Champagne – a history beyond the bubbles

The Winemaker's Wife by Kristen Harmel

Champagne – a history beyond the bubbles

The Winemaker’s Wife by Kristin Harmel

Kristin Harmel’s novel “The Winemaker’s Wife” takes a story of Champagne during World War II and brings it to life.  She takes us through the day to day of characters experiencing the events of the war in different ways, even as they walk the same vineyard.  She also contrasts this story with a modern tale that in the end links the two.  It is a page turner.

I received this book as a sample for review. All opinions are my own.

Champagne and Reims

The story is set in a vineyard near Ville-Dommange, a village that can be traced back to the VIVth century. The original name was “Villa Dominica” meaning “the farm of a Lord”.  This Lord?  Well it was King Louis I the first king of France.

Sunrise on vineyard , Montagne de Reims, France
Sunrise on vineyard , Montagne de Reims, France

This village is in the Marne department which, during the occupation of France during WWII was very active in the Resistance.  The village itself is South West of the city of Reims, a place we get to explore in the book during the war and then in modern day.

The City of Reims

You will find yourself itching to visit, to see this place in person. Well… to hold you over, I offer a small gallery. The Reims Cathedral, Notre Dame de Reims is similar in style to the beloved Notre Dame de Paris. This cathedral celebrated 25 coronations of French Kings, including one attended by Johan of Arc. The Fountain Sube is topped with Winged Victory. The victory, with its bronze wings, was taken by the Germans in 1941 and replaced in 1989 thanks to patronage. The city is the site of the Armistice of Reims, where the Germans surrendered in May of 1945.

  • WarmlyilluminatedReimscathedralinsunsetlightFrance 1920
  • AncientmonumentalfountainSubewithgoldenangelattopwaserectedinmiddleofPlacedErlonfourstatuesrepresentRegionRiversMarneVesleSuippeandAisne.ReimsChampagne ardenneFrance

The story and it’s characters.

The story explores the history of the region, introducing us to historical figures like Herr Klaebisch who was the “weinführer” during this time as well as Syndicat Géneral des Vignerons, and Robert-Jean de Vogüé from Maison Moêt & Chandon.  It weaves these historical figures with our fictional characters. While it is not a “true” story, it is inspired by the history and stories told by those who lived through the war.

We see the Champagne Houses and Growers protect their region, cooperating while quietly resisting the Germans, many of them working with the resistance to get people out, hiding families in the cellars and caves under their vineyards.

The web Kristin weaves gives us characters that we love and hate, sometimes simultaneously. The characters all have flaws that make them human and her two story lines allow us perspective, from a view in the midst of the war, to a look back from today.

Champagne Pairing

Taittinger La Francaise NV Brut
Taittinger La Francaise NV Brut

When choosing a Champagne to pair with this book we went with a Non-Vintage from Taittinger, the Brut La Francaise. There were a couple of reasons for this.  First, Champagne Taittinger hails from Reims and we wanted to stick to this region.

Second was due to a beautiful piece I came across in “Decanter” that told the story of the vineyard owners and champagne houses during the war. It included a bit about François Taittinger that I’ll sum up here. I do encourage you to read the entire piece in Decanter, as it is fascinating.

François Taittinger

François Taittinger was just 20 years old when he was called before Klaebisch.  Taittinger had been sending inferior bottles of Champagne to the Germans.  It was a quiet practice of resistance that many in the region participated in.  It is said that Klaebisch admonished him “How dare you send us fizzy dishwater!”  Taittinger was a bit of a smart mouth, and answered as all the champagne houses wished they could “Who cares? It’s not as if it’s going to be drunk by people who know anything about Champagne!”.  He was tossed in jail, just for a few days (the germans still needed their bubbles after all).  His brother Michel fought in the war and lost his life on his 20th birthday defending the last bridge over the Seine.

You can read more on the Taittingers history here

Some personal thoughts

I will tell you that with Champagne being a celebratory beverage…you may wish to wait until the end of the book to pop that cork.  This book gives you a glimpse of the hardships faced France during WWII, with rationing, losing loved ones, as well as the fine balance of cooperation and resistance for survival.

The Winemaker's Wife by Kristin Harmel
The Winemaker’s Wife by Kristin Harmel

You will finish the book and find that Champagne perhaps tastes a little different, is there a touch of salinity in that glass?  Perhaps a remembered taste of tears.

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Robin Renken
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