Pol Roger Sir Winston Churchill 2015 Champagne: “My tastes are Simple, I am Easily Satisfied with the Best”
by Ken Gargett
It will surprise no one if I say that not only is Pol Roger one of my favorite champagne houses, but one of my most treasured wine producers on the planet – of any style. This should be clear from the number of times we have looked at the Pol champagnes here – almost always the Sir Winston Churchill prestige release, but we have ventured further.
I have mentioned before that Pol was the first champagne I ever tried – a sneak swig under the kitchen table from a bottle at one of my parents’ dinner parties (probably a bottle brought by friends as Mum and Dad didn’t drink – though they did keep a supply of wine for friends).
The wonderful Christian Pol Roger, who sadly left us a couple of years ago, was the very first champagne producer I met – quite by accident as he was on a visit to Brisbane many years ago when I was a young student – after a Saturday morning game of touch footy, still in bare feet and footy shorts, I’d ducked into the local bottle shop, which just happened to be one of the best in Queensland (a developing obsession with wine often saw me poking about their shelves).
Christian had just finished a tasting and apparently had a bit of time before his next appointment. He saw a young bloke examining bottles, all of which were well outside my price range, and came over for a chat. I’ll confess that when he introduced himself, it was a bit overwhelming, but he could not have been more charming. My casual appearance bothered him not in the least. I met Christian numerous times after that, both in Champagne and Downunder, and he was always magic company. For me, no one epitomises champagne more than Christian.
The link that the House has with Sir Winston Churchill has been detailed many times. Of course, Pol was not the only champagne the former PM drank, but it was undoubtedly his preference. And for a man reputed to drink two bottles of champagne a day (in his spare time, throughout his life, knocking off a quarter of a million cigars, painting more than 500 works of art, writing so well and so extensively that he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, running a government and saving the world), that amounts to a great deal of champagne.
Estimates suggest that, over the course of his lifetime, Churchill enjoyed 42,000 bottles of Pol (some claim that figure is his total champagne intake, rather than just Pol, but it hardly matters). For those who think he overindulged, in fairness to the Nobel Laureate, quite a few of those were half bottles and the famous Imperial pint.
But then, as he wrote in 1898, “Champagne imparts a feeling of exhilaration. The nerves are braced, the imagination is stirred, the wits become nimbler”. Indeed, such was his love of this greatest of all sparkling wines that in 1917, Churchill uttered the immortal words, “Remember, gentlemen, it’s not just France we are fighting for, it’s Champagne.”
There are records confirming that Churchill, who was very much a vintage, rather than non-vintage, champagne lover, was drinking Pol Roger as far back as 1908 – records confirm him ordering several cases of the 1895 vintage in 1908 (the same year as he became engaged to Clementine). Personally, I find it hard to believe that he was not enjoying their champagnes well before that, especially given that by then, he was 34. The order was a dozen standard bottles and a dozen half bottles of the 1895. The cost for this was £4/16.
So enamored with the house of Pol Roger was Churchill that he named his horse after it – and in an act of what was surely divine intervention, Pol Roger won its first race on the very day of Queen Elizabeth II’s Coronation, at Kempton Park in 1953 (Churchill had insisted that the champagne served at the Coronation be Pol Roger 1926, the year of Elizabeth II’s birth).
There were even rumors that at some stage, he proposed to Odette Pol Roger (given that both were married well before they met, supposedly in 1944 or 1945 depending on which source you believe, that was possibly an early example of fake news). They were, however, great friends for their entire lives. Every time Churchill’s horse raced, he made sure he put placed a wager on it in the name of Odette.
Odette was well known as a fly fishing aficionado, something that she shared with Christian de Billy (who was always as happy to chat about fly fishing as he was champagne). Christian de Billy, who also passed away just last year, was Christian Pol Roger’s cousin and his co-director. He is also the man many credit with creating the first Pol Sir Winston. Christian de Billy was born in 1928, that great vintage and favorite of Winston’s, in the very room that is now Pol Roger’s head office. 1874, Churchill’s birth year, was another outstanding vintage.
Churchill was also famous for describing the Pol Roger cellars at 44 Avenue de Champagne, Epernay, “the most drinkable address in the world,” although he never managed to visit. As an apology for this oversight, breaking his promise to Odette, he sent her a copy of his memoirs, which he inscribed ‘Cuvée de Réserve, mise en bouteille au Château de Chartwell’. Some years ago, the street running behind Pol Roger’s headquarters in Epernay was renamed Rue Winston Churchill in his honor. This came after a long campaign by former Pol Roger CEO Patrice Noyelle and Pol Roger family member, Christian de Billy.
It was apparently Odette who always made certain that Winston had sufficient supplies of his favorite Pol champagnes, sending him a case every year on his birthday (apparently, he also received a delivery of caviar every year for his birthday from Joseph Stalin, until relations soured over his Iron Curtain speech in 1946). His favorite vintage of Pol was the legendary 1928 (I’ve only ever tried one champagne from 1928, the near-mythical Krug, and it was certainly a fine representative of the year).
When Churchill passed in 1965, he was still drinking his supplies of 1934 – he also enjoyed 1935, 1945 and 1947. The ‘Duff Cooper Diaries: 1915-1951’, record Churchill in Paris having lunched with the Pol Rogers and purchasing four dozen of the 1928 vintage, at 82 francs per bottles, which Cooper believed was ‘extraordinarily cheap’. Alfred Duff Cooper was better known as Viscount Norwich, a former First Lord of the Admiralty, and Britain’s Ambassador to France from 1944 to 1948. It was he who introduced Churchill to Odette.
At the time of Churchill’s passing, the house placed a black border around the edge of the labels on their bottles in honor of the great man. This was done at the behest of Odette. Many years later, when the great storm of 1987 caused so much devastation in England, including destroying the ancient trees at Chartwell, the Pol-Roger family paid for much of the replanting.
Pol Roger was one of the last of the great houses to release a prestige cuvee, doing so as recently as 1984 (as I have suggested before, this is one house where the standard vintage release can almost always sit comfortably with the prestige cuvees released by most other houses). There was surely no debate when it came to naming the wine – Cuvee Sir Winston Churchill.
While all houses strive to ensure that their prestige cuvee (all their wines, of course) is the absolute best they can produce from each vintage, Pol has an added burden. Not only must it be the best they can make, but they could never release a wine that they believed did not honour Churchill himself. Indeed, a member of the family will always taste the wine before release to ensure that they are happy with it. This job first fell to Mary Soames, Churchill’s youngest daughter, who was present when Sir Winston and Odette first met. Mary approved every release until her death in 2014.
Technically, the house did have a prestige cuvee before this one, their P.R. Reserve Speciale, which focused much more on Chardonnay. It was a superb wine, first released from the 1971 vintage but discontinued with the 1988.
The first release of the Pol Roger Sir Winston Churchill, only bottled in magnum, was the 1975 (one of my favorite vintages – when I first became interested in Champagne, friends had some serious quantities of 1975 Pol in their cellars and I can’t tell you how many times I enjoyed it).
The launch took place at Blenheim Palace, Churchill’s birthplace. Since then, they have released the 1979, 1982, 1985, 1986, 1988, 1990, 1993, 1995, 1996, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2002, 2004, 2006, 2008, 2009, 2012, 2013 and now the 2015. It will be several years before we see its successor, as the next cabs off the rank will be 2018, 2019 and 2020. The 2015 Sir Winston (approx A$450) is the 21st release of this great wine.
Apparently, Churchill had a preference for Pinot Noir dominant champagnes – no doubt, one reason why he loved Pol – and the house has honored this by ensuring that Sir Winston, a blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, is always dominated by the former, with its contribution usually around 70 to 80%, although the house does not divulge exact percentages.
A confession. My early impression of the 2015 vintage in Champagne was rather underwhelming. There was heat and a very dry summer, which evoked memories of the rather torrid 2003 vintage (anything but my favorite), but the heat throughout August was replaced by rains in the latter part of that month and then cool and sunny weather for the first couple of weeks of harvest, which commenced on 29th August. The vintage has turned out far better than anticipated. It may not be a very long-lived year, although the better champagnes certainly have plenty of time ahead.
Charles Curtis, in his ‘Vintage Champagne: 1899 to 2019’, gives the vintage three stars, noting very ripe fruit and a lack of acidity. He sees it as a vintage of good quality and believes that there will be some outstanding wines made. He also notes some superb Pinot Noir-based wines, which augurs well for the Sir Winston. There have been suggestions that some of the champagnes from this vintage have a slight vegetal note. That does not seem an issue here.
Others have compared 2015 with 2000, although conditions were very different – 2000 had none of that extensive heat was occurred in 2015. That was another vintage that initially snuck under the radar before blossoming into something rather special. Perhaps that is why they find a comparison.
While the family keeps the cepage a closely guarded secret (in these days of transparency, would it really be an issue?), dosage is 7 grams/litre. They do advise that the grapes are sourced from top Grand Cru vineyards in the Montagne de Reims and the Côte des Blancs. Fermentation was in stainless steel and there was full malolactic. Riddling is by hand. This wine has been described as “the most robust and mature wine the house has released”.
Pol Roger ‘Sir Winston Churchill’ 2015 – This is a superb example of what the 2015 vintage gives us. Rich and ripe and full of flavor. The wine is a deep gold in color, and there is complexity immediately evident, as is the generosity. Notes of hazelnuts, beeswax, brioche, ginger and quince. We have concentrated stone fruits, brown butter on toast. Imagine a whiff of grilled marmalade. Ripeness, but there is balance, very good length and fine acidity. The acidity might be fractionally soft, but it will carry the wine for a decade plus.
Rich, full and with Pinot power, this is a stunner. Rather than the finesse, elegance and razor-like focus of the 2008, this is all about sun and muscle. On the palate, notes of raspberries and coffee beans emerge, with a touch of orange rind. This will drink beautifully for at least the next ten to fifteen years. 97.
This is a Sir Winston that would work brilliantly with such a wide range of foods. I saw one suggestion of Parmigiana Reggiano. Perfect!
So what would Churchill have thought of this champagne? All indications are that he would have loved it and that it would have been very much in line with his style. As he said, “My tastes are simple, I am easily satisfied with the best.”
For more information, please visit www.polroger.com/en/champagnes/4/cuvee-sir-winston-churchill
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