Monday was Adolf Hitler’s Birthday. I know this because my teenager came home and announced it — they’ve been studying World War II in his history class. On Monday, they talked about the waning days of World War II, and the Allied race to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest in Berchtesgaden, Germany. The Allies captured the Eagle’s Nest in early May of 1945 — about two weeks after Hitler’s 56th birthday, and about 5 days after his suicide.
The Eagle’s Nest talk make me think of one of my favorite wine books, Wine and War by Don & Petie Kladstrup. It’s a fascinating look at the role of French wine in World War II. If you’re a student of wine or history, it’s a must read. I blogged about the book a couple of years ago, taking a brief look at the Third Reich’s drinking habits, along with a glimpse of the Führer’s wine glasses.
When the Allies arrived at the Eagle’s Nest, they found Herr Führer’s wine cellar — stocked with over 500,000 bottles of the best French wines. The irony? Hitler didn’t even like wine. Hitler liked cake (maybe he needed a cake cellar). The wine cellar was just another tomb of Nazi greed and excess.
Enter the story of one of Champagne’s greats — Bernard de Nonancourt.
I’ve been immersing myself in all things French Resistance for the past few weeks — getting my brain ready for our trip to northern France later this summer. Both Bernard and his older brother, Maurice, were members of the French Resistance. I wish I could say their story is unique, but it’s only one of many French “wine family” histories tethered to wars in Europe.
In 1938, Bernard’s mother, Marie, bought the Champagne house, Laurent-Perrier for her sons. (Marie was a widow — Bernard’s father died in 1924 from complications stemming from injuries he sustained in World War I). With her sons away at war, Marie did what she could to keep the business afloat, and the Nazis at bay. She hid 100,000 bottles of Laurent-Perrier Champagne behind a cement wall sealed with a statue of the Virgin Mary. The Nazis never found Marie’s stash, but unfortunately, they did find Maurice. He was captured by the Gestapo, and sent to the Sachsenhausen-Oranienburg concentration camp, where he died.
During the closing weeks of the war in 1945, Bernard served with the French 2nd Armoured Division under General Leclerc. Bernard was among the first to arrive at Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest. His commanding officer knew Bernard was from Champagne, and hoped he would know also something about wine — because military intelligence reports indicated the wine the Nazi’s stole from vineyards all over France was stored at the Eagle’s Nest. So, Bernard was given the task of literally blowing the doors off of Hitler’s wine cellar. Once inside the cellar, Bernard couldn’t believe what he saw:
There was every great wine I had ever heard of, every legendary vintage. Everything that had been made by the Rothschilds was there, the Lafites, the Moutons . . . There were also outstanding Burgundies as well as rare ports and cognacs dating from the nineteenth century. Bottles from every major Champagne house were there too: Krug, Bollinger, Moët, Piper-Heidsieck and Pommery. But what I really remember is the 1928 Salon . . . it was so good and there were only minute quantities of it. (In 1940, de Nonancourt had watched Göring’s men steal that Champagne from Salon).
And then, Bernard laughed. Because among all those legendary wines of France were hundreds of bottles stamped “Reserved for the Wehrmacht” (these were the bottles the Wehrmacht had requisitioned for the morale of its troops.) And Bernard knew their secret — they were all utter plonk. They were the worst Champagnes, repackaged especially for the Nazis. Vive la Résistance!
Hitler’s wine was hauled off the mountain on stretchers and into waiting tanks and trucks. From there, I’m not really sure what happened to it — the story gets a little cloudy. But in the short term, a lot of the wine ended up in the bellies of Allied troops.
Footnote: After the war, Bernard de Nonancourt returned to Laurent-Perrier, running it until his death in 2010. Today, Laurent-Perrier is run by his daughters.
All quotes sourced from Wine & War by Don & Petie Kladstrup, 2002.