It’s Global Champagne Day today – and to toast it, Cunard has revealed some fascinating facts about its long and proud association with French fizz.
The cruise line claims that Champagne is essential to the Cunard experience.
Read on to discover the lengths the company went to in order to preserve its stock of fine Champagnes during the wars, how it used to recommend a pint of fizz as a seasickness cure – and how in the 1960s 21 kinds of vintage Champagne were offered by Cunard on board…
Cunard ships have carried champagne since the beginning of their service in 1840. This was according to Samuel Cunard, the founder of the company.
From the start of its service in 1840, Cunard ships have always carried Champagne on the instructions of the company founder, Samuel Cunard who, despite himself being a quiet and conservative man, understood that Champagne would play a role in keeping those passengers who could afford it ‘happy’.
The bar on Britannia, Cunard’s first purpose-built ship (built in 1840), would open at 0600 hours as in those days passengers were roused at 0500 hours to allow cabins to be swept out.
‘The opening of a bottle of Champagne is at best a ticklish affair, an accomplishment shared alike by the skilled waiter and the finished gentleman.’ Cunard Publicity, 1905.
It is hoped that Charles Dickens, who once stated that ‘Champagne is one of the elegant extras in life’, was able to enjoy a bottle or two during his crossing on Cunard’s Britannia in 1842, if only to take his mind off what he thought was a tortuous endurance while experiencing the great Atlantic in a January.
In 1887 the Cunard Company boasted: ‘Our passengers annually drink and smoke to the following extent: 8,030 bottles and 17,613 half bottles of Champagne, 13,941 bottle and 7,318 half bottles claret, 9,200 bottles of other wines, 489,344 bottles ale and porter, 174,921 bottles mineral waters, 34,400 bottles spirits, 34,360 lbs tobacco, 63,340 cigars and 56,875 cigarettes.’
A pint of Champagne was recommended by the onboard doctor for seasickness in the 1890s.
Today, Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth (pictured), have combined to pop over 12,000 champagne corks in the course of a single year.
As Cunard’s liners increased in size, so did the consumption of Champagne. Etruria (1886), who would consume 1,100 bottles for each roundtrip Atlantic crossing, and Lusitania (1907 and Mauretania (both 1907) would consume 1,700 each. Queen Mary (1936) would consume 2,400 bottles and 1,440 half bottles on each roundtrip, while today passengers on Cunard’s flagship Queen Mary 2 consume 248 bottles on each seven-day Atlantic crossing (12,913 bottles annually). QE2 consumed 73,000 bottles each year (37 different label), while Queen Victoria, Queen Elizabeth and the rest of the world drank over 12,000 champagne corks per year.
Each of today’s Cunard Queens features a Champagne Bar, where Laurent Perrier is served – something Charles Dickens could only dream of.
Cunard Board deemed it a priority to keep a supply of Champagne in Liverpool’s massive warehouses for ships that were still in passenger service. This was to ensure sufficient supply for its fleet when war ended. Before Christmas that year, Cunard had put in place secretive and complex arrangements covertly through its French sales offices to solicit Champagne from its French suppliers using specially hired ‘undercover’ trains that would travel through France and deposit the Champagne at several coastal ports. It was then loaded onto chartered ships to cross the Channel, before being again loaded onto trains to continue on to Liverpool. All the while, there was war.
The Queen Elizabeth’s Champagne list in the 1960s
Noel Coward would insist on Champagne for breakfast while sailing on one of Cunard’s famous Queens. Queen Mary was the nerve center of the Empire during the Second World War. She was there when Sir Winston Churchill crossed over the Atlantic to meet President Roosevelt. Special arrangements were made to make the Prime Minister more comfortable, including loading several cases of his favourite Pol Roger Champagne on what was supposed to be a ‘dry’ ship: ‘I could not live without Champagne. In victory, I deserve it. In defeat, I need it.’ He enjoyed the Champagne at dinner but, more importantly, while he bathed. Naked flames were not allowed in cabins at any time but special allowance was also made for Churchill to have a candle lit at all times – for his cigars.
But even the Champagne consumption of Coward and Churchill was nothing compared to one of Cunard’s Captains. Sir James Charles, Captain of Mauretania in the 1920s, was the first to establish strict rules of etiquette at the Captain’s Table. He was knighted in recognition of his war service and demanded that all guests wear military decorations. Sir James was also a great trencherman. Whole roast oxen or small herds of gazelles, surmounted by hillocks of foie gras decorated with peacock feathers, were wheeled to his table where Champagne was served in jeroboams (otherwise known as a Double Magnum, which holds three litres, the equivalent to four bottles) and souffles were the size of chefs’ hats. Confectioners spent hours creating centrepieces in carved ice or spun sugar – on one occasion an electrically illuminated Battle of Waterloo was carried in to the ship’s orchestra playing Elgar – all toasted by Sir James and his guests with Champagne.
Today, Sir James is remembered by Cunard ships. A Grand Suite is named after him on Queen Elizabeth and a special cocktail, ‘Over the Top’, inspired by Sir James’s dinner parties is served on all ships.
A publicity shot of Queen Elizabeth, 1950. Roger Moore, 007 fame, is the model who accepts a glass of Champagne from a waiter
Celebrity pets and animals would cause as much fuss as celebrity passengers. Rin-Tin Tin Tin, the star in 36 silent films, was a frequent on Berengaria. His keeper would be with Rin Tin Tin throughout the trip, despite the fact that he had a first class ticket. Rin Tin Tin would enjoy a few glasses of Champagne.
During the Prohibition era (1920 – 1933), many Americans travelled on British-registered Cunard ships simply to get a drink. Cunard built the biggest bar at sea on Berengaria as an attraction for thirsty Americans and weekend ‘booze cruises’ were popular. Passengers would wait at the bars until the ship crossed the three-mile mark. Then, they would open up a roaring trading floor and the bar would be empty. One American first-class passenger managed to sip ten cases Champagne in the five days it took Aquitania crossing the Atlantic in 1921. In response to one or two raised eyebrows of the ever-attentive Cunard stewards, he claimed an ‘unusual thirst’.
In 1933, The Prince Of Wales, later King Edward VIII visited Berengaria while berthed at Southampton with friends and bottles of Champagne. Captain Grattidge asked why he chose Berengaria. The Prince of Wales offered Captain Grattidge a glass of fizz and explained that it was difficult to find quiet places where he could relax with friends.
Cunard’s original Queen Elizabeth was a first-class cabin. It was quite a refined place to live.
When the Second World War erupted the Cunard Board acted once again to secure the line’s extensive stock of rare vintage Champagnes and wines. The mystery of the whereabouts of what had been hailed as Cunard’s ‘prized possessions’ was not resolved until Queen Elizabeth made her delayed Maiden Voyage in passenger service in October 1946, when Cunard White Star Limited revealed that the line’s valuable stock, which was considered at that time to be irreplaceable, had been secreted immediately after the outbreak of hostilities in 1939. The Champagne was hidden in underground areas throughout England as a precautionary measure. Brockenhurst, Somerset, Buxton and Leeds were the locations. The collection survived the war unharmed and was then reassembled in Southampton for the much-delayed Maiden Voyage of a large liner.
The Lincoln Cathedral Magna Carter, which had been sent to America for safekeeping during World War II, was returned to England by Queen Elizabeth earlier that year. The Cunard ship also returned a consignment Champagne, which had been sent to America for safety. It was being auctioned at Restells. In total 145 bottles of Champagne were being auctioned including 1928 vintages of Veuve Clicquot, Krug, Pol Roger, G H Mumm and a few dozen Bollinger ’29. Two double magnums of Champagne (each equaling four bottles) were offered for sale: Perrier Jouet and Irroy 1928. Bollinger 1914 was the oldest Champagne, with 23 bottles.
According to Cunard in the 1960s: ‘The restaurants the Queens offer are the last word in food-and-winemanship, or almost the last word. To accompany each meal a bottle of Champagne – there are 21 kinds of vintage Champagne on this, probably the largest wine-list afloat.’
Couples sip Champagne aboard the RMS Caronia II’s stateroom
The largest wine lists afloat would require the largest cellars at sea – a tradition Cunard continues to this day.
In the 1950s, ocean travel was at its peak, passengers could invite their friends and family to board the liners. It became a common practice in New York for passengers to invite as many people as possible to the embarkation point in order to have a Bon Voyage Party in their cabin. Cunard would provide the champagne and flowers, and parties would often mix with one another until the whole vessel was busy partying passengers and visitors. Most often some parties would still be underway long after the ‘all visitors ashore’ calls and while the parties were a nuisance factor for the crew, they provided a great sales tool as visitors got a first-hand glimpse of the ship.
Cunard offered unlimited champagne to QE2 passengers when turbine trouble caused them to be left in mid-ocean off Bermuda in 1974 without water. Some passengers even shaved in it.
Over 7,000 bottles of Champagne were consumed during Queen Mary 2’s inaugural events period in January 2004, which was entirely appropriate for the launch of the largest, longest, tallest, widest and most expensive ocean liner ever built. But when Her Majesty The Queen named the new Cunarder she did something for the first time ever at a Cunard launch – and that was break a bottle of Champagne across the ship’s bow.
When Her Majesty The Queen named Queen Mary 2 she did something for the first time ever at a Cunard launch – and that was break a bottle of Champagne across the ship’s bow
Despite Cunard’s obvious appreciation of Champagne the decades-old rivalry between it and the French Line resulted in Cunard’s refusal to actually use (French) Champagne for any of its launches, so The Queen, her Mother, Grandmother and the dozens of Lady Sponsors of earlier Cunard ships that had preceded Queen Mary 2 used Empire Wine [a wine produced in a country within the Empire]. Queen Mary 2, the first Cunarder to receive Champagne, was in service with the Veuve Clicquot Champagne Bar.
Her Royal Highness, The Duchess Of Cornwall, also christened Queen Victoria in Champagne in 2007. She and Queen Mary 2 are the only two Cunard ships. What will be used to name Cunard’s next ship, its 249th since 1840?
Queen Mary 2 passengers can enjoy a glass champagne starting at $16.50 at the centrally situated Champagne Bar. Those travelling on board Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria also have the option of the ‘Gin & Fizz Bar’, which serves Champagne by the glass or bottle – and has an extensive selection of premium gins, including one crafted exclusively for Cunard by Pickering’s Gin.
Champagne in its most expensive bottle Cunard currently sells on board is the 2004 Alexandre Rosé, by Laurent-Perrier, priced at $360 (£260) per bottle.