds.

Final Thoughts

Can I prove my “feeling” – no I cannot. But intuitively I believe that the date chosen for the champagne is incorrect. Regardless, don’t let this stop you from watching Transatlantic. It’s well worth it for the clothes, scenery and the true story that inspired it.

I will get to the bottom of my intuition – but I’ll need to do some more research – if you have suggestions beyond the following, let me know – and if you have a reason I’m right or wrong – tell me. [I think it has to do with the label – it seems too new in styling]

To Read:

  • Bursting Bubbles: A Secret History of Champagne and the Rise of the Great Growers Paperback – Robert Walters, 2019 (Amazon)
  • Champagne: How the World’s Most Glamorous Wine Triumphed Over War and Hard Times – Don Kladstrup & Petie Kladstrup, 2005 (Amazon)
  • Champagne: The Essential Guide to the Wines, Producers, and Terroirs of the Iconic Region – Peter Liem, 2017 (Amazon)
  • Wine and War: The French, the Nazis, and the Battle for France’s Greatest Treasure – Don Kladstrup & Petie Kladstrup, 2002 (Amazon)
  • Champagne: Wine of Kings and the King of Wines – Tom Bruce-Gardyne, 2019 (Amazon)
  • The Impossible Collection of Champagne (Assouline) [ok, so that’s a wish list one…]

P.S. Sone other interesting reads

Check out the Union des Maisons de Champagne write up on the first world war here. It’s a fabulous site with lots of history. And one of the reasons I think my hunch is right.

See Also:

  • 1914: Champagne’s Violent Vintage (link)
  • Champagne and World War One: ‘the darkest hour’ (link)
  • Wine and France: A Brief History (link)
  • Rationing of Wine in World War I (link)
  • Napoleon & Moët: A Secret History (link)
  • The War On Champagne (link)
  • The Oldest Bottle of Champagne – A Taste Of History (link)
  • How France’s champagne makers fooled Nazis — and helped turn the tide of WWII (link)
  • Moet & Chandon to sell 1914 Champagne at special Sotheby’s auction (link – 2013)

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