Proof that tough times can help secure a stronger future
During the Second World War, the Champagne region of France was occupied by the German army for four years. This caused many challenges for local growers and producers of wine who, in the beginning, lost much of their valuable champagne to stealing and looting by German soldiers. Otto Klaebish, who became known as the weinfuhrer, was sent to put a stop to this and control German purchasing and levies. Wine producers started mislabelling and hiding thousands of bottles, but the situation was still dire. Despite the Champagne producers being plagued by labour, supply, and food shortages, Klaebish expected an astonishing 400,000 bottles per week.
To give a unified voice and combat the issues the wine growers and merchants were faced with, they established the Comité Interprofessionnel du vin de Champagne (CIVC). Their purpose was to open communication lines and allow negotiations with Klaebish and the German army. Their role became vital as they monitored German levies and managed the distribution of limited supplies. The CIVC still operates today and continues to play a key role by having a positive impact on sales and defending Champagne against imitations.
The champagne producers and merchants were also active in the resistance during the Second World War, using their cellars to stow away allied soldiers, arms, and Jews. They also contributed vital intelligence to British forces, figuring out that a major offensive was about to take place when the Germans ordered large shipments of wine. In one instance, the Germans ordered a large shipment, requesting they be specifically corked and packaged for a ‘very hot country’. The intelligence was passed onto the Allied forces just before Rommel’s North African offensive kicked off.
A not so well-known fact: the Germans signed the surrender papers in Reims on 7 May 1945, officially ending the war in Europe in the region of Champagne. On VE (Victory in Europe) Day every allied soldier was given a bottle to celebrate. We have on display in the National Army Museum Te Mata Toa one of these bottles, given to Ernest William Morley who served with the British Army during the Second World War. He saved it to share with his wife on his return to New Zealand, but for reasons unknown it was never opened. It sits untouched on display in our newly refurbished Italy gallery. This Brut made by Jacquesson & Fils was known to be Napoleons favourite drop!
Though the producers and merchants suffered hard times in the four years they hosted an occupying force, many of the wines from 1940-1944 turned out to be vintage. Liberation would have tasted sweet as the growers and producers in Champagne were finally able to start rebuilding their lives and their businesses.