The woman who taught France how to drink

In the time of Napoleon, only Burgundy would do for France's aristocracy. But the opening of Empress Josephine's cellar reveals how her taste for Bordeaux brought to prominence some of the finest wines ever made

When Marie-Josèphe -Rose de Tascher de La Pagerie died in 1814, she left a heap of unpaid bills and a golden legacy to social historians. Marie-Josephe-Rose, better known as the Empress Joséphine, the first wife of Napoleon Bonaparte, was, among other things, a great connoisseur and collector of clothes, and an innovative gardener and botanist. The written inventory of her final possessions in her château west of Paris has inspired learned 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 the Cape to Hungary to Champagne. Study of her 1814 "wine list" reveals something that may seem unsurprising but was, at that time, extraordinary. Almost half of her bottles and barrels came from vineyards around Bordeaux. Most of them, though little-known in France at that time, would later come to be recognised as among the greatest names in wine: the four "top" Médoc châteaux of Latour, Lafite, Margaux and Haut-Brion.

At the time of the Revolution 25 years earlier, the wine cellars of King Louis XVI had contained not a single bottle from the vineyards of south-west France. In aristocratic French society in the 18th century, Burgundy and Champagne reigned supreme. Bordeaux was regarded as fit mostly for the English (who had been stubborn lovers of claret, or red Bordeaux wine, for four centuries).

Was the Empress Josephine a precursor of the great switch in French wine tastes which allowed the vineyards of Bordeaux, and especially the great châteaux of the Médoc, to emerge by the mid-19th century as the most prized wines in France and the world?

This is one of the subjects explored in an entertaining exhibition, La Cave de Josephine (Josephine's Cellar), which has started at the Château de Malmaison, west of Paris. It was here that Josephine lived for the last 15 years of her life, and died in June 1814, aged 50.

The exhibition, which will move to Germany and Italy next year, also examines 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, finally, to be placed permanently on the table. These changes were driven partly by the post-Revolutionary dearth of legions of ill-paid servants. France had also finally cracked the "industrial secret" of how to make crystal wine glasses, something previously known only to the British.

Elisabeth Caude, the joint curator of the exhibition, and joint curator of the château itself, says the Empress Josephine did not originate these shifts in the style of French dining but she did become one of their most celebrated exponents.

The Château de Malmaison, when bought by Napoleon and Josephine in 1799, was in wooded, open countryside beside one of the great loops of the river Seine west of Paris. The site has now been enveloped by the suburban sprawl of the French capital but the château has been restored by the French state and looks, inside and out, much as it did in 1814.

When Napoleon divorced Josephine in 1809, he gave her the building and its contents. Josephine retained the title of Empress and maintained a kind of second imperial court. Hence her well-stocked wine cellar and her debts.

The new exhibition provides an entertaining insight into Josephine's life in Malmaison but also offers a freeze-frame of a pivotal moment in the history of wine. In the late 18th century, two-thirds of all the vines planted in the world were in France. Domestic French tastes were dominated by white wine, mostly sweet, and by wine from Burgundy and Champagne.

The Emperor Napoleon was something of an exception. He would drank only Chambertin, a wonderful red wine from Burgundy which he insisted – following the habit of the times – in drowning in iced water.

How then did the cellar of the Empress Josephine, a dedicated follower and maker of fashion, contain so many barrels and bottles of unfashionable Bordeaux? How did it come to be dominated by red wine, rather than white?

The exhibition has borrowed huge, dusty ledgers from, among other places, the Château Latour in Médoc, showing the Empress Josephine's wine orders inscribed in ornate hand-writing. It displays, among other things, the beautiful, porcelain labels which were hung around the necks of wine bottles before paper stick-on labels became common. Of the 13,286 bottles of wine in her collection, no less than 5,973 came from Bordeaux. Only 419 (and one half) bottles came from Burgundy.

"Partly, you have to put those figures in perspective," Ms Caude said. "We know there had been a great deal of entertaining just before Josephine's death. It is likely that the stocks of Burgundy and Champagne had been run down and were waiting to be replenished."

All the same, she says, the presence of so much Bordeaux, and not just any Bordeaux, is intriguing. The Napoleonic wars had cut off the traditional, British markets of the Bordeaux négociants, or traders.

One of Josephine's "knights of honour" and the manager of her household was André Bonnin de la Bonninière, the Marquis of Beaumont. He was also the co-proprietor of the Château Latour vineyard in Medoc.

"It is obvious Bordeaux was desperate, at that time, to find new markets in France," Ms Caude said. "One can also presume that the Marquis de Beaumont influenced Josephine's wine purchases, in an attempt to introduce the best kinds of Bordeaux to the imperial court and, therefore, to leading French society. But Josephine was also a woman of great character and taste. She would not have served her guests wine that she hadn't, herself, tasted and approved of. We can say that Josephine, as a leading figure in the new Imperial society of the early 1800s, did point the way to a change in the French taste in wine, which, by mid-19th century, had enthusiastically embraced Bordeaux." The rest is oenological history.

The days when British wine-lovers had the best Bordeaux châteaux to themselves have long gone.

The Empress Josephine died of pneumonia, after she wore a fashionably light gown outside on a chilly day. She was taking the Tsar of Russia on a tour of her famous gardens, but would have done better to stay inside and introduce him to her wine collection.

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