There are all sorts of ways that wine links to history, not least its status as one of the world’s oldest beverages. Really old wine could be considered history in a bottle, but as I mentioned a couple of months ago, even a newer wine can come from vines planted decades and decades ago. Aside from what’s in the bottle, sometimes the history has to do with places and the luminaries who owned the vineyard lands centuries ago. But on my last trip to France, I had my first experience with wine and its relation to an event that paved the way for the 20th century as we now know it, standing on land that was part of a decisive battle of World War I.
I hadn’t planned it, but my trip coincided almost exactly with the 100th anniversary of the event that historians mark as the tipping point leading to that war. It probably didn’t seem quite so momentous back then. On June 26, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, were assassinated in Sarajevo, a city that was part of the vast Austro-Hungarian empire ruled by Franz Ferdinand’s family. The assassin, one of seven who had plans to ambush the Archduke but thought he had missed his opportunity, didn’t expect to have a second chance to shoot. And he never dreamed that his pistol shots would lead to World War I, lasting more than four years, with millions of casualties.
Somehow it all seems even more remote than 100 years for many of us here in the U.S. It strikes me as more in the past than even the Civil War does — especially here in the DC area, which is right at the dividing line between the two sides. We have a beautiful but unassuming (by Washington standards) memorial to DC residents who died in World War I. Contrast that with Arlington Cemetery, the Lincoln Memorial, and battlefield memorials and parks within 100 miles of DC, all with a connection to the Civil War.
It’s a different story in France. Travel in the Champagne region and you’ll see that many cities and villages between Paris and Reims have a World War I memorial or cemetery. Not just for the French citizens who died fighting, but also the U.S. and British troops who fought and died there. The Second Battle of the Marne, which took place from July 15 – August 6, 1918, cut right through the Champagne region and caused enormous destruction. (Map 1 shows the Marne River Valley.) It was the last-ditch attempt by the German army to mount an offensive and capture Paris. (Paris was never invaded in World War I –French forces had prevented the Germans from entering Paris in the First Battle of the Marne in 1914.)
In May and June, German forces got to within a few miles of the northern bank of the Marne river. In the first three days of the July battles, they advanced and captured Marne river crossings east and west of the village of Dormans. As you can see in the detailed map around Dormans (Map 2), this included the village of Trélou-sur-Marne, which is where Champagne Bernard Mante, First Vine’s champagne producer, is located. Some of the July 15-17 fighting took place on what are now Bernard’s vineyards, and the fighting continued there after the British and American forces joined the French and counter-attacked beginning on July 18. The German army’s advance was stopped, and ultimately the battles in July and August marked the beginning of an unbroken string of Allied victories that led to the war’s end a few months later.
As Bernard and I walked around the vineyards, Bernard pointed out the topography that made this part of the Marne River Valley a battleground. The north edge of the vineyards climbs steeply and the ridge is densely forested. In June 1918, the German army had advanced south to a point just north beyond the trees. The French army was to the south, on the other side of the Marne River. The British and American armies advanced from Château-Thierry to the west. Both Trélou and Dormans were hit by the German bombardment.
The war left the champagne industry in dire straits. Not only were the fields in ruins, but so many men had been killed that there was barely anyone to work in the vineyards. As we walked, Bernard recounted the difficulties of replanting and slow industry growth that was then interrupted again by World War II. It was nearly two full generations from the start of World War I until the Champagne region entered what we’d consider the modern era of wine production.
Today the villages are long rebuilt, and a limited-access motorway whisks you east of Paris through Reims toward Strasbourg. Grapevines and wheat cover the battlefields. But there are reminders of 1914-18 on the autoroute, and even more if you take the roads through the villages. At the edge of one of the dirt roads leading into Bernard’s vines there’s a cross, a memorial to two French scouts who were killed there at the start of the battle. The cross is taller than the vines around it, and is beautifully tended. You can’t help but notice it when you drive by on the main road. And even today, Bernard finds pieces of metal from war materials when he replants vines. It’s amazing how 100 years can vanish in an instant.
My visit with Bernard and Christiane happened just as First Vine’s order of Bernard’s champagne was arriving in DC. The bubbly has rested from its journey by boat and truck, and is now ready to drink. People tend to think of champagne as a special-occasion drink, and of course it’s great for celebrations. But visiting Bernard and Christiane introduced me to the wonder of drinking champagne every day.
Of course, when you’re a champagne maker you have a lot of it around. But it’s really an ideal beverage for lots of different foods. And it will last for a few days after opening if you’ve got the right kind of stopper — the carbonation pushes air away from the surface of the liquid, leaving a layer of carbon dioxide between the champagne and the air which would start to oxidize the champagne. This layer keeps oxygen away from the liquid longer than in still wine. So don’t be afraid to drink champagne (and other sparkling wines) more often.
Champagne doesn’t necessarily have to be served with something fancy. Cheese and fruit make a wonderful, easy meal, and champagne works beautifully with them. Salads can often be a problem for wine pairing if they’re too acidic, but one of the joys of champagne is that it has a little more acidity than many wines, balanced by fruit and yeast. So as long as you don’t overdo the vinegar or lemon juice you’ll be fine.
Fresh fennel bulbs are starting to show up at the farmers’ markets, and fennel, red onion, orange, and olives make a wonderful salad. Fennel and oranges are available year-round, but the small fennel bulbs you find in the summer are more tender and don’t have quite as much of a licorice flavor to them. Orange makes the salad a natural for pairing with champagne — think of part of the mimosa as being in the meal as well as in the glass.
Any of Bernard’s champagnes would make a nice accompaniment to the salad, but I’m partial to the Extra-Brut ($35). Champagne gets dosed with sugar and yeast for carbonation, and additional sugar can be added later on depending on the formulation. Extra-brut champagne has no additional sugar after the yeast turns the initial dose into carbon dioxide bubbles, and it’s beautifully refreshing. Your salad will actually taste a little sweeter, too.
I have always looked at drinking First Vine wines as a way of thinking of the people who made them. But it’s something new to drink the wine and think of the people who fought and died on the land where that wine was made. I think champagne is an ideal beverage for that, and now I can also consider that first sip — the one so often taken in celebration — as a tribute to those individuals from around the world that made it possible for me to enjoy something extraordinary.
3 small bulbs of fresh fennel (or 2 large bulbs)
2 small navel oranges
24 small unpitted green olives, like Picholine
1/4 of a large red onion
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon Dijon mustard
Extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly-cracked black pepper
1. Thinly slice the red onion, and put it in a small bowl. Cover the slices with ice water and let them soak for 20 minutes. Drain and set aside.
2. While the onion is soaking, trim off the stalks and fronds from the fennel bulbs (keep a few fronds for garnish), and cut off the tough bottom pieces. Using a vegetable peeler, peel off the outside of the outer layer of the bulbs. Then cut the bulbs in quarters through the top and cut out the tough center parts. Thinly slice the trimmed fennel bulbs.
3. Cut the top and bottom off the oranges and set them flat on the cutting board. Using a thin, sharp knife, cut the peel off the oranges so that no white part remains showing on the outside. Reserve the pieces of peel. Then slice the peeled oranges crosswise. You’ll want 8 uniform slices. Take the small or uneven slices and squeeze them over the fennel, and do the same thing with the orange peel. (You can also eat the extra slices, but you’ll want about 2-3 tablespoons of juice for the salad.)
4. Mix the lemon juice with the mustard and a little salt and pepper in jar or small bowl. Mix in 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Stir into the fennel and orange juice, along with the onion.
5. Arrange the dressed fennel and onion on four salad plates. Place two orange slices on top, along with six olives. Drizzle with a little additional olive oil and serve.