A day without drinking Chambertin is a day wasted. Wherever he was, Napoleon Bonaparte insisted that there was always an adequate supply of his favorite red wine, sourced from Burgundy. Chambertin owes its characteristic, full-bodied taste to the pinot noir grape. Napoleon usually drank wine not pure, but mixed with water. And he kept it to half a bottle per meal, we learn of the chronicler of the emperor’s daily life, Frédéric Masson.
The wines were supplied by the company Soupé et Perrugues. Napoleon had a preference for Chambertin of five or six years old. All bottles were made in Sèvres and had a letter ‘N’ with a crown above it. The emperor had to pay six francs per bottle (a soldier’s weekly wage), but only for the bottles he had actually drunk—not for what had been delivered in total.
Soupé et Perrugues had a contract to supply Chambertin’s imperial court wherever it was located. This meant that not only were Napoleon’s palaces supplied, but he also had to be able to reach for a bottle of his favorite grape juice during campaigns. That is why an employee of the wine trade traveled with the army.
Thus Napoleon was never at a loss for Chambertin – except for one day: October 14, 1805. After the battle of Elchingen, he arrived in his quarters before that evening, in the village of Oberfalheim. It turned out that his entire luggage had been looted – including all wine. The emperor could laugh about it and said that this was unique. He had never been without Chambertin, “not even in the desert of Egypt.”
In exile on Saint Helena – from October 1815 – it was difficult to get enough good wine. Napoleon was forced to switch to Bordeaux, or claret, as his British jailers called it. Governor Hudson Lowe at one point limited the ration to just one bottle of wine per person per day and one bottle of champagne to share. This led to great dissatisfaction with his French guests, according to the memoirs of the Baron de Las Cases. He also noted that Napoleon sometimes complained strongly about the quality of the wine he was served. That was then execrable, awful. He had drunk better wine on his native island of Corsica, the fallen emperor thought.
The stay on Saint Helena had one big oenological advantage: it was relatively close to South Africa, where the best (sweet) dessert wine in the world was made: vin de Constance. Bottles regularly arrived by ship from Cape Town.
The 1821 crop intended for the Emperor was no longer sent, as he died on May 5. A bottle of vin de Constance from that year went under the hammer in South Africa last month for 25,000 euros. The wine was recorked in 2019 and is still perfectly drinkable – according to the auction house.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of June 14, 2021