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A Glass a Day in May

A wine almanac recently crossed my path, and as I delved into what May had to offer, I discovered a bounty of essential dates in the wine world that continue to inform the landscape of wine today. There are rich historical gems, moments of somber reflection, massively influential people, and a recognition of what has happened in France during May throughout the years. Pour yourself a glass, and let's dig into the dates. . . 

The month starts boldly with the French Revolution beginning on May 4th, 1789. Part of the political ramifications of this upheaval is that land is confiscated from members of Royalty and the Church. Out of this moment came the Napoleonic Code – which has impacted vineyards and wineries since. Upon the landowner's death, the heirs divide the land evenly. Once significant tracts of land owned by one person become fragmented generation after generation, one person may own a row or two of vines and be surrounded by a sea of distant cousins. It wasn't economically feasible to bottle wine coming from just a few rows – but one could sell the grapes or juice of the pressed grapes to a Négociant who would buy from others in the vicinity to bottle wine from the same vineyard, village, or larger area under their Négociant label. Burgundy is a classic example of this reality.

A perfect Spring wine, the Sauvignon Blanc grape is thought to have been first identified in May 500 years ago in the Loire. You may officially celebrate it in its many incarnations from around the world on International Sauvignon Blanc Day on May 6th. It also took place on May 6th, but in 1919, legislation that set the foundation for what would become the Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC) was approved. The AOC protects the integrity and authenticity of food and wine regions throughout France - certain cheeses can only be made from a particular milk and made in a specific way. Likewise, for wine, only approved grapes are harvested at certain times, from a specific area, etc.

May 7th, 1945, saw Alfred Jodl, head of the German Military, present Gen Dwight D Eisenhower with an unconditional surrender at Reims (the heart of Champagne). To honor this historic moment, they brought out six cases of Pommery Champagne from the 1934 vintage to commemorate the signing on the following morning, May 8th – this day would become known as Victory Europe Day, VE Day.

On May 10th, 1940, the French Occupation began, a dark period in the country's history. However, amidst the turmoil, there were stories of bravery and resilience. Civilians and many winemakers showed considerable courage and ingenuity in hiding as much fine wine as possible from the Germans. They built false walls and were active in the Resistance, demonstrating their unwavering commitment to their craft and country. The Germans, in contrast, consumed as much of the fine wine as they could find and sent volumes of it back to Germany. The book 'Wine and War' by Donald Kladstrup and Petie Kladstrup provides a riveting account of how France's wine industry responded to the German Occupation.

On May 11th, 1853, a man looking to serve his guests wine from his Château decides to purchase Château Brane-Mouton. His name was Nathaniel de Rothschild, and he renamed the estate Château Mouton Rothschild. Today, it is an iconic First Growth in Bordeaux. It was considered a second growth in the famous 1855 Classification but was elevated with the 1973 vintage to join the top tier. Renowned for being the only one to raise its rank officially, it is also noted for wine labels that feature a different artist for each vintage, including Chagall, Miró, Braque, and Picasso.

Years before, on May 16th, 1643, the famous Sun King, Louis XIV, was born. He is rumored to have consumed Champagne with every meal between the ages of 4 and 76. Later in life, his doctor prescribed Burgundy to cure his ailments. His great-grandson, Louis Duke of Anjou, was an avid fan of the champagnes made by Claude Moët, whose Champagne house would one day be called Moët & Chandon.

Eleanor of Aquitaine married Henry Plantagenet (who later became King Henry II) on May 18th, 1152. If you remember from my previous writing about her, this helped to bring the Aquitaine region under British influence politically and cemented the favor of Bordeaux wines for the British palate. Commercial ties to the area with British families building financial alliances and some ownership of property helped to spare the region from the impact of the Revolution and the resulting fragmentation of vineyards as the lands were often not owned by members of the Royal family or the Church. 

These are just a few dates of note, but they remind us how wine and history are intertwined and that events that took place hundreds of years ago can still impact the liquid in our glass today. There is history and a story or two in each bottle. So, enjoy a crisp glass of Sancerre from the Loire, perhaps a luxurious Bordeaux, a Burgundy made by a Négociant, or a celebratory sip of Champagne as we stroll through May.

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