The Wine Habits of Napoleon and Josephine

iStock_000021023598Small medieval tower medoc vinWhen it came to wine, Napoleon Bonaparte was a creature of habit. Although he did drink Champagne to celebrate military victories (uncorked flamboyantly using a sabre), his lifelong wine of choice was Chambertin from Burgundy. At one time, it had been the favorite wine of Louis XIV, and in the late 18th century, it was still highly prized by European aristocracy. So fond of Chambertin was Napoleon that he had his army carry barrels of it wherever he went—to Italy, Spain, Austria, even to Egypt. Following the French army’s retreat from Russia in 1812, Napoleon lamented not just the humiliating military defeat, but he cursed the Cossacks for allegedly confiscating his cherished hoard of Chambertin. Reportedly, Napoleon drank the red wine chilled and diluted with 50% water.

Napoleon only abandoned Chambertin when the state of his health forced him to do so. After his exile to Saint Helena in 1815, his health declined and he suffered stomach pains so severe that he could not continue to drink Chambertin—no matter how much water was added. His doctor suggested a golden dessert wine from South Africa, known to the French as “Vin de Constance” or “Constantia.” The former Emperor was able to tolerate this wine and records from Groot Constantia indicate more than 1,000 liters of Constantia were shipped to the Longwood House on Saint Helena every year until 1821, the year of Napoleon Bonaparte’s death. The Count de las Cases reported that Constantina was the only sustenance Napoleon consumed on his deathbed.

Napoleon’s wife Josephine, by contrast, had a broader interest in wine. After the French Revolution, the custom began to shift away from dinners where guests would stand around a huge buffet table consuming food and drink, towards multi-course, sit-down dinners. Josephine followed the new trend, and her dinners featured the newest, most exotic, most expensive wines available from around the world—each one specially chosen to complement whatever food was being served. When foreign dignitaries were in attendance, she served examples of the finest wine from their homelands. In pre-Napoleonic France, Burgundies and Champagnes had dominated, and Bordeaux had been exported almost exclusively to the wealthy in Britain, who called it “claret.” Josephine, however, began ordering large amounts of the highest-quality Bordeaux from Médoc, and given her standing in French society, this probably helped influence Bordeaux’s rise to prominence in the 19th century.

Shortly after her death in 1814, a complete inventory of Josephine’s wine cellar was made. Although she reportedly preferred sweet wines and Champagne, she had amassed a diverse collection of wines. Her collection included more than 13,000 bottles, casks, and barrels. About 45% of her cache consisted of Bordeaux; Burgundy was relatively scant, despite its popularity with the French aristocracy at that time. There were only about 100 bottles of Champagne in the collection since the bottles were fragile and prone to explosion. She also had significant amounts of white wines from Languedoc-Roussillon and the Côtes du Rhone. Plenty of foreign wine, from Spain and the Canary Islands, Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Cypress, was also in the collection; some wines were from as far away as Hungary and South Africa.

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