Cognac cache revives spirit of war at £2,500 a bottle

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The Independent Online

There is a corner of a Balkan field that is forever France - as a lucky group of Macdonian farmers has discovered.

In the heat of the First World War, as the Allied and Axis powers fought for control of Macedonia, a band of French soldiers was hunkered down in a trench in the remote mountain village of Gradesnica when a German artillery shell exploded in their midst, killing them all.

Amazingly, it failed to damage the improbable quantity of wine and cognac the French had brought with them to stiffen themselves against the bitter Balkan winter.

The soldiers were blown to bits - but their spirits linger on. The villagers of Gradesnica stumbled on the first case of buried liquor about 15 years ago. "At first we were afraid to taste the dark, thick liquid," said one of them, Stefan Kovacevski, aged 64. "But... this must be what people mean by the nectar of the gods." The cases appear to be dotted all over Gradesnica, like bones buried by dogs. One cache was unearthed by farmers ploughing their fields. Two more were found when a glint of metal in the sand of an old trench caught one farmer's eye.

The wine in the cases may be past its best by now. But experts say the cognac can only keep improving. Mikhail Petkov, professor of viticulture at Skopje University, told Associated Press that if the locals can bear to part with the stuff, a single bottle of the vintage cognac could fetch up to £2,500 from collectors. "The wines were intended to be consumed immediately, and not to last for a long period of time," he said."But with cognac the situation is different. The older, the better."

Macedonia, divided between Serbia, Montenegro and Bulgaria during the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, became an important piece of the Balkan jigsaw during the last years of the First World War as tens of thousands of British, French and Serbian forces poured into the country to counter-attack Austrian, German and Bulgarian armies.

When they were not fighting they had to cope with malaria and extreme weather conditions. But months of inactivity early on in the campaign led to their being referred to sneeringly back home as "the gardeners of Salonika."

By 1916, however, Gradesnica was at the centre of trench warfare between the two sides - and with their supplies of drink the French were clearly prepared for a long campaign.

Najdo Koleskovski, aged 56, said that he and three friends dug up the first 15 bottles to be found, in the nearby village of Gruniste. They drank the lot. "It was the best drink I ever had in my life," he said.