Bordeaux wine lovers may credit the 1855 Exposition Universelle de Paris and Emperor Napoleon III’s “Official Classification” with putting Bordeaux wine on the map. But, it turns out that his grandmother the Empress Josephine, first wife of Napoleon Bonaparte may have ignited French passion for the wine.
Prior to Josephine raising the status of Bordeaux to an elixer fit for nobility, it was seen as an inferior product suitable only for the English who had been stubborn lovers of claret, or red Bordeaux wine, for four centuries. At the time of the French Revolution, Burgundy and Champagne reigned supreme, in fact, not a single bottle of Bordeaux is known to have been kept in the wine cellars of King Louis XVI.
When Marie-Josephe-Rose de Tascher de La Pagerie (aka Empress Josephine) died in 1814, she left a heap of unpaid bills and a golden legacy to social historians. Marie-Josephe-Rose, was among other things, a great connoisseur and collector of clothes, and an innovative gardener and botanist. The written inventory of her final possessions at her chateau west of Paris has inspired studies and exhibitions on subjects as varied as the fashion trends and gardening styles of the early 19th century.
Josephine was also a celebrated hostess and, although not a great drinker, a great collector of wine. The official inventory of her possessions at her death includes more than 13,000 bottles of wine from all over the world, from Cyprus, Italy, Greece, Spain and Portugal as well as South Africa and Hungary. The empress also kept hundreds of bottles of rum from her native Martinique, which she used in rum punches and served at dinner parties in gilded bowls.
Josephine’s chambermaid described her as a “very sober woman.” She was partial to very sweet wines including champagne, but drank it all with moderation – like Napoleon.
The Emperor Napoleon’s favorites were Burgundy and Champagne, but he also grew fond of South African wines during his time in exile on Saint Helena, the South Atlantic island where he died in 1821 at age 52 – not far from Cape Town.
Study of Josephine’s 1814 “wine list” reveals something that may seem unsurprising but was, at the time, extraordinary. Almost half of her bottles and barrels came from vineyards around Bordeaux, little known chateaux that later would become some of the greatest names in wine: Latour, Lafite, Margaux and Haut-Brion.
Was the Empress Josephine the cause of the great switch in French wine tastes which allowed the vineyards of Bordeaux, and especially the great chateaux of the Medoc, to emerge by the mid-19th century as the most prized wines in France and the world?
This was one of the subjects explored in an entertaining exhibition, La Cave de Josephine (Josephine’s Cellar), which started at the Chateaux de Malmaison, where Josephine lived for the last 15 years of her life, and died in June 1814, aged 50.
The exhibition also examined other changes in the art de vivre of the French nobility which followed the fall of the monarchy. Before the Revolution, an aristocratic French dinner-party was a kind of immense, stand-up buffet in which all dishes were served at once. Wine glasses were kept on trays by servants and topped up as required.
After the revolution, France gradually adopted the “Russian” style, now universal, of serving different, sit-down courses one after another. Wine glasses began, to be placed permanently on the table. These changes were driven partly by the post-Revolutionary lack of legions of low-paid servants. France had also finally cracked the “industrial secret” of how to make crystal wine glasses, something previously known only to the British.