Champagne might typically be associated with celebration and revelry but during WWI it saw heavy fighting and suffered aerial bombardment that decimated the vineyards and destroyed the iconic Reims Cathedral. Whilst it was in Reims, during WWII, that on 7 May 1945 the German military commander, Alfred Jodl, ultimately surrendered to General Dwight D. Eisenhower.
There are some fabulous tales about the resistance efforts of the Champagne vignerons during the time – from filling inferior cuvées with laxatives, to labelling their prestige vintages as poison!
As many of the growers we work with have family ties in the region that stretch back centuries, we thought we'd publish a couple of stories that give a little window into life during this tumultuous time...
Virginie – Caillez Lemaire
During the First World War, my great grandfather, Charles Caillez (1875-1959), was called up in the Maine et Loire. At 40 he met his wife, Louise. She was a war widow and had a daughter from her previous marriage. After the war, they settled in Champagne, and had a child of their own in 1920. He was my grandfather, Raymond Caillez, named after Charles' brother, who died in the war. Raymond ultimately married my grandmother, Andrée Lemaire, who also came from an old winegrowing family in Damery.
When the Second World War arrived Raymond was not called up as he was too young but, wanting to help the resistance, along with his friends, he would go and attack and destroy German equipment. I don't know too many details other than this as he didn't like to talk much about this period and, whilst he kept string friendships from that time, a lot of people left the region due to the bombardment that decimated vineyards. Fortunately, Damery's proximity to the Marne River gave him many opportunities to barter with the many barges that passed by and he tried trading everything and anything, from walnut oil to chocolate (he had been given one or two cocoa beans and he made many attempts, by trial and error, to make a kind of chocolate. In the end he was very proud of the result!)
By 1942 he was summoned to leave for compulsory labour service but he was exempted by becoming an Recoltant Manipulant alongside my grandmother. This was the beginnings of Caillez Lemaire. So, whilst the war forced his hand, I'm still convinced he would have ended up a vigneron regardless.
Gaspard – Gaspard Brochet
My grandfather, who developed the brand Vincent Brochet [Gaspard's father's Champagne house], started vinifying in 1943, during the war (you can find a photo of his 1943 Actant Harvesting Manipulant card on my Instagram page). He was one of the leaders of the FFI (French interior force/resistance) and fought at the front at the start of the war, but still managed to return to the vines for the harvest! He was eventually captured by the Germans and imprisoned in Germany but managed to escape with comrades and return to France. I still have the FFI armbands and ID cards of my grandparents from this time.
My great grandfather was also an important person in Ecueil [the village in which the family are still based in the Montagne de Reims] because he was the only one who spoke fluent English. He questioned the Canadian, Australian and British paratroopers in his cellar to make sure that these people were indeed allies. My grandfather also succeeded in getting married during WWII on the village square... even though the German army had forbidden him! (the Germans did not want any rally or community spirit).
I could tell you a whole lot of history about my family but it would take a long time! Too much, unfortunately, for me to get down here. Maybe some other time!