Riesling as Recompense: Wine and 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.

As 1870 dawned, the Prussians thrashed the Austrians in a brief but bloody war, and had effectively announced to the world that they were now major players on the world stage. Bismarck aspired to unify the North German coalition with the more apprehensive principalities of southern Germany. While the northern and southern Germans had many differences, both regions were united in their burning hatred of the French. Bismarck realized that a war with France would inspire the German peoples to rally around Prussia, and would unite Germany into a whole state capable of achieving the status of a global power.

Bismarck wanted a war; all he needed was a reason. Thanks to some creative deception, he soon had his pretext. The Iron Chancellor had goaded France to declare war in July of 1870, ensuring it was perceived as the belligerent. Since the war was seen as a result of French aggression, the southern Germanic states readily came to the aid of Prussia. Now it was up to the Prussian army to prove it was truly ready to be the preeminent power in Europe.

The Prussian military was the most innovative in the world at the time. It had to be, since for the tiny state to survive it had to be dogged in its pursuit of military advantage. The army’s strength first and foremost stemmed from its excellent leadership schools. Prussian officers were trained in the art and science of warfare throughout their careers. The German military academy could even count the godfather of modern strategy, Carl Von Clausewitz as a former director. Prussian field commanders were encouraged to adapt and innovate, giving rise to a generation of leaders who seized opportunities, and took action in the absence of clear orders. This is in contrast to the officers of other European armies, who were taught to follow their leaders’ orders to the letter, and no further. The Prussian army was a product of universal conscription, but its forces were still expertly trained and drilled. They not only drilled into their soldiers the tasks of battle, but Prussian leadership meticulously drilled the mobilization and movement of troops to the front. When the mobilization order was given, the Prussians would arm and equip over 300,000 soldiers, then move all those men and equipment onto the front in fewer than three weeks. In the era before motor transportation, it was an impressive feat. The Prussians did have a secret weapon in their mobilization scheme: railroads.

Prussia was an early adopter of the railroad system, and they had a number of key lines that allowed men and equipment to get to the battlefield quickly. The French struggled to field armies, and when they did there were often shortages of crucial equipment. Movement of men and materiel on this level demanded a more modern sort of planning, and thus the Prussians developed the first modern general staff, with true subordinate staff officers who were experts in their respective fields. This allowed for the development of refined plans involving many moving pieces, and implementation of these plans on a grand scale.

Despite Prussia’s advantages, the French were still a capable foe and a first-rate European power. However, Prussia’s superior mobilization made the first several battles pitched. The Battle of Wörth (where the likely eponym of the Negroni cocktail played a pivotal role) on Aug. 6, 1870 pitted 80,000 Germans against only 35,000 French. Predictably, the battle was a French defeat. Even when the Prussians were outnumbered, like in the Battle of Mars-la-Tour, Prussia’s bold, calculating leadership and first-rate troops often exploited French hesitation, typically resulting in Prussian victories. At the Battle of Sedan, the last real shot at victory for the French, the French army was numerically even with the Prussians. Napoleon III, the dictatorial leader of France, personally commanded the army in the field. While an even battle on paper, the skilled Prussian artillery made short work of the massed French, and the well-trained Prussian troops easily thwarted the assaults of the French as Prussian army corps enveloped them. The battle would end with the surrender of Napoleon III and the capture of nearly 100,000 French troops. While the war would continue under an emergency government, the Prussian army was never in any effective danger, and the Prussians had Paris under siege by Sept. 19. The French were able to raise a number of citizen armies in an effort to break the siege, but the impromptu forces were no match for the weight of the Prussian war machine. France would surrender on Jan. 28, 1871. For Bismarck, it was as ideal a victory as he could have wanted. Bismarck could not have succeeded without the aid of the southern German states, and he needed to provide a reward to keep them happy about the now-unified Germany. That reward would come in the form one of France’s best wine regions: Alsace.

Wine in the early industrial age was big business. Before the dawn of rail, moving wine from place to place was challenging and expensive, so most wine consumption was a local affair. However, throughout the 19th century, transportation across Europe grew more efficient, and suddenly Spanish aristocrats could purchase wine from as far off as Germany, and French wine could be sold from London to Moscow. The market for wine, which had historically been a regional one, had suddenly gone global. Between 1865 and 1874 global production topped three hundred million gallons of wine a year. France accounted for 48 percent of said production. Alsace was square in the middle of this global expansion. In the 61 years from 1789 to 1850, the number of hectares dedicated to cultivating grapes exploded from 7,000 to 30,000. Alsace is an ideal wine region because it is between the Vosges Mountains and the Rhine River. On the gentle slopes of the Vosges, growers can plant their grapes in the thin topsoil, which gives way to a subsoil that retains the limited rainfall of the region. Thanks to the blocking effect of the mountains, the region averages one-third the rainfall of the adjacent territories, and receives an extra 50 days of sun a year. This creates an ideal climate for viticulture.

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?

The answer is politics. German wine producers competed directly with Alsatian white wines. Thus, when war with France came about, German vintners were happy to see their competition’s vineyards thrown into disarray. When Germany seized Alsace however, German winegrowers feared their competition would return in full force. The most important German wine regions are concentrated in southern Germany, the same region that Bismarck had desperately courted at the war’s outset. The southern states were promised the end of Alsatian wine as a concession for joining with Prussia in the fight against France.

French nationalist pride was badly wounded by the loss of the Alsace-Lorraine, as the region came to be called. For a generation, French schoolchildren were taught of the “lost provinces” of Alsace and Lorraine. They were even colored black on school maps. This humiliating loss would create a generation of animosity between France and Germany that would finally come to a head in the First World War.

Alsace-Lorraine would alternate between Germany and France through two world wars. Despite the devastation the region suffered as a contentious battleground, it now boasts some of France’s finest wine and is a prosperous and productive region. Of course, it has resumed producing its unique Rieslings and Gewürztraminer.

The French responded to the defeat in the Franco-Prussian war by investing in new military technologies in an effort to make their forces more mobile. The result was the French 75 millimeter artillery piece. It first came off the line in 1891, twenty years after the French loss against Prussia. It would serve France throughout World War One and would be memorialized in the French 75 cocktail.


1 oz. Gin
½ oz. Lemon juice
½ oz. Simple syrup
3 oz. Champagne

Preparation: Combine gin, syrup, and lemon juice in a cocktail shaker filled with ice. Shake vigorously and double strain into an iced champagne glass. Top up with Champagne. Garnish with a lemon twist.

A la votre!


Paul Lewandowski is a graduate student, veteran and writer. He prefers a good gin gimlet to just about anything else. America is his favorite country and his favorite color is a tie among red, white, and blue.