Wine-making in the Touraine during World War II: a story of Resistance and Resilliance

Over the past 4-5 weeks I’ve been talking with Florence Rowland a researcher for the London-based TV/Film company, Jura Productions. Jura make programmes about wine and were interested in finding out more about wine-making in the Loire Valley during the Second World War and the particular difficulties vintners experienced because of the demarcation line which ran through our region (1940-42).Vichy_France_Map

I had the greatest of pleasure in introducing Florence to local wine producers, especially in the district around Montrichard. Ludivine MARTEAU from Domaine Jacky Marteau above the village of Pouillé in the beautiful Cher Valley and very close to Montrichard was particularly helpful in providing Florence with contacts to local families with memories of the period.

Florence also put me onto the following book, Wine and War; the French, the Wine and WarNazis, and France’s greatest treasure, by Don & Petie Kladstrup (2001). Wine & War  has some fascinating insights into the difficulties experienced by French wine growers during World War II. Below I relate the difficulties winegrowers experienced across France and follow this with a few extracts from the book that relate to the Loire/Touraine region.

Difficulties Experienced by French Winegrowers during World War II

Many of the men who worked the vines and were essential for the harvesting of the grapes found themselves prisoners of war for the entire war period or were later deported to Germany as forced labourers under the Service du Travail Obligatoire regulations.

Chemical fertilisers and insecticides were practically non-existent. All copper, used to make copper sulphate essential in treating the vines, was confiscated and sent to Germany. Wine bottles were also in constant short supply throughout the war period.

German-appointed wine merchants were established in each of the wine-growing regions and they set arbitrary prices for the importation of wine into Germany; French wine growers had little option but to agree with the price that was stated. The Vichy Government in the ‘Free Zone’ (see map above) tried to appease Germany by guaranteeing the German wine supply. This was coupled with a Vichy campaign of ‘healthy living’ and an anti-alcohol campaign, which was in part a reaction to the lower supply of wine (see table below). Certain days were designated ‘alcohol-free’ with bars and restaurants forbidden to serve alcohol on those days. The advertising of alcohol was also forbidden and, for the first time ever, a minimum drinking age limit of 14 years old was introduced. While trying to get people to drink less the Vichy government was also directly appealing to its wine growers to produce more in order to meet the demands of the German market… can imagine the effect this would have on the attitude of French people and vintners!


Vichy France also had to raise taxation to pay for the costs of occupation and so it instated a 20% tax on wine producers and a further 20% hike at the point of sale. This lead to a massive black market in wine as people across France avoided the new 40% tax. The Germans themselves took advantage of the black market and between, July 1924 – February 1943 they bought more than 10 million bottles of wine on the black market.

The Vichy authorities fought against the black market with more and more regulation of the wine trade, the rationing of wine and the abolition of the time-honoured right of wine growers to keep large amounts of wine stocks for tax-free ‘family consumption’.

Stories from Vouvray

Gaston Huet (1910-2002) used the caves of the Loire to hide his stocks of wine and then planted weeds and bushes to mask the entrance. The tale of Gaston Huet of Vouvray is one that runs through the book, Wine & War. Captured at the start of the war Gaston spent five years in a prisoner of war camp. He returned to Vouvray weighing just 100 pounds after losing over a third of his body weight. He saw his seven year old daughter and wept. Then he saw his vinyards and wept again. No pruning had been done, branches were unattended; the neat lines of wired vines were not to be seen. Weeds were everywhere and many vines needed replacing. He retrieved the wines he had so carefully hidden in local caves at the outbreak of war and Gaston went on to became one of France’s greatest winemakers and was Mayor of Vouvray for forty-six years.

Andre Foreau, a Vouvray winemaker and Gaston Huet’s brother-in-law buried his wines under the beans, tomatoes and cabbages of his vegetable garden. “Every day as we tended our vines, we listened for the click of the rifle.” remembered Andre.

Charles Vavasseur

Charles Vavasseur

At the time of the occupation, the Mayor of Vouvray, Charles Vavasseur (1867-1950), also a wine grower, went to a local artist to produce a forged document saying all the wines of Vouvray had been ‘reserved for the Wehrmacht’. When the German troops arrived they were told the only place large enough to hold them were the caves with the ‘reserved’ wines. Vavasseur said that there’d be no guarantee that the troops would be able to resist the wines so the troops were eventually billeted elsewhere.

Prince Philippe Poniatowski buried his best wines in his yard so he could restart his business after the war. Philippe’s grandfather, a successful industrialist, had decided to buy the property when he learned it was in danger of being uprooted, somewhat ironically, to make way for industrial expansion. As is typical in the small-farm wine business, the Poniatowski family fortune shrank during the decades after the war and the vineyard of Clos Baudoin is now owned by François Chidaine.

 Jean-Michel Chevreau of Chançay

Jean-Michel Chevreau, a Loire Valley wine grower from Chançay; a village that lies between Vouvray and Amboise. In 1940 the Germans rarely came through his village. When they did Jean-Michel and his friends would treat the affair rather like a game; sneaking out after dark and siphoning off wine from trains bound for Germany. “We loved being one step ahead of them. Every time they thought they had us, we’d come up with something new.” he said. Chevreau began his personal campaign in July 1940 after German troops that were passing through his village spent the night in his wine cellar. The next day he discovered hundreds of wine bottles were missing. A week or so later Chevreau and some friends went to the railway station near Amboise where the German’s were loading wine onto trains bound for Germany. They then siphoned off the wine, an operation they repeated a number of times over the subsequent weeks. Soon there were reports coming back from Germany complaining of empty barrels. Extra guards were posted at Amboise station and floats were put in the barrels to indicate they were full. Chevreau and company just emptied the barrels and filled them with water.

The German’s knew they had to tackle the issue and soon recruited local people to keep a watch on the wine. They failed to realise that the people the recruited for this duty were the very people who were syphoning off the wine in the first place. Chevreau and others had to go out each night between their village and Amboise and report any incidents. They were also given ‘wooden sticks which we were supposed to poke suspicious objects.’ Authorities in Chevreau’s village of Chancy would stamp their papers noting the time they started their ’patrol’, the papers were then stamped again in Amboise to register when they had finished. “We never did any work,’ Chevreau said. “All we did was calculate the time it would take to walk along the tracks from our village to Amboise; then we’d get on our bikes and go to Amboise and hang around for a while before getting our papers stamped there. Then we rode home.”

But as the war and occupation continued things began to change. Chançay started to experience heavily armed patrols with soldiers who were unpredictable and ruthless. One mistake by a local villager could lead to torture, deportation or death. “We tried to live in the shadows.” recalls Jean-Michel.

 Jean Monmousseaux

Jean Monmousseaux was a winegrower and négociant or wine merchant, of the Touraine. He had served in de Gaulle’s tank regiment. Jean’s son, Armand, said his father always found it hard to accept France’s defeat. Jean became a member of the resistance who joined Combat one of the earliest resistance organisations. He risked his life by hiding weapons, documents and Resistance leaders in his wooden wine casks and then transporting them across the Demarcation Line. It was Jean’s friends who pointed out that his wine barrels were large enough to transport a man inside. While that seemed fine in principle it proved more difficult to carry out in practice. Wine barrels are made to be watertight and both ends are firmly sealed beneath the curved ends of the staves, and each stave was made to fit perfectly with its neighbour. To put someone in a barrel the metal rings have to be removed, the staves carefully dismantled before reconstruction, stave by stave around the person inside. Jean and his cooper made a few trial runs but the whole operation took some two hours. On top of this was the trip to and across the Demarcation Line. Monmousseaux thought it worth the risk and used this means of transporting people, arms and documents for some two years with the German’s never realising what he was doing. Jean’s wife was English and she had no idea of what her husband was up to. He kept it a secret so as not to put her, their family and friends in danger.

I’ll keep you all posted as to when there is a screening of the film being made by Jura….meanwhile for a video-story of the splendid wine-growing Loire region of Saumur during World War II…..just click the image below:

Domaine Guiberteau ~ WWII

About Jim McNeill

I am a blogger on 'The Social History of the Touraine region of France (37)' and also 'The Colonial History of Pennsylvania and the life & Family of William Penn'. I am a Director of Fresh Ground Group Ltd.
This entry was posted in Agricultural labour, Amboise, Chançay, Cher, Demarcation Line, Loire River and Loire Basin, Saumur, Vineyards, Vouvray, World War II and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Wine-making in the Touraine during World War II: a story of Resistance and Resilliance

  1. Jill Barth says:

    This is a wonderful retelling of such important stories. Thank you for post and I look forward to reading all of your blog as I can see it is packed with fascinating material. I’m a blogger and writer (I invite you to visit my blog, L’occasion). I’ve written a fiction book about Provençal winemakers during WW2. The characters are driven to resistance activity to protect their wine, including a reintroduction of variety of Mourvedre. I’ve done much research on the topic, and I’m pleased to have connected with you here.

    Thank you!

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