La Champagne Pouilleuse, they used to call it: dusty, miserable, impoverished and depopulated Champagne, the Champagne where undergarments rustled not (as they do in Reims and Epernay) with the whisper of lace on silk, but with poux (lice). This was the dry, open, featureless, desolate and wind-harried plain which precedes the vine-covered hills. The English word champaign, now toppled into disuse, described such a landscape. 'Daylight and champaign discovers not more' declares Malvolio in Twelfth Night, convinced that the letter he is clutching reveals, with radiant clarity, that wealthy, beautiful Olivia loves him. (She doesn't; he is 'notoriously abused'.)
I crossed La Champagne Pouilleuse recently, leading a tour group from the cobblestones of Lille via the former battlefields of 1914-1918 to luckier Champagne. It was indeed dusty, as giant harvesters munched through fields of dun grain; it was indeed empty, apart from the silent lines of crosses and tombstones, lining up with immaculate symmetry in the walled military cemeteries which break the landscape. Battlefield country, if ever there was; Attila the Hun was defeated here in the 'Catalaunian Fields' almost sixteen centuries ago. In the nineteenth century, La Champagne Pouilleuse was covered with a huge forest of black pines; war cleared them. The land then reverted to its bright, dusty destiny.
When you next sip a glass of Champagne (and especially if you happen to sip it around November 11th) meditate on the role of fortune in life. Champagne is in many ways a shocking wine: the vitality and incision of its balance always shocks the palate, which is one reason why we love it, while its beauty and aromatic compression is woven into a resonant austerity which rings as it bites. It's a pity, one might almost say, that we've rendered this drink so familiar by use, thereby mitigating its power to shock. My touring group and I sat with Krug, Bollinger and Salon (whose founder grew up in La Champagne Pouilleuse); and we were indeed shocked by the unsubordinated energy and layering of the aromas and flavours of these grand wines.
Shocked, too, to find ourselves in such luxurious surroundings, with its drapes and its cream sauces, so soon after having re-lived (in so far as those who have only known peace are able to re-live) the misery of 1914-1918. No contrast could be more jarring. None underscores more insistently the role of fortune in life. My maternal grandfather fought at the Somme. He is not one of those remembered on Lutyens' enormous memorial at Thiepval (enormous because there were so many names of the missing dead, some 732,337 of them, to inscribe on its sides). My grandfather was gassed and survived. That's why I'm here, writing this, able to sip the shocking Champagne of peace, in contrast to all of the grandchildren of the dead and missing, who never came into being, who are not here at all. Perhaps this good fortune lurks inside every wine, since we are all the lucky outcome of a million forking paths, but it lurks inside Champagne most of all.