French Wine Production During the 1900s & First World War
French Wine Production During the 1900s & First World War
On the eve of the First World War, wine trades were still unsettled because of regulations and threats due to appellations of origin. Wine merchants were focused on establishing a quasi-monopoly on the national and the international wine trade. They made this move to respond to the panic they faced resulting from the rise of competition in the wine industry. The First World War played a critical role in making wine a national drink in France and is a war that has been associated with intoxication. It was a time when cocktails like the French 75 became popular. Wine was in massive abundance in European countries like France. The image of poilu and his wine in 1917 during the First World War is ubiquitous within the French culture, and in the modern-day, the image is a part of a national myth in France.
Wine experiences during World War I created many lifelong wine consumers. The shared experiences witnessed in the trenches, including the consumption of wine, helped push aside regional differences, making France one united wine-consuming country.
Phylloxera was one of the worst scourges in French viticulture history. It had a devastating impact on all of the wine regions of France and much of Europe for decades after its first discovery in 1863. Phylloxera was first found in a vineyard in the Rhône Valley. It is believed to have originated from the Eastern United States and found its way to France’s vineyards through imported plants. Most of the native American grape varieties were already immune to phylloxera. However, the French cultivars were hard-hit since they had a relatively thinner root. With this root structure, phylloxera could easily attack and eventually destroy the root. Eventually, the stocks would die as a result. The aphid was highly prolific and spread relatively easily. Winegrowers in France tried desperately to control the aphid using many different techniques such as chemicals and injecting disulfide into the soil.
Another attempted solution was grafting European grapevines onto rootstocks originating from grapevines in the United States. People who favored grafting, also called “Americanists,” were small-scale farmers. On the other hand, people who preferred chemical injections were the “sulfurists” and were often large-scale farmers. In the wake of the aphid curse in France, the Americanists prospered compared to the “sulfurists.” The phylloxera attack dashed the ambitions of many small-scale wine growers in France before the First World War.
Fig 2: 1880, French Guide for Winegrowers on how to fight phylloxera with sulfur
New Solutions At A Cost
The re-planting of vineyards after phylloxera required a new approach. Reconstitution strategies were more scientific compared to the previous methods. As a result, winegrowers were forced to learn new wine growing techniques along with a new wine industry. Radical changes included grafted vines being planted in straight rows, with horses being used to plow and spray the vines. Although viticulture was mainly a family affair, new operations led to changes in this trend.
These new techniques made viticulture more expensive compared to traditional methods. For example, fighting phylloxera was more costly than fighting already known and existing diseases like powdery mildew and downy mildew. Although the newly-adopted scientific viticulture methods led to increased yields, winegrowers were incurring high farming costs.
The introduction of scientific methods for vineyard and wine production led to increasing competition among winegrowers. Southern France established itself as a sort of wine factory. The improved infrastructure associated with setting up rail lines led to Southern France supplying the rest of the county with cheap wine.
Additionally, cheap wines from Algeria, a French colony, began to be imported into France. Plentiful harvests all over France between 1904 and 1905 led to an even greater glut of wine and many winegrowers were struggling to sell their products. In some taverns, wine was no longer sold by the bottle; rather, it was sold on an hourly basis. The tavern would sell wine based on what one could drink within an hour.
Fig 3: 1915, Wine for Troops
Changes To Drinking Culture
Before the First World War, the average consumption of wine in France was high. For example, red wine was made a part of every meal in Southern France. Children were even provided with wine, although it was diluted with water. In harvest season a man could expect 3 liters of wine and 5 francs as payment for one non-stop 8-hour workday. While women earned 1 liter and 3 francs.
Did You Know: In this time period even children consumed wine, although it was diluted with water.
Between 1910 and 1913, France’s per capita alcoholic beverages were at 128 liters annually, with the per capita wine consumption at 51 liters. Between 1910 and 1913, wine was the leading alcoholic beverage consumed in France. Ideally, many growers were primarily diversified farmers whose production was for their own domestic purposes and some for trade.
Oftentimes the quality of the wine was not their key concern and they focused more on quantity. Wine merchants managed all company exports with representatives in foreign countries. During the First World War, wine merchants capitalized on the opportunity and advocated to export wine to allied nations.
Despite the merchants’ need to diversify exports, some allied governments imposed bans on selling and distributing alcoholic products. For example, Nicolas the Second regulated the alcohol trade in Russia by establishing monopolies. In the midst of the First World War, in 1916, the government of Russia imposed hefty taxes on all imported wines. Other countries, including the U.K., the United States, Canada, and Scandinavian countries, had groups that actively petitioned to prohibit the sale and trade of alcoholic products. These practices limited the sale and distribution of French wine during the First World War.
Creating A Thriving Market
Individuals who understand the history of wine will speak of France’s love of wine. The First World War was essential in cementing France’s relationship with wine. Indeed, before the First World War, different regions in France favored different kinds of alcohol. Some areas in France preferred beer, and others preferred wine. However, the First World War was significantly devastating to a large portion of the population, and the culture ended up becoming synonymous with alcohol and alcohol consumption.
The sale of the cocktail, French 75 in Parisian bars increased. French 75 was named after a French artillery gun known for its massive kick. Many war veterans were haunted by what they had experienced, and as a result, they drank to forget the scourges and horrors of the war years later. Before the beginning of the war, France’s government-imposed regulations led to a complete ban on the consumption of Absinthe. This was a strong alcoholic drink popular in France during the early 1900s. However, it was believed to have contributed to a widespread moral decay in France, thereby leading to its abolition.
Fig 4: Message from French President calling French citizens to battle the post-war epidemic associated with alcoholism.
After the ban on Absinthe, it became apparent that France was in dire need of a drink that was not as destructive and would conform to government mandates and regulations. This was a critical starting point in making wine one of the most popular drinks in France. With the German market closed during the First World War, France could not sell its wine products to Germany. Similarly, Germany could also not distribute wine products to the world markets. Fine wine merchants of France seized this opportunity. They started exporting Burgundy’s wine to Russia. At that time, Russia had stopped importing Austrian and German wine, and France could effectively conquer wine markets that were left vacant.
However, the 1917 Russian Revolution ended France’s new market. The supply of French wines to Luxembourg and Belgium also did not materialize since the Northern and the Eastern front prohibited the sale and distribution of wine in these regions. During these periods, countries like the United States, Britain, and Canada were willing to import France’s wine.
The war disrupted the general wine transportation lines of France. Similarly, war at sea made it impossible for France to transport its wine to North America. Further, the war made it difficult for France to effectively navigate and distribute wine to it’s colonies. German warships patrolling the Far East made it difficult for French wine merchants to move their product in the Far East. In addition, existing commercialized traders were mobilized to join the war and defend their countries. The First World War played a huge role in disrupting the distribution and sale of wine.
Fig 5: Rationing of wine by the French Army in the Trenches
Hurdles Imposed By The War
Many factors affected the production of wine during the First World War, including a lack of a labor force, as most young, able-bodied men were fighting in the war. As a result, inexperienced women, the elderly, and children were left behind to manage the wineries and vineyards.
The military also took vehicles and horses. The military men would evaluate available horses and mules and requisition many to be used in war. The military utilized wagons for transportation purposes. Consequently, the production at many estates was hindered as they lacked resources, staffing, and tools. These factors halted the distribution of wine products while inhibiting other essential farm activities, like plowing.
In addition, the war made essential chemicals and farm inputs scarce for producers. This forced farmers to be innovative and find other ways to improve efficiency. With the First World War increasingly sabotaging the wine industry, farmers’ banks were willing to provide loans. However, only a few seized the opportunity, with many stating that they were not ready to be burdened by debt.
The few men that were not fighting in the war helped the inexperienced women and children on the farm. During the stormy winter between 1915 and 1916, the level of production in the vineyard farms plummeted. Ideally, during these moments, vineyards needed strong men to ease production. However, these men were on the frontline, fighting in the war. Under ordinary occasions, these strong men would replace the eroded soil and dig up manure. However, women were forced to prepare the vine due to the war.
Therefore, mothers, sisters, and wives worked in the vines with men fighting in the war. This pattern led to the inception of the slogan, “Men on the front, women in the vineyards,” in France. Men encouraged their women to enroll in viticulture schools to learn more about wine production and farming. Children were recruited to work at the vineyards at the expense of obtaining a compulsory education.
The shortage of labor led to the remaining workers demanding higher wages, proving to be significantly expensive to many estate owners. As a result, influential estate owners recruited prisoners of war to work as enslaved people on their farms. These recruits had reputations as obedient, amenable, and relatively hardworking. Wine throughout the war was eventually produced and distributed despite the difficulty experienced.
Additionally, the authorities were not keen on regulating wine production and wine consumption during the war. Therefore, some wine produced during this time was not declared, and was sold and distributed without even getting approval from the Liquor Control Board.
This Day in Wine History
Historical Timeline of Wine Before and During the First World War
Phylloxera is first found in a French vineyard
Phylloxera attacks the roots of the vine, making the vine sick and eventually leading to the death of the plant. As a result, French wine farmers experienced heavy losses.
1888 – 1891
The emergence of fake wines in France
Government regulations were passed, suggesting that all wine should be made exclusively from grapes.
1904 – 1905
Hourly basis drinks offered in French taverns
A massive supply of wine made wine taverns begin to sell wine based on what one could drink within an hour.
1. Creation of the French 75 Cocktail
2. Ban on Absinthe drink
The French 75 cocktail was initially introduced in 1915 at the New York Bar located in Paris. In the same year, the government issued a regulation prohibiting the sale and distribution of Absinthe drinks prevalent in French society. It provided an opportunity for the popularity of wine products.
The inception of Poilu image
The image is a part of a national myth in France about wine.
Want to read more? Try these books!
 Lecat, B., Chapuis, C., & Wolf, M. M. (2021). Wine and war: Burgundy wine production and consumption during World War I. Journal of Wine Research, 32(1), 11-37.
 Le Bras, S. (2014). Supplying the Front. French Southern Wine Wholesalers Facing World War I. In International Conference on World War I.
 Phillips, R. (2016). French wine: A history. Univ of California Press.
 Banerjee, A., Duflo, E., Postel-Vinay, G., & Watts, T. (2010). Long-run health impacts of income shocks: Wine and phylloxera in nineteenth-century France. The Review of Economics and Statistics, 92(4), 714-728.
 Lecat, B., Chapuis, C., & Wolf, M. M. (2021). Wine and war