Vets in the vines

What happens when members of the French Foreign Legion retire from duty? Some head for the vines. Sophie Kevany reports.

Former members of the French Foreign Legion at work in the vineyard.
Former members of the French Foreign Legion at work in the vineyard.

In a small town called Puyloubier in Provence, men are tending vines on a hillside made famous by French post-Impressionist Paul Cezanne. Grenache, Syrah, Cinsault, Rolle and Cabernet Sauvignon grow in neat rows on the foothills of the Mont Sainte-Victoire, the focal point of so many of Cezanne’s paintings. Despite the hillside’s obvious importance in the world of French art, it is the origins of the vineyard team that hold the attention. They have come from all corners of the earth. Many have seen active combat and all have served their country. They are the French Foreign Legion. Or, as they are somewhat less well known, la Légion Étrangère.

The Institution des Invalides

Myths about these men abound. They have been described as France’s most dangerous winemakers — an allegation that is entirely beside the point, says one of the vineyard team. That they have been given new identities; not quite, the Legion accepts the name or “declared identity” of any man enlisting then conducts background checks. After three years of service, those who so wish will be provided with a French nationality and passport. This rumour is true, under a law that rather poetically states: “One can be French, not just by the blood received, but equally by the blood spilled to defend France.”

Most importantly, and also true, the Legion’s website says it offers a second chance to “young men marked by difficulties, failures, or simply a rupture with society or family, the possibility to change their life’s course”.

Established in 1831 by King Louis-Philippe, the Legion served to mop up some of the more energetic fighters, revolutionaries and refugees who were drawn to France before and after the 1830 July Revolution. Instead of causing potential trouble for the new King, the Legionnaires were deployed to help with the ongoing Conquest of Algeria. Since then, and with a few reorganisations along the way, it has served in any number of conflicts including: the Crimean War; the Italian Campaign; the French intervention in Mexico; the Franco-Prussian War; the Tonkin Campaign (Indochina); both World Wars; then Indochina again, and Algeria. Currently, it is active in the Central African Republic, Ivory Coast, French Guiana, the United Arab Emirates, Somalia, Rwanda, Iraq and Afghanistan. The Legion is also deployed domestically as part of the anti-terrorism Operation Sentinelle, launched after the 2015 attacks in and around Paris. 

After World War II the Legion was dominated by Germans, many unwilling to return home after serving in Hitler’s brutal regime. One was a former fighter pilot who lived, worked and is buried here in Puyloubier — or, to give the estate its proper title, the Institution des Invalides. Siegfried Freytag was a World War II Luftwaffe Squadron Leader credited with more than 100 “strikes” against enemy fighters in various battles. He was awarded the German Iron Cross for Bravery in 1942. At some point after that, having presumably stuck the Cross in the bottom drawer of his military chest, he fled to join Legion in the 1950s. 

Today, the Invalides is home to 85 retired soldiers. The youngest is 34 and the oldest celebrated his 100th birthday this August. The estate was a donation from the Ministry of Defence in 1953. Its official remit is to shelter the Legion’s war wounded and elderly former fighters, and it includes that vineyard on Cezanne’s favourite hillside, more properly known as the Domaine du Capitaine Danjou. Danjou is one the most celebrated Legionnaires, having led 62 men against 2,000 Mexican fighters at the battle of Camarón de Tejeda in 1863. The Legionnaires held out to the last drop of blood, says the Invalides current director, Colonel Lieutenant Daniel Bouchez, ending the battle gloriously, but not well. 

As well as the living, the Invalides is home to the some of the Legion’s most honoured dead. The bodies of fighters from the Legion’s first major campaigns in Algeria and Indochina are interred here. Among them, somewhat surprisingly, are royalty, who clearly needed that second chance: Prince Aage of Denmark (family issues, love complexities, liked fighting), and Prince Dimitri Amilakhvari from Georgia (family had to leave Georgia after the 1921 Soviet Invasion, later became a hero of the French World War II Resistance). 

Heroic wine

Given the physical context of the vineyard — and the many layered traditions that inevitably develop around death and battle — the wine made at the Invalides vineyard is clearly viewed as far more than just a pleasant drink. On the Legion’s website, the vineyard is described as the “terroir of solidarity”. On one level, the vines can be seen as physically entwined with the bodies of the Legion’s greatest heroes. Drinking it would therefore be something akin to the Christian Communion rite, where the wine miraculously transubstantiates into the blood of Christ. On another level, because all profits from the Legion’s wine sales help keep the estate running, buying it is an act of financial and symbolic support, a way of demonstrating the Legion’s loyalty to its men. All very much in keeping with their motto: “You never abandon one of your own, neither in battle nor in life.” (Tu n’abandonnes jamais les tiens, ni au combat ni dans la vie.)

Buyers of the wines fall into two main groups. The general public, which has been able to purchase them via the Legion’s website since 2008, and the Legion itself, to drink in messes around the world. Asked about the infamous “wine ration” the French army used to be allowed, Bouchez says it no longer exists; the men simply drink the wine with lunch or dinner. 

As well as loneliness and the absence of family, former fighters are at risk of alcoholism, depression and PTSD. Bouchez’s main goal as director is to help the men reintegrate into civilian life. For the younger ones, that may be outside the Invalides. For the older ones, it could mean being here until end of their lives. Having an activity, in the vines or crafts centre, is a key part of the Invalides’ programme to help them recover a sense of normality and dignity. Describing the atmosphere in the vines, chef de viticulture and retired Legionnaire, Alain Lonjarret says there is a great esprit de corps. “We talk to each other about our past, our different areas of combat, where we have served. There is tradition and teamwork and it is very enriching work in so many different ways. It is also about giving something back to the Legion.” 

Despite his 20 years of Legion service, Lonjarret is not new to winemaking. “I joined the Legion in 1979, but before that I worked as a young man in the vineyards of Burgundy and for a while in a wine shop in the Cote d’Or. My job now as the vineyard director of the Domaine Danjou is really a return to the source.” 

This is Lonjarret’s 11th vintage and one of the most challenging. “Because of the dry weather and lower volumes, we will probably produce less than 200,000 bottles. But, as they say, less volume means greater quality and that is what we are aiming for.” In terms of current sales, Bouchez says they totalled 219,000 bottles of red, white and rosé in 2015 and, in 2016, 207,000 bottles. 

In answer to the “dangerous winemakers” comment, Lonjarret says he does not see any such link between being a former Legionnaire and a winemaker in that sense. “Our goal is simply to make the best wine we can, it is also occupational therapy… and we nurture each individual vine as best we can. Vines are as varied as people. Each one has its own character. Each one needs the best care we can provide.”

As well as providing the men with work, says Bouchez, the Invalides offers them sports facilities, cultural outings, events and a range of health and welfare supports. “This place is unique in France, and in the world, in terms of the support we give to our former soldiers,” he says. If it sounds good, it is. The setup is the envy of other forces, as exampled by a recent visit from the US Marine Corps. “They have a similar system for retired Marines in terms of their health, but they don’t have the same support systems in terms of the vineyard or the cultural elements. They came here for a visit and were very impressed,” says Bouchez.

Wine to be proud of

While wine sales are certainly boosted by army loyalty, rising quality is also playing a role. Several of the wines have already won medals and, as part of a longer-term strategy for the 40-hectare Danjou vineyard, a new wine category was launched in August this year: Réserve du Général. The addition brings the estate’s main wine categories to four (all with red, white and rosé options), plus various speciality wines and bottle sizes (including one called Miss Képi Blanc, named for the Legion’s famous caps). 

The Legion’s entry level wine is an AOC Cotes de Provence (€4.50 per bottle). Next is the Légion Étrangère Vin de Terroir (€6.00), followed by the Esprit de Corps range (€8.00). The Terroir bears an embossed rendering of the Legion’s insignia on the bottle: a grenade with seven flames. An offbeat but entertaining web tasting of Esprit de Corps by two Finnish wine lovers — who definitely approve of the rosé — features a discussion of the insignia and the suggestion that the new motto of the Legion could become “Make Wine Not War”. Would that be an option? Not exactly, says Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Bouchez, director of the retired Legionnaires home: “Wine is a very small part of our endeavours. Our job is combat, at which we are excellent. With our winemaking, we are showing we can be excellent in other areas as well.”

 

A new French Foreign Legion wine was launched on 28 August. Réserve du Général is aged for 14 months in oak barrels before bottling. The first vintage was the 2015, when six 225 L barrels were produced — about 1,800 bottles, but a little less allowing for evaporation or, as it is more generously known in France, “la part des anges”. In 2016 the Réserve du Général production was nine barrels (or about 2,700 bottles). It is sold in cases of three for €75.00 ($88.00) or by single bottle cases (€25.00). The new wine, says Lieutenant Colonel Bouchez, is part of the Legion’s ongoing efforts to raise both the quality and profile of its vineyard production and viticulture. The Legion worked with two well-known French oneologues on the Réserve du Général project but, somewhat mysteriously, the two prefer to remain anonymous. 

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