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The Wine of the Heroes from the Age of Revolution

What is it that draws great men and women through history to wine? For one, wine has always been a symbol of affluence and wealth, going all the way back to the Ancient Egyptians. There is something appealing about knowing that we can drink wines from the same vineyards that made wine for Kings and Queens over the centuries. Some grape varietals can even be traced back to the time of the Romans, such as Fiano de Avellino, an elegant white from Campagna, Italy. But surely there is more to wine than just having the same type that Caesar August once drank?

Wine is certainly a beverage that pairs best with food, far better than, say, beer or liquor. Wine can certainly get a man drunk, but in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries whiskey and gin, far more potent than unfortified wine, became synonymous with drunkenness, debauchery, and dissipation.

“I shall not close this letter without exhorting you to refrain from spiritous liquors. They will prove your ruin if you do not. Consider how little a drunken man differs from a beast…” George Washington wrote to one of his Mount Vernon employees, John Christian Ehlers, in 1793. Washington was no teetotaler; he was in fact quite fond of many wines, but was very much opposed to liquor and the disastrous consequences of overindulging in it. (Hypocritically, later in life Washington would actually open a distillery in order to try and pay off his massive debts). Thomas Jefferson felt equally about the evils of spirits, and strove to turn whiskey distillers to the more civilized practice of viticulture. The evils of spirits were not the only thing that drove these men to wine though.

It is the complexity of wine that draws these great titans of history to it. For people who spent their days analyzing the geopolitical situation across the globe, wine was yet another outlet of discussion. What made one vintage better than another? What caused one grape varietal to produce a different tasting of wine when planted in different soil or under a different climate?

Writing of dinner with the infamous French statesman Talleyrand, Foreign Secretary under Napoleon and Prime Minister under Louis XVIII, the British aristocrat Lady Shelley described how “the antiquity of every bottle of wine supplied the most eloquent annotations,” and that their qualities were debated with “as much interest and seriousness as if he had been discussing political questions of imPortance.” Talleyrand is certainly not the only one on our list would take part in questions of wine as though they were great affairs of state, and Lady Shelley describes perfectly one of the great appeals wine has for a diplomat.

Many great men at the time were also great land owners very interested in farming, Washington and Jefferson foremost amongst them. Science was another pursuit that brought these great men from the past to wine, such as Benjamin Franklin, whose love of French wine in particular is well documented. Wine was also a profitable venture, if managed correctly, for these debt ridden heroes.

Today, we will look at the Age of Revolution from about 1776 to 1815 when the world was turned upside down by rebellions in America and later in France, both leading to world wars. Obviously, not all famous wine drinkers from the period will be covered, but please stay tuned for more entries into our wine history.

The father of the United States, George Washington, was certainly one of the most ardent wine connoisseurs to hold the office of President. Though often mocked for his lack of education and intellect, Washington thrived on social occasions, and like many of us, loosened up a bit as the wine flowed. One of his guests at Mount Vernon described how at a meal “the general with a few glasses of champagne got quite merry and being with his intimate friends laughed and talked a good deal.”

Washington, in spite of being the greatest patriot and leader of the Continental Army during the war, fancied himself as an English country gentleman and this greatly formed his taste in wine. Burgundy, Claret (the English name for Bordeaux), Champagne, and Port being the most popular. The General drank so much Port that his dentures would stain such a dark purple that they’d appear black (his dentures were not made of wood as legend would have it). As much as he loved all these wines, Washington had a special love affair with Madeira, the fortified wine from the Portuguese island in the Atlantic that got better with long trips in the hulls of ships to India and back (and sometimes two rounds trips).He would drink three or four glasses of Madeira a night at times, discussing a wide range of topics with guests at social functions. As early as 1759, Washington ordered a pipe (126 gallons) of wine from “the best house in Madeira.”

Washington’s Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, is beyond a shadow of a doubt the American politician most synonymous with wine. For wine historians, Jefferson’s travel journals from Europe are extremely valuable primary sources on the state of vineyards and wines during the late 18th century. “The wines are planted three feet apart and stuck with sticks about six feet high. The wine, too, is cut at that height. They are dunged in three or four years. One thousand plants yield from one to two acmes a year…” This description of a vineyard near Frankfurt is very dry, but it is priceless for historians to understand the techniques used by viniculturists at the time. His journals include topographical sketches of vineyards, growing techniques, and maps. Jefferson desperately wanted the United States to be raised into wine country after Europe, and hoped that his dear home of Monticello would be one of its greatest wine estates. (He began cultivating grapes in 1807, but without much success.)

Jefferson’s travel diaries also include tasting notes on different types of wines, grapes, and vintages. “These wines are in perfection from two to ten years old, and will even be very good in fifteen,” Jefferson wrote while traveling in Champagne. “1775 and 1776 next to that. 1783 is the last good year, and that not to be compared with those. These wines stand icing well…I tasted his (M. De Failli, one of the good years. It was fine though not equal to that of M. Dorsay, of 1783.”

As President of the United States, Jefferson would begin to expand the horizons of American wine consumption from the typical rotation of Burgundy, Champagne, Claret, Madeira, and Port. Jefferson left a detailed list of his wine collection while President entitled “Wine provided at Washington.” Wines like White Hermitage, Montepulciano, or Sauternes may be fairly common place today, but in the early 19th century, they would have been unheard of to most Americans. Jefferson also had a soft spot for Tokaji (or Tokay) from Hungary which was also served at the White House. For all his adventurousness and love of variety, Jefferson’s favorite wine was and is one of the top wines in the world: Chateaux Margaux. There is little doubt that Jefferson is America’s greatest wine aficionado.

Across the pond wine was much more established, but as war ravaged the continent from 1793 to 1815 (save the brief Peace of Amiens from March 1802 to May 1803), the drinking habits of consumers had to adapt with the times. The French Emperor Napoleon, the man who sold Jefferson the Louisiana Territory, was no great enthusiast of wine or food, but he knew what he liked.

Napoleon’s wine of choice was Chambertin, from the Cot D’Or in Burgundy. Although he sometimes diluted the wine with water, especially when in the field, Napoleon could not stand a meal without his beloved Chambertin. During his famed Austerlitz campaign in 1805, when no suitable wine could be found for Napoleon and his staff, the Emperor told Count Ségur that he had never gone without his Chambertin “even in the midst of the Egyptian desert,” where Napoleon had fought in 1798-99.

When Napoleon married the Austrian Archduchess Marie Louise in 1810, their majesties dined alone every day but Sunday. During these intimate meals, Napoleon was slowly become more interested in food, though never for lengthy meals the British would partake in. “The dinner consisted in 1810 of one soup, some beef, one of remove, of one flank, of four entrées, of two roasts, of two entremets, of two salads, and of a dessert of eighteen dishes…. The cellar provided in due course six bottles of Chambertin, a half bottle of sweet wine, and a half bottle of liquor.”

Later, when Napoleon was exiled on the remote island of St. Helena, his British captors deprived the man of his favorite red Burgundy, instead supplying him with Constantia from South Africa and shipping him Claret, or Bordeaux, as it was believed it would hold better than his preferred Burgundy on the long voyage from Europe. The British government may have sent the former Emperor to die on a remote island in the middle of the Atlantic, but they were thoughtful enough to think of which wine would hold best.

Napoleon’s brother Joseph, who served his brother in many capacities (most importantly as King of Naples from 1806-08 and then King of Spain 1808-13), was very much a lover of great wine and food. As an exile in New Jersey after the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, Joseph kept a massive wine cellar that he would tap into every day starting at 11 am with Champagne to accompany the first meal of the day. Dinner, usually served between 6 and 7, would feature the finest red wines from Burgundy, Bordeaux, and the Rhone Valley.

Napoleon’s enemies were equally ardent about wine, perhaps none more so than the English. As stated above, Washington styled himself as an English country gentleman from his taste in clothing, food, carriages, horses, and, of course, wine, which meant mainly Madeira and Port. The English have always loved French wine, especially Claret, not just due to the proximity of the two nations, but because the English kings and queens, all the way through George III, claimed dominion over France, including Bordeaux, which had been under English rule from 1152 to 1453. During the 18th Century, when Great Britain and France were more often at war than not, the English taste for wine turned more towards Portugal, England’s oldest ally on the continent. By the end of the 18th century, Portuguese wine accounted for three quarters of all the wine imPorted to Great Britain.

The pleasure of drinking Port and good conversation after dinner in drawing rooms became the favorite pastime of the British ruling and political class. Wine bottles at the time were much smaller than they are today, containing only a pint of wine, which lead to the rise of the term “three-bottle man,” meaning someone who would drink three bottles of Port a night. Though the term came into fashion at the start of the 18th century, the most famous of them did not reach prominence until the 1780s.

The chief “three-bottle man” was William Pitt, Britain’s youngest Prime Minister, appointed to the post by George III at the age of 24 in 1784. He was the second son of great Lord Chatham (meaning his elder brother John, inherited the Earldom.) Pitt served as King George’s PM until 1801, when he resigned, and then again from 1804-1806, when he died of what was most likely a peptic ulcer. Arguably Britain’s greatest war time leader, Pitt helped fight off the threat of invasion from Napoleon, but drank himself into an early grave.

Sadly for Pitt, 18th century medicine offered peculiar remedies. As a student at Cambridge, a Dr. Addington had actually prescribed Pitt to take “liberal potations” or “a bottle a day” of Port wine. He never forgot this advice, and obviously went above and beyond it, to his own detriment. His insatiable thirst for Port and an exceedingly rich diet was why, like many great politicians, aristocrats, and royals of the day, he suffered from gout off and on throughout his life. In addition to Port, Pitt, like most scions of the British Upper Class, drank Burgundy, Claret, and Champagne, even while he waged war on France. When these items became harder to import due to the war, he turned more to Portuguese, Spanish, and Italian wines.

As preposterous as it may sound, many of Pitt’s best work was done three bottles deep, particularly with his friend Henry Dundas and the Duchess of Gordon (Pitt never married, but was very fond of female company and conversation.) One time, Dundas and Pitt were even visibly under the influence in the House of Commons itself! There is no doubt that there is much to admire in Pitt as an administrator, leader, and statesman, even if he was susceptible to the temptations and vices of life. He also teaches us the dangers of long term abuse and dependence on alcohol.

One of Pitt’s associates, especially during the fall of 1805 before he died, was Sir Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington. Though Wellington was often viewed as a haughty and austere man, he did enjoy his wine, though luckily for all of Europe, not to the harm of his health, as Wellington would ultimately be the one to defeat Napoleon at Waterloo.

At the start of his career in India, Wellesley began his life-long love affair, unsurprisingly for a British officer, of Claret. The British lawyer and socialite William Hickey wrote of Wellington’s, or Wellesley’s as he as then, regimental table: “They lived inimitably well, always sending their guests away with a liberal quantity of the best Claret. They generally entertained from five to ten guests daily at their table.”

George Elers, an officer who was close to Wellington in India, said of him: “He had a very good appetite and his favorite dish was a roast saddle of mutton and salad… He was abstemious with wine; he drank four or five glasses with people at dinner, and about a pint of Claret after.” Like George Washington, Wellington would become more animated and of better humor after a few glasses of wine.

While fighting the French in Portugal and Spain, he was very pleased with the Port on hand, especially after his victory at the Battle of Oporto in 1809. He drank plenty of Port, Madeira, Portuguese whites and reds and Spanish sherry. Another wine Wellington enjoyed was Malaga, from southern Spain.

Though he always enjoyed wine, in his later years, Wellington did not quite consume as much as he did in his India days, though he did always want the finest Champagne, Claret, and Port on hand, especially for big occasions, such as the Waterloo Dinner, held at his home in London, Apsley House on the anniversary of the famous battle.

Other than George III, the monarch most at war with Napoleon was Francis II of Austria. The Habsburg emperor married his daughter Marie Louise to Napoleon in 1810 after his nation’s shattering defeat at Wagram the previous year. Eventually, Austria would switch sides at the urging of Francis’ most faithful servant and Foreign Minister (and de facto Prime Minister) Klemens von Metternich, Prince of Metternich-Winneburg zu Beilstein. As a thank you to Metternich, Francis gifted Metternich the vineyards and castle at Johannisberg. This vineyard produces wine to this day, and it can be purchased in the United States. It is this author’s favorite Riesling.

Metternich, considered by many to be a staunch reactionary (which he was by most accounts), made major changes to the vineyards, their administration, production, and the way the wine was sold. Rather than selling wine by the barrel, he had the wine bottled and sold only to select clients, mainly monarchs of Germany and Europe. He even opened up the castle he spent his own money to refurbish to tourists, making one of the first of its kind in Europe. Metternich also made major innovations when it came to the labels of his wine, making the wine recognizable by type of grape, not just quality or location of the vineyard.

Although Metternich is most famous as a wine grower and seller, he was also an enthusiast who drank wine across the continent on his many travels as a diplomat, especially during his time in France as emissary to the court of Napoleon. Though he had a great love of French wine and even port (which he drank on his visits to England), he always turned to the wine from his homeland on the Rhine where his own vineyards produced the best wine in the Habsburg realm.

The last of Napoleon’s great rivals who we will touch on, was actually his ally after the Treaty of Tilsit was signed on the Neman in 1807, only to become his enemy again when Napoleon invaded in 1812. This man was none other than Alexander I of Russia. Although he was an autocrat and steadfast opponent of democracy, Alexander fashioned himself as an enlightened liberal and sought acceptance as a European, rather than a “northern barbarian” as most of the continent labeled the Russians.

Alexander’s favorite wine was undoubtedly champagne. Although champagne had been making major headways in Russia since 1803, after the pact between Alexander and Napoleon was sealed in 1807, the best champagne and other French wines began making major headway in Russia. Only when Napoleon invaded in 1812, did the business temporarily dry up.

When Alexander returned the favor to Napoleon by invading in 1814, his favorite champagne was Moet, at the time owned by Jean-Rémy Moet, who was a great friend of Napoleon. Despite this, the Czar ordered wine from Jean-Rémy for a dinner he hosted for over 300 in 1814 during the occupation of France. Later however, Alexander fell in love with Veuve Clicquot, declaring that he would drink nothing else. Though the Russian cossacks (cavalry from the Steppes in the south of the Russian Empire) frightened the French, the officers from the ruling aristocracy were accepted into Parisian society during the occupation and were crazy for the widow’s sparkling wine. The Czar finally lifted the ban on bottled French wine (something he had enacted before the invasion) and Russia became one of the greatest markets for all the best champagne houses, the vintage of 1811 being the favorite, not just of Russia, but of all Europe.


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