Saturday, December 30, 2017

Spanish Burgundy - A Historical Fiction

Jose Lopez Bertran came from generations of winemakers, who had borne much hardship for the love of their craft. His grandfather, Joseph Bertran, was a winemaker from Beaune.

In the 1870's when vineyards all over France were plagued with phylloxera, French wine became a scarce commodity. Consumers started looking to Spain to make up for the shortfall. Many French winemakers moved south and brought their craft to Spain. Joseph Bertran was one such winemaker, and he moved to Catalonia.

In Catalonia, Joseph fell in love with and married Maria Lopez, daughter of a Spanish vineyard worker. They settled in Tarragona, a region known for fortified sweet red wines, similar to port. However, Joseph continued to make dry red wine as a nod to his Burgundian roots.

European vines on American rootstock
While delayed, phylloxera did finally arrive in Spain in the late 1890's, and Tarragonian vineyards were not spared. Thankfully, the remedy for phylloxera by grafting American rootstock to the Europeans vines was already discovered. Despite severe damages to the vineyards, phylloxera was soon under control.

Jose was born in 1920. He was raised a cellar rat and learned winemaking from his grandfather. Up till the mid 1930's, the Spanish wine industry recovered from phylloxera and saw a brief uneventful period of stability. That too was short-lived as the political climate in Spain grew tense with the struggle between leftist revolution and rightist counter-revolution.

1936 saw the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, and the entire country and Spanish territories went through a time of political unrest. By 1939, with the help of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, General Francisco Franco led his nationalist movement into victory and started to rule the country as a military dictator. Catalonia was one of the last regions to come under Franco's control. The vineyards fell into disarray, and Jose and his family escaped to southern France.

That same year, Adolf Hitler led Nazi Germany into World War II and started invading France and various parts of Europe. Jose and many of his counterparts decided to join the French Resistance. He was assigned to work with Burgundian winemakers, such as Maurice Drouhin. Jose was key to coordinating the Resistance activities in 1941 and 1942, especially during the period when Maurice was arrested by the Germans. That was also the time when the Allied Powers started to garner support from various affiliate countries to counter the aggression of the Axis Powers, that comprised of Germany, Italy, and Japan.

In 1943, the Allied Powers, led by United States, United Kingdom, and Soviet Union, conducted the first bombing raid in German cities. By 1944, Normandy was recaptured by the Allied Powers in Operation Overlord, D-Day. The Axis Powers started to decline, but it wasn't till Hitler's death in 1945 that Nazi Germany truly surrendered to the Allied Powers.

Spanish Burgundy
In 1947, Jose and his family moved back to Tarragona. During World War II, Spain had remained neutral despite its proximity to France. Franco was trying to balance his gratitude to Germany and Italy for their help in winning the Civil War, without making an enemy out of the United Kingdom. In the meantime, domestic unrest within Spain continued.

The Bertrans tried to restore their vineyards in Tarragona. World War II had so adversely impacted wine trade in Europe. It was not until 1950's that political stability both within Spain and in Europe allowed for a revival of the wine industry. It was also at this time that large co-operative wineries were founded producing generic bulk wines, such as Spanish sauternes and Spanish chablis. Jose started producing his own Spanish burgundy. 1951 was his first vintage post-war.

Fast forward to 2017, a paralegal in Seattle named Matt was helping an old client with his will. Both love a good bottle of wine. The old man gave Matt a few bottles from his personal collection of old European wines. There was no telling if any of them was any good. Among them was a 1951 Spanish red, Delavin Burgundy by Jose Lopez Bertran. We opened the bottle this past summer. It was delicious, very much alive, and paired quite well with the paella we had that evening. We were puzzled by a burgundy made in Spain, but the story behind the wine and the winemaker was richer than we could imagine.