Listening to my van radio, the other day, in between wine delivery stops, I caught the end of an interview with historical novelist, Bernard Cornwell. I imagine, earlier in the interview, he’d spoken of his hugely popular ‘Sharpe’ novels and their successful television spin offs but, whilst I was tuned in, the talk was focussed on his newly released, and first ever, at the age of 70, non-fiction book.
With an obvious eye for a publishing opportunity, Cornwell discussed how, with the bicentennial anniversary due in June this year, he simply couldn’t resist the temptation to give his own account of the Battle of Waterloo. After all, he reasoned, the Sharpe novels were set in the same period and three main protagonists on that celebrated day in Belgium in 1815 – Napoleon Bonaparte, the Duke Of Wellington and General Blucher – were an absolute writer’s dream.
Whilst hearing this, I’d like to pretend my mind was expertly mulling over the military manoeuvres described by Cornwell but, in reality, my thoughts had turned immediately, as they often do, to drink and I was fondly recalling one of Napoleon’s most famous quotes, “In victory, you deserve Champagne, in defeat, you need it.”
Napoleon, a diminutive man with an outsize personality, had, historians agree, a real passion for wine and his three favourites were Champagne, Vin de Constance and Chambertin. Champagne is well known to us all and was covered in one of my recent wine columns, so let’s consider, instead, the other two.
Clearly, it wasn’t only Champagne that Napoleon needed in defeat. As during his final years in exile on the remote island of St. Helena, he was, apparently, sent nearly 300 gallons of Vin de Constance per year. Despite the French sounding name, Constance, a sweet, nutty dessert wine actually comes from the Constantia region of South Africa.
Still produced to this day by the Klein Constantia winery, the latest vintage to be released is the 2009 which has hugely intense flavours of Seville marmalade, dried apricots, warm spice and underlying notes of nougat and honeycomb.
The sweet nectar so enraptured Napoleon during his lonely twilight years on St. Helena that, on his deathbed, he refused all other food and drink and requested only a single glass of Vin de Constance.
Back in his days of pomp and glory, Chambertin was Napoleon’s red wine of choice. Chambertin is a single vineyard wine comprised entirely of silky red grape variety, Pinot Noir, and has long been known as ‘the king of wines and the wine of kings.’ Although, only a ‘mere’ Emperor, Napoleon deeply loved Chambertin and declared that, “nothing makes the future look so rosy as to contemplate it through a glass of Chambertin.”
In Napoleon’s day, Chambertin was the finest vineyard to be found in the small town of Gevrey, which is located in the Côte de Nuits region of Burgundy in central France. However, in 1847, twenty six years after Napoleon’s death the town renamed itself Gevrey-Chambertin in recognition of the supreme quality of the wine produced from its star vineyard.
Napoleon’s preference for top quality Burgundian wines was very much in keeping with the drinking habits of other members of Parisian high society of the time. Bordeaux wines (clarets) were chiefly consumed by the detested English. So, it was quite a surprise when, a few years ago, a hand written cellar inventory for the 13,286 bottles to be found in the personal cellar of Josephine, Napoleon’s wife, at the time of her death in 1814, revealed that the majority were from Bordeaux.
Maybe, that’s why he is supposed to have said, “Not tonight, Josephine.”