Pol Roger Sir Winston Churchill 2012 Champagne: It Matches The Hype. And Then Some
by Ken Gargett
As Sir Winston Churchill said in 1931 in New York, “First things first. Get the champagne.”
Another of the much-heralded prestige champagne releases from the stellar 2012 vintages is now available. Anyone who has followed the recent vintages from this region will be all too aware that 2008 and 2012 are two brilliant vintages that should be in every wine lover’s cellar.
Two thousand eight was a scintillating year, brilliant for Chardonnay and reminiscent of the fantastic 1988s. These champagnes will live for decades (I will be looking at the awesome Taittinger Comte 2008 very soon).
Two thousand twelve is a year in which Pinot Noir was the superior grape (please note that these are very basic generalizations, and vineyard conditions vary throughout the region). Locals have called 2012 the greatest vintage for Pinot Noir since 1952.
Pol Roger is a house in which Pinot Noir is usually the dominant variety (again a generalization as it makes a sensational Blanc de Blancs), so a lot of people have been very excited and keen to see this wine for a long time, myself included. Indeed, if asked to name a champagne that is perfectly suited to the 2012 vintage conditions, it would surely be the Pol Roger Sir Winston Churchill.
In addition, as I have said before, while we writers are not supposed to have “favorites,” Pol Roger will always be one of mine. It was the first champagne I ever tried (under my parents’ kitchen table at the end of one of their dinner parties). The wonderful Christian Pol-Roger, the fourth generation of the family and so sadly no longer with us, was the first person I met from the region. The first case of champagne I ever purchased was Pol Roger’s 1975, which was available well into the 1980s and which was the very wine that instilled a love of champagne in me, something that has only gotten stronger over the years.
The house was founded in 1849 by Pol Roger, who, incredibly, was just 19 at the time. To honor him, the family changed its surname from Roger to Pol-Roger.
Pol Roger Sir Winston Churchill
The Sir Winston Churchill is the flagship champagne of Pol Roger, although this is one producer where the vintage champagnes are almost always good enough to sit at flagship levels.
Churchill himself was a great devotee of Pol Roger’s champagnes – indeed, I suspect no house has ever had a more devoted fan. He drank a wide and varied array of alcoholic beverages, including champagnes from numerous houses, but there was no doubt that Pol Roger was his favorite. He was so closely linked to Pol Roger in many ways.
It was almost inevitable, then, when the house finally decided to release a prestige champagne that it be dubbed “Sir Winston Churchill.” Unthinkable that it could have been anything else.
Actually, Pol Roger did have a previous prestige release, the P.R. Reserve Speciale, which placed a little more emphasis on Chardonnay. This was also a wonderful wine, first released from the 1971 vintage but discontinued after the 1988 vintage as Pol Roger saw no reason to have two prestige releases simultaneously. Understandable, but a tiny bit sad as that P.R. was a superb wine.
The first release of the Sir Winston Churchill, which took place in 1984, was the 1975 vintage, which was launched at Blenheim Palace. It was only released in magnums. Subsequently, we have seen the 1979, 1982, 1985, 1986, 1988, 1990, 1993, 1995, 1996, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2002, 2004, 2006, 2008, 2009, and now the nineteenth release, the 2012. It is anticipated that future releases will be 2013, 2015, 2018, 2019, and 2020.
The release of the 2012 is only one year after that of the 2009 (no 2010 or 2011), but the market is crying out for champagne of this quality; 2013 is anticipated to be released in the (northern) spring of 2022.
The new release is always shown to the Churchill family for confirmation that it is acceptable. Unsurprisingly, the family is yet to reject any of the wines tasted, no doubt partly because the wine is made in the style of which Churchill was so fond: Pinot dominant and richly flavored. Indeed, almost every report I have seen has made the point that the 2012 is as good as any Sir Winston yet released, or at the very least in contention.
The Pol Roger family was so confident of this wine that one of them even suggested that had Churchill been alive today, he might well have insisted that they put the entire production aside for his private use.
Winston Churchill and the Pol Roger family
Churchill’s connection with both the Pol Roger champagnes and the Pol-Roger family was long and deep. He is known to have been drinking Pol Roger since at least 1908, and there are stories that he even proposed – unsuccessfully – to one of the family’s daughters, Odette, with whom he was very close for decades (one suspects that this was more based in champagne marketing than in reality as they were both married long before they met).
Churchill named one of his racehorses Pol Roger and it was a winner at Kempton Park in 1953, Queen Elizabeth’s coronation year. He placed a bet in the name of Odette Pol-Roger every time it ran.
When Churchill passed away in 1965, the house amended the labels of its Brut NV by including a black border (an order from Odette Pol-Roger). His funeral was attended by Odette and when the event known as the “great storm” struck in 1987 (I was living in London at the time and remember thinking that this was a storm worthy of a north Queensland cyclone), devastating the ancient trees on the Churchills’ country retreat Chartwell, the Pol-Roger family paid for much of the replanting.
Churchill famously called the Pol Roger cellars at 44 Avenue de Champagne, Epernay, “the most drinkable address in the world.” Perhaps that was already on his mind during World War I when he told his generals, “Remember gentlemen, it’s not just France we are fighting for, it’s Champagne.”
It is claimed that Churchill drank 42,000 bottles of Pol Roger during his life. If, as the house says, he did not touch it until 1908 (there are records of Churchill ordering several cases of the 1895 Pol Roger in 1908, so one suspects he must have tried it before that to make such an order), then he would have needed to drink an astonishing 737 bottles every year for the rest of his life: two bottles a day, every day.
Receipts, documents, and invoices in the family records seem to support this, although many of the bottles would have only been imperial pints and not the full 750 ml bottles of today. Throw in the 250,000 cigars he allegedly smoked during his life, and it is a wonder he had time for anything else. He also painted more than 550 pictures during his time, but I guess one could do all three simultaneously: smoke, drink, and paint.
After a lunch in Paris with Odette in 1944, the first time they met, it seems that the family made certain that a case of champagne arrived every year in time for the great man’s birthday. Another “friend,” Joseph Stalin, always sent him caviar for his birthday, at least until Churchill’s “Iron Curtain speech” in 1946.
Churchill kept to vintage champagnes and was particularly fond of the 1928 vintage (which he drank with Odette at the 1944 lunch). When he exhausted that he moved to the 1935, then 1945 and, finally, toward the end of his life, the 1947.
Another of the famous “champagne and war” quotes has been attributed to both Napoleon Bonaparte and Churchill. I am advised that there is actually no evidence that Bonaparte ever uttered these words, so I am happy to leave them with Churchill: “I could not live without Champagne. In victory I deserve it. In defeat I need it.”
At least there is evidence that Churchill did say this in 1946.
Brief discourse: Napoleon and Möet et Chandon
We may, however, be doing Napoleon a disservice. It is known that the emperor had a close association with Möet et Chandon dating back to 1782. He met Claude Möet’s son, Jean-Rémy, while they were both at military school (Jean-Rémy seeking orders rather than with any intention of a career in the army).
They became great friends, and Napoleon is on record as visiting the house to purchase supplies before every military campaign he undertook. Except one. Yes, Waterloo. Perhaps it was knowing of his love for champagne, and Möet et Chandon in particular, that caused the Russians to plunder the region after the War of the Sixth Coalition, where they emptied 600,000 bottles of Möet on the premises.
Such a disaster would have destroyed many businesses, but Jean-Rémy took it in stride, declaring, “All of those soldiers who are ruining me today will make my fortune tomorrow. I’m letting them drink all they want. They will be hooked for life and become my best salesmen when they go back to their own country.”
He was spot on! And if anyone needed reminding that the love of champagne is international, one of the other great fans of Möet et Chandon at the time was the Duke of Wellington.
Möet even built a famous replica of Grand Trianon, the chateau in Versailles, as a guest house for Napoleon and Empress Josephine whenever they visited. Napoleon in return gave the family the last of his famous bicorn hats and bestowed on them the cross of the Legion of Honor, the highest French order of merit for both military and civilian accomplishments, for services to France.
Möet’s Imperial was named for the late emperor in 1869. There are also claims that his “other” preferred champagne was Jacquesson.
Napoleon was a fan of more than just champagne. When exiled to St. Helena, he and his staff were allowed a daily ration of 50 bottles of wine and spirits, plus a further monthly allowance of another 34 bottles. He was known to swap some of his Bordeaux for Chambertin whenever he could, being a great fan of that Burgundy, although he was also known to dilute it with water, something he also apparently did with his champagne.
Back to Pol Roger Sir Winston Churchill 2012
But I have digressed. As Sir Winston said, “My tastes are simple: I am easily satisfied with the best.” He would surely have been more than satisfied with this brilliant champagne.
Briefly, the 2012 vintage in Champagne came in with a potential alcohol of 10.6 percent and total acidity of 7.8 grams/liter. The downside was that it was a small crop, just 9,210 kg/ha.
There were concerns it would follow the style of the awful 2011 vintage: five discrete incidents of frost saw 2,900 hectares of vineyards destroyed and there were nine hailstorms.
Winter temperatures did drop to -20°C at one stage. Sunshine, a warm summer, and a late flowering pushed the harvest into September. The vintage was not only saved but was quickly recognized as an exceptional one. Pol Roger began its harvest on September 10 and finished on the 26th.
Two thousand twelve is considered more like 2002 than 2008 if one wishes to look at the other great years of this millennium; 2018 is likely to be the next at this level.
The wine is dominated by Pinot Noir from exceptional Grand Cru vineyards although, unfortunately, the team at Pol Roger feels the need to keep the actual details secret. It is beyond me why.
Many of the houses, especially the top houses, provide much greater depth of information about their wines because the consumers want to know. They have a far greater understanding of champagne these days, so surely providing this information can only be beneficial all around. And rather confusingly, Pol Roger is happy to provide other information that would seem no more or less relevant.
The dosage is 7 grams/liter. It is believed that most vintages are at least 80 percent Pinot Noir, possibly more. Fermentation is in stainless steel with the temperature during fermentation never exceeding 18°C. The wine undergoes a full malolactic fermentation and then spends seven to eight years on lees in Pol Roger’s deepest cellars, 33 meters below ground level where the temperature never gets above 9°C.
It comes in both bottles and the unbeatable magnums. As Churchill himself said, “A magnum is the perfect size for two gentlemen to have over lunch, especially if one isn’t drinking.” But even a sip thrilled him. As he wrote in 1898 in Malakand Field Force, “A single glass of champagne imparts a feeling of exhilaration. The nerves are braced, the imagination is agreeably stirred, the wits become more nimble.”
Does it match the hype? Absolutely.
The 2012, while obviously built for the long haul, is surprisingly approachable. The aromas are a lovely blend of beeswax and freshly sliced green apples. There are the inevitable nutty notes, hazelnuts especially. Wonderfully complex. A brioche/shortbread character and even a hint of coffee bean.
The structure is impeccable – a rich, full-flavored style of champagne with a creamy/parmesan-like texture. An early hint of toast and lemon butter. The intensity persists right through to the extraordinarily long finish. Not a feather out of place here in this most generous of champagnes.
Sure, drink it now and revel in what it has to offer but expect even more complexity to build if given a decade or more in a good cellar. You will not regret it. For me, 99, but if you want to go a point higher or lower, that is fine. A stunningly brilliant champagne.
In conclusion, I have one disagreement with Churchill himself. He also said, “Champagne is the wine of civilization and the oil of government.” Civilization, for sure, but have you ever met a politician with whom you’d want to share a wine like this? I haven’t.
For more information, please visit polroger.com/en/champagnes/4/cuvee-sir-winston-churchill.