GRADESNICA, Macedonia: Ninety years ago, a German artillery shell exploded in a battlefield trench in this remote mountain village, killing a band of French soldiers during World War I.
But their spirits live on in Gradesnica: A liquid fortune in vintage cognac and wine — army rations that since 1916 have matured into an exquisite elixir — lies buried in the old trenches.
Villagers unearthed the first case about 15 years ago. Since then, digs have yielded several cognac caches, usually containing about two dozen bottles each.
"At first, we were afraid to taste the dark, thick liquid," said resident Stefan Kovacevski, 64. "But ... this must be what people mean by the nectar of the gods."
Some have been discovered by farmers plowing fields while at least two batches came to light after a glint in the sand of an old trench caught a villager's eye.
There's more to it than a good tipple. The old-fashioned cognac bottles can fetch up to €5,000 (US$6,800) from collectors, according to Mihail Petkov, professor of viticulture and oenology at Skopje University.
"What the villagers drank was probably a cognac, not a wine. 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," Petkov said.
He explained that wine producers in France were obliged to pay a military tax by preparing certain amounts of wine and spirits for the army.
Gradesnica lies in the heart of the Mariovo region, near the border with Greece, some 200 kilometers (125 miles) south of the Macedonian capital, Skopje. There is no asphalt road, and during the harsh winters, the village is cut off from the rest of the world. Only army vehicles can get through with necessary supplies.
"This is probably the most beautiful part of the country, forgotten by all," said Dano Popovski, 64, owner of the only shop in the village.
But in 1916, Gradesnica was at the heart of the fighting during a drive by Allied forces to support Serbia and stop the advance of Axis troops.
"On this side were Germans and Bulgarians. On the other side of the front line were the French and their Serbian allies," said Najdo Koleskovski, 56.
He said it was in the nearby village of Gruniste, where he lives, that villagers unearthed the first case of 15 bottles.
Holding up three empty bottles of WWI wine and cognac, he reminisces about how he and three friends drank all the bottles he found over several days.
"It was the best drink I ever had in my life," he said.
Gruniste, without electricity and home to four cattle farmers, lies on what was the French side of the front.
Villagers say foreigners — including many French — are scouring the area for cognac, maps in hand. None of the villagers said they had sold any of the bottles.
"Nothing tastes better, and that is why the French come here," said Petar Sindevski, 73, from the village of Staravina.
"There must be a lot of stocks of cognac or wine buried in this area," he said. "It is a real treasure."
When Sindevski dug up a bottle of cognac in a former trench, he couldn't believe his eyes.
"When I heard the sound of glass while digging in the land, the last thing I could imagine was that I would excavate an old bottle of cognac," he said.