Thursday, 20 August 2009

Wine and War by Don & Petie Kladstrup

Subtitled ‘The French, the Nazis and the battle for France’s Greatest Treasure’, Wine & War chronicles the story of the France’s most famous vineyards while the country was under Nazi occupation during the Second World War. The book was another recommendation, this time from my friend Liam who works in the wine industry and lent me his copy.

After invading France in 1940, the Nazi’s set about systematically looting the country. Many millions of bottles were taken back to Germany at the behest of Göring, and at the end of the war the French liberated what was left from an immense cache at Berchtesgaden.

The authors make the point that wine and viticulture are very much part of the French soul and that the crime of its theft was particularly hard to bear, especially when it was eventually rationed for the ordinary French in the latter years of the war. In a particularly moving episode, winemaker Gaston Huet, then a prisoner of war in Germany, manages to persuade the camp commandant to allow the men to have a fête, complete with wine, although when the wine is shared out, there is little more than a tiny glass each.

Huet did not remember precisely what wine he drank or the vintage. “It was nothing special and there was only a thimbleful,” he said, “but it was glorious, and the best wine I ever drank.”

I shall leave the final word to the writer Georges Duhamel, who after a dinner to celebrate the end of the war and the return of the vineyards to French control said:

“Wine was one of the first signs of civilisation to appear in the life of human beings. It is in the Bible, it is in Homer, it shines through all the pages of history, participating in the destiny of ingenious men. It gives spirit to those who know how to taste it, but it punishes those who drink it without restraint.”

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