The Angel of Champagne

8th March 2017


When you visit most of the important Champagne houses in Reims today the buildings you see were either rebuilt or restored after the First World War. About 90% of the town was destroyed by German bombs. The inhabitants were lucky to have the many Champagne cellars to take shelter in.

Underground schools were set up as well as hospitals. Soldiers were quartered in them and also helped themselves to bottles. The town council moved to the cellars when the town hall was bombed in 1917. The graffiti from this time has just been inventoried and a circuit is being created.

When the bombing started in September 1914 the home of Henri Abelé, owner of the third oldest Champagne house in the region, was badly damaged. He built in his cellars an underground appartment which included a chapel and offices.

The cathedral is decorated with over 2,300 statues. Many of them are angels who are there to guard it. During the first bombings the cathedral was set on fire and a C13th sculpture of a smiling angel decorating the north portal of the west facade was decapitated. It quickly became a symbol of the martydom of this historic town.

In 1917 Henri Abelé co-founded the Societé des Amis de la Cathédrale de Reims dedicated to the restoration of this important monument. The local clergy gave him the privilege a year later to use the image of the smiling angel as the trademark for his Champagne house.

Henri Abele’s premises were so badly damaged that he chose to move to another site and restore the buildings there.(These are now open to visitors.) He died in 1923 three years before the angel’s head was put back in place.

Each of the house’s cuvées has a bottle neck label with the smiling angel. There are also two grandes cuvées called Sourire de Reims. Champagne Henri Abelé owned since 1985 by Freixenet remains dedicated to sponsoring the continuing restoration of the cathedral.

Jon Catt

Tour guide for the Champagne region who lives in Troyes. Specialising in family run Champagne house visits in the Aube and the Marne plus wine tours in the Yonne and Côte d'Or.