French Wartime Vintages

For many years consultant on nines to S. S. Pierce Co., CHARLES R. CODMAN knows the products of the European and California vineyards from direct experience mulched by few other experts. In the October Atlantic he will report on the wines of the Loire.


THE late Phillips Oppenheim never would have dreamed of allowing one of his heroes still less his sympathetic villains — to be exposed to anonymous “vintage wines.” I’he claret was invariably Lafite '64, and if the Champagne chanced to be of a lower order than Krug '15, the following evening would find a new headwaiter at the Café do Paris.

In these unsettled times the ordinary mortal hardly aspires to such high-level proceedings — at least with his daily fare; nevertheless he likes and has a right to know what is what.

Last May, when the world press and radio, in their otherwise detailed coverage of the Khan-Hayworth wedding, were content merely to note that throughout the reception the guests were plied with “vintage Champagne” — to the tune of seven bottles per guest — they fell down on their job. Vintage Champagne indeed! What vintage? What Champagne? The public, not to speak of the seven-bottle guest, is entitled to the facts.

Now that French wines are happily with us once again, it may be well to get. a few things straight, among others the simple fact that no magic attaches to the word “vintage” per se. Every natural wine begins life as a vintage wine — that is, wine from the pressing of grapes of a particular harvest, year, or vintage. The vintage may be good, bad, or in different.

Being here concerned with the vintages of wartime France, and in particular those of Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Champagne, whose supremacy among natural and sparkling wines cannot be seriously challenged, let us first examine the record over a period of years before the war.

In these districts, as in other wine regions devoted to quality rather than quantity production, a successful vintage year is one in which climatic conditions, absence of disease and pests, and other factors have especially favored the perfect maturing of the grapes. Compared with the relatively slight yearto-year variations in such winegrowing regions as California, climatic and other conditions in the highquality French districts are, to say the least, mercurial.

In the decade following the sumptuous vintage of 1929 the great namevineyards of Bordeaux and Burgundy scored only three outstandingly superior vintages — to wit, 1933, 1034, and 1937. In Champagne during the same period some of the best houses confined themselves to shipping as vintage Champagnes the '34’s and '37’s. Thus, even in peacetime France, perfection is attained neither annually nor automatically. It is in the light of this not untypical pre-war period that we should approach the accomplishments during invasion, occupation, and liberation.

Shortly before the war American importers — at least those of foresight — decided that 1937 was a good bet, and considerable quantities of the wines of this patently desirable year were reserved for them by their French correspondents in the usual manner. With the blackout of World War II the fate of these reservations remained unknown — in most cases for the duration.

It would be pleasant to record in detail the resourcefulness and even heroism displayed by many French producers in maintaining production and preserving their coveted reserves under the incredibly difficult circumstances of the war years. Suffice it to say that, lacking everything — bottles, corks, fertilizer, main-d’œuvre — they plied their trade with amazing tenacity and remarkable results. Even though we make no allowance for their difficulties, but apply the strict yardstick of pre-war standards, the showing is impressive.

We may skip the disappointing years 1938 and 1939. In 1940 the Champagnes and Burgundies were clearly below par. Some of the Bordeaux showed promise hut frankly I wonder. Shortage of bttles and corks obliged some producers to keep their wines in the wood for longer than the normal period, and already some '40’s show signs of early demise.

André Simon, to whose pronouncements I am practically always prepared to bow, is flattering to the white Bordeaux of 1949, but personally I would rather drink a good Anjou or Vouvray — and don’t let anyone tell you they won’t travel — than even a pretty fair Saulernes. If one is going in for Yquem, climens, or La Tour-Blanche it should be the best. Nothing was at its best in 1940.

The following year — 1941 — was an off year for everything except Champagne, which was good, though I think the houses that waited until 1943 to present a vintage were wise. But how in those days could one know what tomorrow would bring?

A marked improvement occurred in 1942. Mr. Simon gives the '42 Champagnes the same rating as those of the preceding year. In Bordeaux there were some line whites, and the clarets, though not great, were above average. Burgundy produced some good wines, both red and whte, but only to the wines of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti would I be inclined to give really high marks.

The year 1943 has been generally rated a great year right across the board. As to Champagne and the Burgundies, both red and white, there is no question about it — they are tops. Nor would I disparage the Bordeaux, but I cannot bring myself to believe that the '43 clarets will not be outstripped by the magnificent? '45’s — a view shared by my old friend Francis de Luze of Bordeaux, for whose candid and disinterested judgment I have the deepesl respect.

In terms of the wine charts, 1944 has the disadvantage of being sandwiched in between two notable vintages, and the fairly low regard in which it’s wines are held is doubtless justified. It was nevertheless a year which the French vintners have reason to remember. Along with millions of others, I like to remember it myself—in particular, those stirring weeks in the summer of '44 when the Third U.S. Army, after its breakout from the Cotentin Peninsular, swept south of Paris through the Department of the Marne and into Lorraine.

This sweep afforded little time for personal matters, but nevertheless took us to and past ihe door of many an old friend. It was good to ring the bell of a familiar garden gate in Ay, find the proprietress, Madame Lily Bollinger, alive and well, and learn that she had faceddown the Boches and that her reserves of 1937 were all but intact. I like to think of that, and also of our previous meeting in the same room. The month was June; the year, 1940. A sultry fate-laden evening. When my wife and I arrived, Lily and her husband Jacques were by the fireplace burning their private papers. We urged them to come back to Paris with us. “No,”said Jacques, “ I am the Mayor of Ay and my place is here.”

He did not survive the war but I can see him now, sitting there by the fireplace burning his papers as his father prepared to do in 1914, and his grandmother had done in 1870.

Other memories. The trip to Dijon on a liaison mission which somehow required a slight detour up the slopes of Aloxe-Corton. The astonishment of la famille Louis Latour at their first sight of a jeep weaving through the vineyards. Most pratique they decided. Yes, the family were all well and the '37’s safe and sound. The visit to the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, where I was told that Monsieur de Villaine, under the very noses of the Germans, had spirited away his '37’s to a place of safety. Yes, in many ways 1944 was a good wine year.

The year 1945 may or may not rank with 1929, but it is certainly a great year. The big Château clarets are just that — big. Some are giants. The white Bordeaux are the besl since before the war. The red Burgundies are superb, though in the case of some of the greatest crus lamentably scarce. We shall be lucky if the quota of Romanée-Conti '45 for the entire U.S.A. exceeds a few hundred bottles, and these will be the last for some time to come. Following the 1945 harvest, Monsieur de Villaine was obliged to rip out the old vines, the famous vieux cépages, of this tiny but literally peerless vineyard, and there will be a regrettable void until the present roots and grafted vines bear fruit worthy of the historic name.

Thus in the turbulent period from 1940 through 1945 the great clarets and Saulernes of Bordeaux, together with the famous Burgundian crus of the Coté d’Or, not only won the battle for survival but in addition captured as many blue ribbons for quality as they had during the previous ten years of peace. As for Champagne, if the wine charts are hesitant as regards some cuvées of '45, it is unlikely that the vintage itself will be soon forgotten by the proud Champenois, for it was at Reims in the month of May of that memorable year that the Armistice was signed, and this ancient province no less than the other winegrowing regions of France can be justly proud of its war record.