How the World War influenced Burgundy Wine Production
Wines produced in the French region, Bourgogne (“Burgundy” in English) are among the top ranked wines in the global wine community due to their taste and fine quality. While several other wine-producing regions outside France also produce high-quality and unique wines, like Napa Valley in California, Burgundy wines have somehow managed to warm their way to the hearts of almost every individual who has an iota of interest in wines.
The wines are made in the Eastern wine-producing region of France. Red Burgundy is mostly made from Pinot Noir grapes, while their white counterparts are mostly made from Chardonnay grapes. Even though Pinot and Chardonnay are the most commonly grown grapes in this region, other varieties like Aligoté and Gamay are also used to make wines. Besides the globally renowned red and white wines produced in the region, sparkling and rosé wines are also produced in limited quantities. It is worth noting that wines produced from Burgundy subregions are called by the name of the areas in which they were made.
Climate, terroir, and wine-making craftsmanship play a significant role in making Burgundy a delight and globally sought-after wine. However, Burgundy didn’t make it into the limelight overnight. The vineyards endured the hardships of the grape disease, phylloxera and also bore the brunt of two world wars. The persistence of the wineries and keen efforts of the winemakers brought the region through those difficult times — and today, their wines are on the lips of every wine lover across the world.
From Phylloxera to World War
After the 1863 phylloxera (that lasted over 30 years) epidemic that destroyed much of Burgundy’s wine production, another keynote event occurred that hindered Burgundy’s production, World War I (WW1). Many vineyards were destroyed in the heat of the war, and production was made even more difficult in the vineyards as the experienced farmworkers were drafted and sent off to the war.
There was also a shortage of horses needed to transport farming and production supplies like copper and sulfur. To lessen the burden of cultivation on farmers who remained in business during the war, the magazine Le Progrès Agricole et Viticole offered professional guidance and advice on keeping the farm running with inexperienced workers tending the fields. Expert winemakers and vineyard workers who were away from their wineries sent detailed guides in the form of a letter to their wives about the management of the vineyards. One such vineyard owner was Jean-Baptiste Roux.
Due to the close bond that developed over centuries between the French and their wines, the demand for wine at the war front kept mounting. The government was aware of the affiliation and, despite the limited manpower in the wineries, provided an ample supply of wine to the soldiers on the front lines. It is now considered a part of French culture and no longer news that the French way of life includes a decent amount of wine, and even difficult times of war could not come between them. History says that Napoleon always carried several bottles of his favorite wine with him every time he set out for battles in foreign lands.
According to accounts by Kladstrup, the French soldiers were given bottles of Champagne to keep their morale up while in the trenches during World War I. Utensils were also given to the soldiers to help them prepare hot wine to prevent epidemics.
How Did World War II Affect French Wineries?
During World War II, several prominent French chateaus and their owners suffered a tremendous shock as they ran wine production in difficult times. Famous names on the list of French winemakers that suffered during World War II include Rothschild, who had to flee to avoid getting caught by the invading German forces. Another notable name on the list is Henri Jayer of Vosne-Romanée in the Burgundy region and Prince Philippe Poniatowski of Vouvray. Prince Phillip Poniatowski even buried his best wines before leaving to have something to drink when the war ended.
Did You Know: Many French winemakers came up with creative ways to hide their best wines from the incoming German army. Some buried wine, while others walled up entire rooms in their winery to hide their stash.
Winemaker Gaston Huet spent time in military camps alongside Daniel Senard of Aloxe-Corton in Burgundy and André Cazes of Château Lynch-Bages in Bordeaux. Records on Hitler’s war in France showed that the wines that were made with the 1939 harvest received unpleasant descriptions like dishwater, while others described wines from that era as “complete rubbish.”
When it became clear that the Germans were set on attacking and taking over the wine regions (Champagne, Alsace, Bordeaux, and Burgundy), winery owners knew it was time to hide their best bottles of wine, and they didn’t waste time getting started saving their wines. Winemakers in Domaine Drouhin hid their wines in the labyrinth of caves dating back to the 13th century.
Every German soldier knew how great French wines tasted except Hitler, who described the best wines as “vulgar vinegar.” While Germans did not spare some French wine estates during the war, others didn’t suffer a “scratch.” For example, Château Haut-Brion, originally converted into a hospital for French soldiers, was later converted into Luftwaffe’s rest home. The Germans converted Château Montrose into a rifle range, while the decorative bells hanging over Château Cos d’Estournel were turned into targets for German soldiers.
THIS DAY IN WINE HISTORY
July 28, 1914: World War I began and continued until November 11, 1918. The war began following the assassination of Franz Ferdinand of Austria. Also known as the Great War, it was fought between two blocks of countries — the Central Powers (Germany, Ottoman Empire, Bulgaria, and Austria-Hungary) versus the Allied Powers (France, Canada, Romania, Japan, Italy, Russia, Great Britain, and the United States.)
September 20, 2006: French vitner Henri Jayer died at the age of 84 years in Dijon. He died from prostate cancer. He was renowned for his unwavering Pinot Noir quality and contributions to Burgundian wine-making.
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- Centre, UNESCO. 2022. “The Climats, Terroirs Of Burgundy.” Whc.Unesco.Org. http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1425.
- LONSFORD, MICHAEL. 2022. “Wine: Exploring War’s Secret Cellars.” Chron. https://www.chron.com/life/food/article/Wine-Exploring-war-s-secret-cellars-2020891.php.
Photo: Chalonnaise, Côte. 2022. “The Côte Chalonnaise In Burgundy | Wine Region”. Le-Bourguignon.Fr. https://www.le-bourguignon.fr/en/content/48-cote-chalonnaise.