Paul Lewandowski on the non-military impact of the Franco-Prussian War:
The name “Franco-Prussian War of 1870” conjures few images in the popular consciousness. It is an obscure war that is easily overshadowed by the Napoleonic wars of a few generations earlier, and the First World War a couple generations later. However, fans of military history and wine aficionados should both be intimately familiar with the conflict that is considered the first “modern” war, and was nearly the death of French Riesling.
The balance of power established in Europe after Napoleon’s defeat in the early 1800s had begun to erode in 1870. The greatest threat to this order was the upstart principality of Prussia. This relatively small nation had forged its independence and thrust itself onto the world stage through martial prowess and total devotion to military readiness among its people. Nineteenth-century Prussia was in many ways the first “garrison state.” By the late 1860s, the crafty Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck had consolidated Prussia into the hegemon of northern Germany. Everyone in Europe recognized that Prussia was a rising European power. France meanwhile, was the aging colossus of the European order. It had been a global power for hundreds of years, sparring with the Hohenzollerns and Hapsburgs for power and control of the European continent. For France, the world was changing, and the stagnant nation failed to change with it.
Alsace produces almost exclusively white wines. Historically the primary varietals are Rieslings and Gewürztraminer, both of which are also produced in Germany. Alsatian wines distinguish themselves from their German counterparts by their intense dryness. While German wines traditionally retain some sugar following fermentation, Alsatian wines are produced with almost no residual sugars.
Riesling is considered a “top three” white wine, together with Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. It is most commonly grown in Germany and Alsace, but it is also cultivated in the United States, Australia, and Eastern Europe. Gewürztraminer meanwhile, is a wine variety that got its name in Alsace, though the grape it is derived from, the Traminer, has a somewhat hazy origin. Traminer is uniquely suited to Alsace, as it is considered by winemakers to be among the more difficult varietals to cultivate. Growers regard Traminer as “fussy” about different soils, unproductive, disease-prone, sensitive to frost, unruly on the vine, and inconsistent in result. Before modern cultivation methods, Gewürztraminer was difficult to cultivate consistently outside of Alsace.
Given the region’s unique productivity, Germany sought to obtain Alsace in the Armistice of Versailles. Once they took control of the region (along with parts of Lorraine), Germany’s actions became puzzling. They outlawed the production of Rieslings and Gewürztraminer in Alsace. Instead, the government imported low-quality, high-volume grape varietals like Chasselas and Elbling. Why would Germany want to destroy the unique productive capacity of their newly acquired region?