Champagne: The Wine, the land and the people: Patrick Forbes

Gollancz 1967

If you are a chaser of everything written about Champagne you can lay your hands on, get chasing this if you do not have it. You don’t need to be a magpie in the second-hand book world; there are cheap copies on Amazon UK. I can’t say I loved this book over much – for one thing Mr Forbes irritatingly uses the term ‘The winefield’ instead of ‘Champagne vineyards’, a neologism strange for someone who took nine years to research this book and surely had some French. There is a definite bias (and the bulk of the book) to tracing the history of Champagne and it seems Mr Forbes was something of a historian. He had already published a book on ‘The Sixth Guards Tank Brigade’ and a history of the Grenadier Guards in the Second World War. But we shouldn’t be tempted to conjure Forbes as just a spinner of military yarns. ‘Winefield’ aside it’s well-written in a genteel, easy style and successfully aims at the Champagne amateur who may like a dig in the history garden.

However, he’s quite happy to fantasise and speculate about key developments and you will discover he is the original claimant that champagne was invented by the English, proved by Merret’s 1662 paper to the Royal Society which records the English merchant practice of adding sugar to young wine in barrel which then refermented. And Forbes makes these claims long before Tom Stevenson made it his own hobby horse in 1998 and after in his Christie’s Enclyclopaedia of Champagne and Sparkling Wine and elsewhere. In his 1986 book Champagne, Stevenson refers to Forbes’ book, but omits any mention of the Forbes claim that ‘the basic principle of the manufacture of sparkling champagne…had already been discovered and applied by the English.’ And on top of that Forbes goes on to suggest, with all the historical accuracy of the raconteur carried away, that Dom Perignon, rather later in France, ‘discovered’ champagne for the Champenois by pioneering the bottling of Champagne fizz in Hautvillers. Academic historians generally agree there is no evidence for that.

But all these footling historical controversies to one side, the sections on Champagne in the two world wars are fascinating enough as you might expect from a military expert. And the lay account of Champagne winemaking in the 1960s is at least easy to understand. We are told most barrels then came from Hungary. But new ‘vats’ were being adopted at the time, glass-lined and resin-lined concrete initially, but no mention in this book of enamelled steel and a little later the rapid introduction of stainless steeel tanks in Champagne. At least, for all the lack of reliable detail, Forbes was right: ‘…vats are here to stay’.

In the end, there’s much to enjoy here as long as you do not expect historical or modern rigour. I loved the odd new detail or fact as long as it was not being dragooned into airy unsubstantiated conventional wisdom. And even the embroidered stuff with scant basis can at least make us smile. If you check the front cover for its photo of an old drinking vessel, you can turn to the back cover to find it is the ‘sole survivor’ of several acually moulded from Marie Antoinette’s breast.