I read the book Wine & War, The French, The Nazis & The Battle for France’s Greatest Treasure by Don & Petie Kladstrup a while back and found myself revisiting this week with the 75th Anniversary of D Day and the invasion of Normandy.
I highly recommend this read, whether you are fan of wine, history, human perseverance, or all of the above.
What an amazing story this book tells of French wine and the wine making families of France between 1939 and 1945.
The book chronicles the Drouhins of Burgundy, the Miailhes of Bordeaux, the de Nonancourts of Champagne, the Hugels of Alsace and the Huets of the Loire Valley through the years of the German occupation in France.
While many just consider wine to be a luxury, something we celebrate and relax with, to France and especially to the wine making families, it is the lifeblood of the economy. Many vineyards were only just beginning to recover from WW I and rather than stand by and watch the vineyards and the wine be destroyed, they became very proactive in saving their wines and the vineyards from the ravages of war.
From hiding wine in newly created caves that were made to look old by moving cobwebs and spiders to the newly created walls, to making plonk wine and labeling it with the best labels, the French wine makers conspired to save their way of life and avoid economic disaster by taking great effort to hide wine and preserve the vineyards during WW II. They accomplished this not from their fields and cellars but as soldiers and prisoners of war.
These efforts would not stop Hitler from accumulating VAST quantities of France’s best wines. He hoarded the stolen wines at his personal compound called Eagle’s Nest. In what can only be described as an act of Divine Intervention, those wines were recovered in 1945 by Allied troops. A French soldier, Officer Nonancourt, discovered case upon case of his own family’s Champagne that he had witnessed Nazi soldiers take from his own property. In addition there were cases of Latour, Lafite-Rothschild, Mouton-Rothschild, and Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, stretching across decades of vintages. All seized by the Nazis over the course of the previous few years.
With war recovery efforts underway in 1945, attention turned to the harvest at hand. The French wines of 1945 were lauded to be some of the best the country has every produced – it was a difficult vintage plagued by impossible weather. The result was a very low yield but the fruit that did come through was said to be unbelievably good. If terrible weather was not enough to derail the 1945 vintage, keep in mind that everything in France was in shortage. Winemakers had to make decisions they would not have otherwise made due to shortages of sugar and sulfur used in the wine making process. The wines were also left in barrels longer due to a bottle shortage. And somehow, despite all of the adversity of the years of the war, and from the shortages that entailed following it, 1945 turned out to be what some critics still claim as the best vintage France has ever produced. With such minimal intervention perhaps France’s 1945 vintage was the first “natural” wine of modern times?
Recently wines from this vintage have set records at auction – which is of course the only place you will find them. Bottles from Robert Drouhin’s personal cellar were auctioned in October of 2018 at Sotheby’s – one of those bottles, a 1945 bottle of Domaine de la Romanee-Conti went for $558,000. The previously held record was for a Jerobaum (five 750 ml bottles) of 1945 Mouton- Rothschild that sold for $310,700 in 2007.
The war and sentimentality aside, a Wine Spectator article on the auction of the DRC bottle also tells us that the vines those wines were made from were ripped up after 1945 so perhaps more justification for the record breaking prices.
If you think about the things that amount of money can do, it might seem kind of silly to pay that much for a wine that is in all likelihood well past its prime. But a part of me 100% gets that you are literally holding history in your hands with those bottles. This stuff gives me goosebumps and is the reason I am so enamored with wine education. I have learned more about geography, history, science and chemistry through studying wine in the last few years than I learned over the previous decades combined. And let’s not forget humanity – perhaps what the Wine & War book showcases best is humanity.
So, what do I recommend you drink while reading Wine & War? A French-American collaboration of course. Domaine Drouhin – an Oregon Pinot Noir that is the endeavor of the grand children of Maurice Drouhin. The winery’s tag line is “French Soul, Oregon Soil.” You can read about Maurice and his son Robert in Wine & War, but for quick summary of the significant role the family played in the the French Resistance, here is a lovely article from Decanter.
The wine has aromas of plum, cedar and spice with notes of cherry, dark fruit, baking spices and cola. It has a lingering finish with tannins that are more present than some Pinot Noirs but they are smooth and well integrated. This 2016 is perfectly drinkable but you can tell it will age beautifully.
You’re going to need some cheese to go with that wine and I know just the one. Camembert! It is the cheese of Normandy. Not only appropriate in light of the 75th anniversary of D Day, but also because Camembert was part of French soldiers issued lunch during WW I. How could I choose anything else?
Camembert is similar to Brie in appearance and creamy consistency but the flavor profile of Camembert is so much more flavorful – notes of mushroom and nut in a super creamy texture. It is very pungent and that bit of funkiness transfers beautifully to the flavor profile. The rind is edible and for me adds a beautiful bit of texture to the creaminess. It is really delicious with almost any wine but it was truly great with this Pinot Noir. Experts also recommend a French cider or a any sparkling wine.
As I enjoy this amazing wine and cheese, the atrocities that WW II created are hard to imagine. Even harder to imagine is a world in which the Invasion of Normandy didn’t happen. I am humbled. I am grateful. I am forever indebted.
C’est vie est belle. Tresor.