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 “For Summer Houses, Yachts, and Camps”: An old bottle of the classic Pommery Drapeau Americain Sec


The mysteriously old bottle of Pommery Champagne stood neck-deep in ice water, its dark glass yielding no clues about the wine inside.  After it had chilled down, Mannie Berk met us outside with glasses containing a most attractive dark-apricot colored wine.  There were even little suspended bits of red-brown sediment.   A deep sniff of the nose and confirmation in the mouth revealed this was indeed a sweet example of an old Champagne.

Pommery is renowned for popularizing what is regarded as the first Brut or dry style of Champagne in the late 19th century.  At the time, customers in different countries preferred their Champagne at different levels of sweetness.  This was achieved by adding a dosage or a small amount of an old Champagne, sugar, and liquor mixture.  Whereas a brut Champagne could have a very small dosage, a truly dry Champagne contained no dose.  It was the 1874 Pommery Nature, which contained no dose, that was exclusively shipped to England where it took the country by storm.

Interior of Messrs. Pommery and Greno's Celler. From Henry Vizetelly A History of Champagne. 1882.

Interior of Messrs. Pommery and Greno’s Celler. From Henry Vizetelly A History of Champagne. 1882.

Lost amongst the history of this new Brut style of Champagne is the fact that two years earlier Pommery Sec was introduced to America.[1]  The Sec contained a small dosage and the quality of the wine ensured great popularity.   The Sec cuvee rapidly became synonymous with luxury taste in America.  Produced nearly a century later it was a bottle of Pommery Drapeau Americain Sec that Mannie had poured into our glasses.

Pommery Sec was considered the Champagne of nobility with the Prince of Wales being a particular fan.[2]  Henry Vizetelly wrote that the 1868 vintage is what first made Pommery popular and that the Pommery Sec “especially” was “highly appreciated by connoisseurs.”[3]

This quality “dry champagne” commanded the highest of prices at international markets.[4]  It was in 1872 that Charles Graef, a wine importer based in New York City, felt that the American market was ready for Pommery Sec.  He went from importing 2,000 cases in 1872 to over 33,000 cases of it in the mid-1880s.  With over 3 million bottles of Champagne consumed annually in America, Pommery Sec accounted for nearly one-eighth of those bottles.  The Champagne was so popular that empty bottles of Pommery Sec were being refilled and sold off.[5]  To combat such fraud the bottles were soon shipped from France with a white band on the neck printed with “POMMERY & GRENO”.

It was just several years later that the neck band was switched to black with white lettering.  Incredibly, this band was kept in use for over sixty years.  At the time of this change in 1891, a new mark was registered showing a circular belt labeled “VEUVE POMMEREY SEC” with an eagle on top, the whole of which surrounds an American flag.[6]  Drapeau Americain sec was born.

Pommery Drapeau Americain mark from 1891. [6]

Pommery Drapeau Americain mark from 1891. [6]

Pommery Drapeau Americain Sec was not just drunk in America for it also appears on French wine lists and banqueting menus through the 1930s.[7]  It was even served at the Nobel Prize banquet in 1925.[8] However, Prohibition in America soon meant that the flow of Pommery into the country largely ceased, dealing a crippling blow to France.  With the end of Prohibition, Pommery filed a new trademark for the Drapeau Americain Sec.[9]  It is this mark with its waving flag stripes that adorned our bottle.

DrapeauAmericainSecMark

There are some clues about the production of Pommery Sec.[10]  Pommery produced only one Champagne which was then differentiated solely by the dosage added.  The fruit for this Champagne was sorted from particular hills in Ay, Bouzy, Cremant, and Verzenay.  The fruit was mostly white grapes which gave the wine “delicacy, freshness, lightness, and…greater tendency to sparkle” with the black grapes giving “body and alcoholic strength”.

The bunches of fruit were placed in a shallow tray so that any defective or injured grapes could be cut off.  Care was taken to minimally touch the fruit so that it arrived with the bloom intact to aid fermentation.  Only the juice from the first pressing was to be used and aged in oak casks.  These casks were monitored with any substandard lots sold off to brokers.  When the wines were deemed ready they were all dumped into a giant cuve to be mixed together.  The wine was then bottled and eventually it received a dosage or not depending upon the market.

It is unclear what Pommery Drapeau Americain Sec originally tasted like.  André Louis Simon, Pommery’s agent in Great Britain from 1902 to 1932, writes of only sweet and dry flavors in History of the Champagne Trade in England (1905).  George Saintsbury simply comments that he “did not share the prevailing mania for Pommery” in Notes on a Cellar-Book (1920).  T. Earle Welby wrote of 1904 Pommery in The Cellar Key where it is described as “beautiful with an austerity strange in Champagne”.  This was most likely the Brut having been drunk in England.  Perhaps finding a description does not matter for the bottle Mannie opened looked particularly old, much older than the vintages and ages typically mentioned.

DrapeauAmericainSec

At the extreme, the earliest this bottle could date to would be 1934 with the latest around 1970.[11]  The bottle looks of the same general age as the wedding cuvee released for the wedding of Prince Rainier III and Grace Kelly in 1956.  With no further leads from the bottle it is the capsule that most likely holds the key to the date.  It is an old looking, red capsule with the name Pommery and three stars.  In searching online images it looks like Lambert No. 29 as catalogued in Répertoire Capsules de Champagne.  My efforts to reach out to Pommery and others in the community have yielded no further information.

DrapeauAmericainSecCapsule

The glasses of Pommery that Mannie poured were particularly attractive with their dark, apricot color and a nose that was somewhat articulated with yeasty aromas.  In the mouth the wine was clearly mature with no bubbles left but it had almost a prick from the acidity.  Old Champagne can have minimal and even no sparkle left which transforms it into a unique white wine.  This wine still conveyed a sense of freshness from some zip and though the sweet flavors filled the mouth, there was a tang of returning acidity in the end.  Perhaps strengthened by the residual sugar, this bottle developed with air, taking on spiced flavors as the wine tightened up.

Over a century ago Pommery was advertised “For Summer Houses, Yachts, and Camps”.  It is only appropriate then that I rediscovered the history of this Champagne after tasting it at a summer house.


[1] “POMMERY SEC,” HOW IT WAS INTRODUCED INTO AMERICA, AND MR. CHARLES GRAEF’S CONNECTION WITH IT. New York Times (1857-1922) [New York, N.Y] 07 June 1885: 6.
[2] Simon, Andre Louis. History of the Champagne Trade in England.  1905. URL: https://books.google.com/books?id=qWAaAAAAYAAJ&pg=PP9#v=onepage&q&f=false
[3] Vizetelly, Henry. Facts about Champagne and Other Sparkling Wines. 1879. URL: https://books.google.com/books?id=66ZBAQAAMAAJ&pg=PP9#v=onepage&q&f=false
[4] For example, Pommery & Greno sold for $25.15 net cash per case in New York, making it more expensive than Louis Roederer, Widow Clicquot, Mumm, Piper Heidsieck, Ruinart, Krug, and Giesler & Co’s.  Advertisement. Date: Monday, March 10, 1873   Paper: Daily National Republican (Washington (DC), District of Columbia)   Page: 2.  In London, 1893 Pommery Brut sold at 125 Shillings which was more expensive than 1893 Mumm at 91 Shillings.  Collier’s, Volume 30. 1902. URL: https://books.google.com/books?id=tY4jAQAAMAAJ&pg=PA31#v=onepage&q&f=false
[5] Life, Volume 5. 1885. URL: https://books.google.com/books?id=s6VAAQAAMAAJ&pg=PR1#v=onepage&q&f=false
[6] Recueil officiel des marques de fabrique et de commerce contenant les marques déposées. 1893. URL: https://books.google.com/books?id=cFwMAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA3#v=onepage&q&f=false
[7] See such menus as Le Concours Aerostatique de Bordeaux. May 10, 1908. L’Aʹerophile: revue technique et pratique de la …, Volume 16, Issue 11. URL: https://books.google.com/books?id=1BLOAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA191#v=onepage&q&f=false  , Brasserie Universelle 1913. What’s on the menu? New York Public Library. URL: http://menus.nypl.org/menus/35481/explore  and Maison Prunier 1938. What’s on the menu? New York Public Library. URL: http://menus.nypl.org/menus/30971/explore
[8] Nobel Banquet Menu 1925.  Nobel Prize. URL: Nobel Banquet Menu 1925
[9] POMMERY & GRENO CHAMPAGNE VEUVE POMMERYREIMS DRAPEAU FRANCE – Trademark Details. 1934. URL: https://trademarks.justia.com/713/45/pommery-greno-champagne-veuve-pommeryreims-drapeau-france-71345891.html
[10] A Chat on Wine. The Illustrated American, Volume 22. November 27, 1897. URL: https://books.google.com/books?id=AWxNAAAAYAAJ&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false
[11] There was a Pommery Drapeau Sec “old release” from the 1970s with a completely different label.

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