The wines of Vouvray, in France’s Loire Valley, represent the ancient treasure that is French wine, a wine worth fighting for during WW2.
Hidden Bottles, Wine Parties in Prison and a Historical Winemaker: Gaston Huet
At the mention of Vouvray, I’m reminded of a gentleman that passed way about 15 years ago. That he lived into his 90’s could be considered a miracle, a rich stoke of good fortune for the wine community. Gaston Huet was a winemaker in Vouvary, in France’s beautiful Loire Valley. Huet was called to active duty; early in the war he was captured by the enemy in Calais. He was separated from his family and vineyards for five years while in a German prisoner of war camp. By the time he returned to his vines in Vouvray, he was a changed man: 100 pounds lighter and in tears over his reunion with his little girl and his overrun, untended vines.
But Gaston Huet’s tale is not entirely one of loss. In fact, his story (as told through many outlets, including the outstanding book Wine & War by Don and Petie Kladstrup) is personified by a string of inspiring events that start with the wine he made in Vouvray at his Domaine Huet. During his time in the POW camp, his thoughts turned to his wine, not only the vines that were growing wildly but the bottles that he’d hidden in local caves before his conscription. Winemakers all over France adopted sneaky and unexpected measures to hide wine from confiscation and export for German use.
Other POWs were also winemakers, so conversation often turned to wine regions, techniques, vintages…but much of the discussion was that of severe deprivation. Everyone missed home; everyone was desperate for the wines they’d left behind. Communication home was undoubtedly unreliable, but there were ways to get in touch…This gave Huet the idea to plan a wine party for the prisoners.
Cleverly, Huet blackmailed a guard to allow shipments of wine from home to be admitted into the camp. While this was a time-consuming process, not without it’s misfortunes, wine did eventually arrive from vineyards all over the country. Huet had devised a system where each man would be able to sip wine more-or-less of his own choosing, seven men to a bottle…such limited supply. The evening of the wine party arrived, celebrated with unexpected dignity, creativity and fanfare. The wine bottles were arranged in an orderly fashion around the room and everyone knew their place. Each man found their spot by their designated bottle, and there they found the following passage:
This evening will give us time to recall and glory in one of France’s purest treasures, our wine, at to alleviate the misery with which we have had to live for so long. A party to celebrate wine? No, it is not just that. It is also a celebration of us and how we have survived. With this little glass of wine, that we are going to drink tonight, we will savor not only a rare fruit but also the joy of a satisfied heart.
Huet’s eventual return to wine-making, starting almost from scratch with a body and vineyards that had been so malnourished during the war, continued for decades as France returned to peace and prosperity. His domaine is regarded as a trailblazer in biodynamique wine and produces a suite of age-worthy whites.
Huet’s story, though famously recounted and incredibly interesting, isn’t by far the only story of how French wine was protected, often through resistance measures, during WW2. Wine growers were constantly at a loss for farming materials; estate owners and workers were conscripted and captured; families were left in fear of occupation and reparations for any resistance activity. Early Vincy dictates on a healthful lifestyle, with very limited alcohol consumption, regulated French enjoyment of their own wine, wine that was being funneled into German hands.
Despite the grim odds in front of them, however, many winemakers of France applied ingenuity and bravery to craft plans and communication efforts to preserve their product and vineyards. Cellars were disguised as empty or invaluable, vigneron properties were ‘donated’ to resistance work, and occupation methods were thwarted and undermined.
My Story: Que Faire, What Are We To Do?
The topic is fascinating, and I’ve spent the last decade researching and writing about wine-makers and the resistance for my book, which is set in Provence and tells the story of Jean-Pierre, a displaced winemaker who seeks to revitalize phylloxera-eliminated Mourvèdre in Provence and the Southern Rhône Valley and decades later, in 1970’s Napa Valley, California. Resistance work to preserve French wines plays a substantial role in the book.
As a writer, this story has become my ‘life’s work’…not only because a novel is a time-consuming and all-out project, but because it has led me to live the life of a French winemaker, though I’ve never made wine. Through research for this book I’ve traveled all over France, including the Drouhin cellars in Burgundy (which represent the depth of the impact of wine resistance, another story). I’ve come to know dozens of Provençal vignerons, invited to taste their wine and visit their estates and (especially) to tell their stories. I’ve written extensively about French wine for many publications and have connected with a global network of wine-lovers and wine-makers. My life’s work has become, simply, my life.
Though this isn’t supposed to be a write-up of my life, it is a testament to the everlasting meaning of a single sip of wine, just like that small glass Huet shared with six other prisoners many years ago. It doesn’t take more than a few drops, sometimes, to tell the gospel of wine.
I did enjoy a bottle of wine with my husband, and a meal with my family, last night. We made a traditional French dish of pork with herbs de Provence and braised lentils. I utilized this gorgeous recipe from The Cafe Sucre Farine: A French Country Farmhouse Dinner. The food was paired with a bottle of Vouvray, a 2014 demi-sec from Château Moncontour, which has been run by the Ferey family since 1994. The wine estate now spans 130 acres and thrives on some of the most historic vineyards in Touraine.
Touraine-born author Balzac wanted so badly to own the grand château on the property that he famously wrote to his wife:
If we could have Moncontour, all my plans would change. I would not furnish the Paris apartment so lavishly, we would wait longer; I would gather all of my efforts and focus them on the Moncontour castle, because we could live in it forever.
A few pictures of the lovely meal and wine follow. I’m left now, a bit melancholy and I’m reminded of all the families that weren’t able to dine together during the war years and into perpetuity, and for all the bottles and vintages that were lost in the struggle for peace, for all the people left longing for a place they couldn’t have…
A note about the book
Though I’ve worked on it for years, it’s only recently been finished and now I’m seeking just-the-right agent to represent the book. If any readers know of someone, please reach out. In the meantime, a short story about Jean-Pierre’s childhood is scheduled for publication in an upcoming anthology, and I’ll share all the details upon release.
The French Winophiles
I’m proud to share this story in partnership with The French Winophiles, other wine writers and bloggers. We all exhibit an interest in and passion for the wines of France. This month we focus on the wines of Chinon, Touraine and Vouvray. Grab a glass (or bottle) and embark on this virtual journey with us on twitter with the hashtag #Winophiles on Saturday May 21 at 10:00 am central time. Included in the panel are:
Camilla from Culinary Adventures with Camilla tempts us with “Cod in a Mushroom Cream Sauce with Dom Pichot Vouvray”
You are reading: Jill of L’occasion shares “Vouvray During WW2: A Wine Worth Fighting For”
Jeff from foodwineclick brings us “Easy Spring Dinner with Pommes Gratin and Chinon”
Martin of Enofylz Wine Blog shares “A Taste of Montlouis Pétillant Originel”
Michelle from Rockin Red Blog shares “Diving into Loire Valley Wines with Winophiles: Chinon”
Christy, our generous host from Confessions of a Culinary Diva, will be sharing “Chicken and Chinon”
Make sure to join in our live Twitter Chat on Saturday, May 21st using hashtag #Winophiles at 8 am PST/11 am EST.
June 18th – Upper Loire – Cheverny, Sancerre, Pouilly-Fume/Pouilly-Sur-Loire
July 16th – Medoc, Haute Medoc
August 20th – St. Emilion/St. Emilion Satelites
September 17th – Graves and Entre-Deux-Mers
For more compelling writing and photography about France, consider visiting the #AllAboutFrance collection at Lou Massugo.