Articles and Reviews

Wine in Wartime Part One: Napoleon

Posted by: Andy Kelly

Date: 28-02-2021

In the first part of our Wine in Wartime Series, I comb through a single piece of correspondence between Napoleon and his War Administration relating to wine, it's storage and even its mixing.

Much has been written about Napoleon’s love of wine and what his favourite tipples were over the course of his life but in the first part of what I hope will become a series, I’m going to take a different approach. In this article, we will explore a single piece of correspondence between Napoleon and his War Administration. The correspondence is revealing to both the historian & wine lover and from the contents we can glean a lot about the man himself. The first part of the correspondence is the request from his War Administration with his response being in italics below the request. I round it all off with a summary and highlight a few key points from the correspondence.


Of the 500,000 litres of wine stored in Boulogne, 450,000 appears to be unfit for preservation. M. Bonnaire offers to mix them, by the quart, with wines of Saint-Gilles, at 1 franc the litre, so that there may be more than 600,000 litres of wine capable of being kept for eighteen months. The expense, including the cost of drawing off, will be 153,000 francs.

Provisional orders have been given to M. Petiet, to use the wines in stock, when there are extraordinary calls for it, and to replace these in proportion as they may be used.


It is the express intention of His Majesty to keep 500,000 litres of wine for use in case of need.

The mingling of strong and heady wine having been judged necessary, I authorise the mingling of 50,000 litres of wine of Saint-Gilles, 1st quality. The mixture proposed on the 6th will suffice to make good 300,000 litres out of the 450,000. The 150,000 litres remaining, chosen from that which has kept the best, and which I suppose capable of being kept until frimaire (November/December), will be left intact and not touched. These 150,000 litres will be the first to be given out for use.

I must assume that the 50,000 litres provided in the last place are capable of being kept at least six months; they will be the last given out for use.

By means of the prescribed mixing, the stock will be about 500,000 litres; thus the first 50,000 litres used will not need to be replaced. Take measures at once with M. Bonnaire for carrying this out. By mixing, the period of conservation ought to be at least 15 months.

In conformity with the statement of M. Gau, the price of the Saint-Gilles wine to be used in mixing is fixed at one franc per litre.

And as to the 150,000 litres of wine which are not to be mixed, if they are in condition to bear transportation, they should previously be drawn off.

It is His Majesty’s intention that the shipment ordered should be in the same casks; I mean that it is not necessary to have new casks made for the purpose, but that, if possible, a selection be made of those which may be most easily handled.

(Without date or signature; extract from “Communication of the Minister of War Administration with the Emperor, 29 Messidor Year XIII.”)

Firstly, let’s explore the wine. We do not know what the 450,000 litres of poor-quality wine is but there are some things we can glean from the proposed 150,000 litres of Saint-Gilles.

Saint-Gilles is a small town situated in the historical Languedoc-Roussillon region in the south of France. Wine production around Saint-Gilles has been fairly consistent over the last 2,000 years with Roman and later monastic producers taking advantage of the climate and the proximity to pilgrimage trails. Saint-Gilles itself became affluent because of the pilgrimage trade in the middle ages and its wines were known for their outstanding quality, even gracing the tables of several popes. Today, Saint-Gilles boasts approximately 20 vineyards and forms part of the Costières de Nîmes AOC with the wines being closer to the Southern Rhône style as compared to the Languedoc.

Vineyard in the Costieres de Nimes AOC region

Napoleon and his administrators certainly understood their quality, going so far as to call Saint-Gilles “strong and heady”.

What’s also intriguing is Napoleon’s deep understanding of wine. He certainly isn’t wasteful and understands that the mixing of poor-quality wine with something better will not only improve the taste but also its ability to keep for a longer period. His grasp of wine economics is sound for somebody who often had greater worries and the fact that he didn’t want the wine to be transported in new casks gives us an insight into his knowledge of wine chemistry and logistics.

He also seemed keen to get the 150,000-litre shipment moving as quick as possible, but where was this shipment going and who was it for?

The dates within the letters and the location of the stored wine provide a clue as to his intentions. “Boulogne” or Boulogne-Sur-Mer is in the far north of France. Sitting right on the English Channel, it is perfectly situated to trade with English merchants out of Dover, Folkestone and Hastings, so it was possible he wished for the wines to be sold to the English before they were too poor to be consumed. However, if we explore the ambiguous dates within the correspondence then something else becomes clear.

The date mentioned is the 29th Messidor, Year XIII which comes from the French Republican calendar that was still in use at the time. Given the dates stated in the correspondence, we can work this out to 18th July 1805.

Throughout 1804 & 1805, Napoleon was planning for the invasion of England and had been amassing troops at Boulogne ready to strike across the English Channel. The preparations had taken many months and the 200,000 or so troops quickly became bored as they waited for orders. With so many troops stationed in one place then it’s understandable that large quantities of wine were required to keep the soldiers satiated. Given that the correspondence was between Napoleon himself and the Minister of the War Administration then it’s safe to assume that the wine was for the soldiers even though it was not explicitly made clear.

There’s one final clue within the correspondence that deserves attention. Napoleon ordered wine to be transported somewhere but we don’t know the destination. By 1805, Napoleon was growing increasingly concerned by Russia & Austria and, knowing that he needed to deal with these new threats, turned his attention eastward. In August 1805 Napoleon’s Le Grande Armeé began marching towards the Rhine, primed for a scrap with General Mack’s Austrians. The wine then, was to be prepared and shipped to follow the army eastward for Napoleon’s Ulm campaign, a campaign which he may have feared could last up to 15 months.

Did you notice that he never makes explicit mention as to where the wine was to be shipped to? It may be that Napoleon and his Ministers already knew the destination but what is more likely is that Napoleon deliberately omitted the destination of the shipment. Spies operated throughout Europe and with France becoming increasingly more adversarial, it is not unreasonable to assume that Napoleon suspected that his response could be intercepted and give away his intentions.

What we have here, then, is evidence that a large order of wine was being readied for the troops for their invasion of England. As more urgent matters arose, Napoleon decided to mix it and direct it eastward to support the army as they campaigned against the Austrians. We can also deduce that Napoleon was careful in his correspondence with the war administration so as to not give away his intentions. Logistical correspondence such as this would have been a gold mine to spies and, if placed into the wrong hands, then the Austrians would have been able to prepare for an attack that they saw coming. Intelligence such as this was something the French themselves would use to their advantage effectively during the second world war.

Excerpt from Picard, E & Toutey, L: Unpublished Correspondence of Napoleon I, preserved in the war Archives Vol. 1, 1913

Image of Vineyard in Costières de Nîmes courtesy of Costiè