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.

Voices
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
Sport
The Pipes and Drums of The Scottish Regiments perform during the Opening Ceremony for the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park on July 23, 2014 in Glasgow, Scotland.
Commonwealth GamesThe actor encouraged the one billion viewers of the event to donate to the children's charity
Sport
Karen Dunbar performs
Entertainers showcase local wit, talent and irrepressible spirit
Sport
Members of the Scotland deleagtion walk past during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park in Glasgow on July 23, 2014.
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
film
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
News
Very tasty: Vladimir Putin dining alone, perhaps sensibly
news
Life and Style
Listen here: Apple EarPods offer an alternative
techAre custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?
Arts and Entertainment
Top guns: Cole advised the makers of Second World War film Fury, starring Brad Pitt
filmLt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a uniform
News
The University of California study monitored the reaction of 36 dogs
sciencePets' range of emotions revealed
News
Snoop Dogg pictured at The Hollywood Reporter Nominees' Night in February, 2013
people... says Snoop Dogg
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
News
Joining forces: young British men feature in an Isis video in which they urge Islamists in the West to join them in Iraq and Syria
newsWill the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?
Arts and Entertainment
The nomination of 'The Wake' by Paul Kingsnorth has caused a stir
books
News
i100
Life and Style
food + drinkZebra meat is exotic and lean - but does it taste good?
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

BI Manager - £50,000

£49000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client is...

BI Project Manager - £48,000 - £54,000 - Midlands

£48000 - £54000 per annum + Benefits package: Progressive Recruitment: My clie...

VB.Net Developer

£35000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: If you're pa...

SAP Business Consultant (SD, MM and FICO), £55,000, Wakefield

£45000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP Business...

Day In a Page

Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game