Bottle of wine meant for Napoleon shatters Cape Town wine auction

The 1821 Grand Constance fetched R420,000, well above predicted sales estimates of R124,000.

It’s described as an authentic unicorn wine by British-based auction house Christies, which presided over the sale of a 200-year-old bottle for an unknown client.

The wine is believed to be part of a case of vaunted sweet red wine meant for Napoleon Bonaparte during his final days of exile on the remote island of St Helena, situated in the South Atlantic ocean.

The French emperor was sentenced to life imprisonment after being defeated at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 by British and Allied armies. However, prison life wasn’t too shabby for the former emperor: Napoleon and his entourage received 50 bottles of wine a day in total, plus various spirits.

He reportedly enjoyed a bottle of Constantia wine daily, drinking up to 30 bottles a month. The last shipment of the vintage case was spared after Napoleon died in May 1821 while that year’s harvest was still ripening in the vineyard. Today the bottle is said to be one of only 12 in existence.

South Africa’s most celebrated spirits maker, Distell, which makes internationally acclaimed alcoholic beverages like Amarula, Savannah, Hunters Dry and Nederburg, is listed as the seller. The company retains two more of the historic bottles of wine. The bottles were recorked in 2019 to preserve their integrity and ensure that this piece of treasured dessert wine is still drinkable.

The auction was live-streamed last week by the Cape Fine and Rare Wine Auction (CFRWA) from Stellenbosch’s Rupert Museum. Auctioneers predicted the vaunted sweet red wine would fetch between R82,000 and 124,000, but bidding continued well above those levels, eventually settling at the R420,000 ($30,000) mark.

The total auction reached R2.2-million rand in sales, which not only fetched a sigh of relief for the country’s winemakers but served as a testament to the industry’s resilience amid the pandemic.

Last year, the country’s three alcohol bans and bans on wine exports wiped out at least R7.5-billion and cost 21,000 people their jobs. There were also concerns that the wine industry, a key economic driver of South Africa’s GDP, would take years to bounce back. But, despite the harsh conditions, which included a drought recovery from between 2015 and 2018, there’s been a 7.7-percent increase in wine exports, amounting to R91-billion rand last year.

Niel Groenewald, MD of Nederburg wine estate and head of CFRWA said, “After a year that has impacted the South African wine industry like no other, the Cape Fine and Rare Wine Auction became a beacon of resilience. It showcased the tenacious spirit of the country’s winemakers – and the massive favour they carry with wine enthusiasts globally.”

Napoleon wasn’t the only high profile admirer of wines hailing from Groot Constantia vineyards. George Washington, King George III and Frederick the Great were said to have enjoyed the sweet wines pioneered by South Africa’s oldest wineries. Constantia wine also appeared as a cure for a broken heart in Jane Austen’s novel Sense and Sensibility, and Charles Dickens’s book, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.