Exhibit examines Josephine's 13,000 bottle cellar

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RUEIL-MALMAISON, France: A sober woman in the words of her chambermaid, Napoleon s wife Josephine was anything but a teetotaler.

Her cellar contained more than 13,000 bottles of wine from across France and the world which she would uncork unsparingly at elegant dinner parties at her sprawling mansion.

A new exhibit opening Wednesday at the residence, in the Paris suburb of Rueil-Malmaison, draws on 18th and 19th century bottles, crystal glasses and other alcohol-related paraphernalia as well as extensive documentation – including a handwritten 1,814 inventory of her cellar – to paint a vivid portrait of the Empress tastes and her extravagant style as a hostess.

These days, we talk a lot about the gastronomy of Josephine s time but we have very few examples of what people were drinking then, museum director Amaury Lefebure told The Associated Press. Thanks to the very precise inventory of Josephine s cellar, which includes a number of Grands Crus that still exist to our day, we have a wonderful glimpse of what was served at the Empress table.

The compilation of the inventory began days after Josephine s 1814 death. Robust Bordeaux reds made up the lion s share of the empress 13,286-bottle-strong cellar; her predilection for Bordeaux was singular, as at the time, Parisian high society favored Burgundies.

Champagne was also kept in modest numbers – Josephine had about 100 bottles – because it was prone to explode, the exhibit s curators said. Because of the poor quality of glass then, it was not unusual for Champagne producers to lose up to 30 percent of their yearly inventory to such eruptions.

Josephine also had wines from all over the Mediterranean, from Spain and Portugal to Italy, Cyprus and Greece, as well as South Africa and Hungary. Given the cost of transporting wine from so far afield, such geographic diversity was remarkable, said Lefebure.

The Empress also had spirits including hundreds of bottles of rum from her native Martinique. At dinner parties, she used to serve rum punches in ornate gilded bowls – some of which are featured in the exhibit.

Other paraphernalia that rounds out the show includes elegant wine flutes inscribed with a J for Josephine or N for Napoleon, each initial topped with a crown, and porcelain bowls used to chill – or, occasionally, heat – the wineglasses before the alcohol was served.

We know from her head chambermaid that Josephine was a very sober woman, said Lefebure. Like the women of her time, she liked very sweet wines including Champagne and also rum punches that drew on her Creole origin, but we know she drank it all with moderation.

And Napoleon himself?

He was very attached to wines from Burgundy and Champagne, and during his time in exile on Saint Helena, the South Atlantic island where he died in 1821 at age 52, he grew very fond of South African wines, for the simple reason that the island was not far from Cape Town, said Elisabeth Caude, one of the exhibit s curators.

Josephine s extensive inventory was stored in a cellar with a hidden door to prevent theft. That feature proved prescient when in 1815 invading Prussians failed to find their way into the cellar, said Lefebure.

Still, none of the actual bottles from the Josephine s wine cellar are featured in the exhibit for the simple reason that they have all been consumed.

La Cave de Josephine, or Josephine s Wine Cellar, runs through March 8, 2010, at the National Museum of the Chateaux of Malmaison and Bois-Preau.

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