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Verdun and Ravel: Wine on the Western Front

All was not always quiet on the Western Front since wine was easy to find. Alcohol was a key part of the French war experience; it was part of daily life in the trenches. The image of the poilu, with his gun and wine, is ubiquitous in French depictions of the Great War. Today, the poilu is a part of the French national myth. Members of the current French wine industry claim that the war experience turned poilus from regions of France with high beer consumption into wine drinkers. Wine was credited for creating France’s “national unity.” Vintners argue that the shared experience of the trenches–wine included– resolved regional differences. The poilu is found throughout French war literature and poetry. Henri Barbusse’s apocalyptic novel Under Fire, which was published during the war, portrays the availability of wine at the front. In Barbusse’s account, soldiers get drunk from each others’ wine rations. There is also a famous poem by Appolinaire, “The Grape Grower in Champagne,” which contains a harrowing description of the eponymous grape grower:

“A grape-grower was singing bent over his vines
A grape-grower without a mouth on the far horizon
A grape-grower who himself was the living bottle
A grape-grower who knows all about war
A grape-grower in Champagne who’s an artilleryman”

What was this wine? When France went to war in 1914, troops were only issued water, but the army quickly began issuing a daily wine ration as early as September, 1914. This consisted of pinard (sometimes translated as “plonk”), which was a low-quality red wine. Generally, poilus were issued with ½ liter of pinard per day, but this could vary. Soldiers were sometimes given beer, cider, or brandy in lieu of pinard, but pinard remained the most common alcoholic drink consumed at the front. The war physically destroyed much of the wine-growing landscape. Ultimately, as Max Leclerc’s “Ode to Pinard” indicates, wine was neither a source of national pride nor a threat to civilization. It was simply one of the few comforts available to poilus– one that helped them get through the day-to-day existence at the front.

While there are many great works connected to the Great War, from Vaughan Williams’ Pastoral Symphony to Elgar’s Cello Concerto, a composition not often included in programs related to World War I deserves to be better recognised.

Joseph-Maurice Ravel was 39 years old when war broke out in 1914, and he tried his best to become a pilot in the French forces. However, Ravel’s age and weak constitution conspired against him, and, instead, the composer entered military service as a truck driver. He had already begun composition of his piano suite Le tombeau de Couperin, which he completed in 1917, and the orchestration in 1919, dedicating the individual movements to the memory of specific friends who had been killed in battle. The composition, actually defined as “a piece written as a memorial,” does not sound like a requiem. When asked about the seemingly strange incongruity, Ravel replied that his friends' deaths were "sad enough, in their eternal silence.”

Though it is certainly not pinard, and even though there are plenty of excellent French wines to recommend, particularly Champagne from the region most devastated by the Great War, there is a fine wine from Australia, yes-that’s right, Australia, that one can actually associate with Ravel and his mini-masterpiece. Had it been served, there might have been a different outcome on the Front. This is one of those wines worth dying for.

After a brief time servicing trucks in Paris, in March, 1916 Ravel was sent to the Western Front at Verdun in north-west France. He was put in charge of driving petrol supplies, and rescuing abandoned trucks in what would become one of the longest and deadliest battles of World War 1.

In his journal Ravel recalled: ‘For a whole week I have been driving days and nights – without lights – on unbelievable roads, often with a load double what my truck should carry. And even so I had to hurry because all this was within range of the guns. Adélaïde and I – Adélaïde is my truck – escaped the shrapnel, but the poor dear couldn’t keep going and after losing her number-plate in a danger zone where parking was forbidden, in despair she shed a wheel in a forest, where I did a Robinson Crusoe for 10 days until someone came to rescue me.’

Adelaide. Verdun. This is a coincidence too good to overlook. Verdun Park Wines is a family boutique wine producer owned by the Voumard Family. Verdun Park Wines is situated in the small town of Verdun, at the beginning of the picturesque Onkaparinga Valley, in the Adelaide Hills and specialise in premium Adelaide Hills wines. The company name, Verdun Park Wines originates from the original property title, “Verdun Park”, dating back to 1880. During “Verdun Park’s” history, the property has been an apple orchard, sheep and cattle pasture and now a vineyard. The Voumards have turned the property into the home of Verdun Park Wines.

Verdun Park’s first release, the 2009 ‘Lyla’ Sauvignon Blanc, won a gold medal in the 2009 Adelaide Hills Wine Show. The 2013, at less than 20€ a bottle, is equally fragrant with herbaceous notes on the nose followed by fresh lemon acidity and tropical characters on the palate. The wine is crispy and made from specifically selected contract grown grapes, with a light straw-green colour and a clean, fresh bouquet which leads into a beautifully articulated palate, full of citrus, white peach and gentle tropical fruits in harmonious balance. Hmm, harmonies in balance sounds a lot like Ravel’s orchestration of le tombeau de Couperin. Lyla is a wine with a floral, sprightly finish, much like the effervescent, rhythmical Baroque dances of Ravel’s music. World War 1 may have been the 1st of many tragedies of the 20th Century, but this music and this wine are glorious reminders of what is best of humanity, and it is possible to raise your glass while listening to this music, and toast with honour and respect those who gave their lives.

John Axelrod
©Copyright 2014