“Let them eat cake.” Ever since (not) uttering those famous words, Marie Antoinette has been associated with decadence so extreme that blame for the French Revolution has been placed squarely on her buffed, bejewelled and, as it turned out, abruptly headless shoulders.
But claims trotted out over the years that she drank Constantia had always seemed as unlikely to me as the ones about Champagne coupes being modelled on her breasts, especially given lady-in-waiting Madame Campan’s insistence that the queen’s lifestyle had actually been very frugal, her diet mostly consisting of boiled poultry and water. (Hot chocolate and croissants for breakfast, bien sûr, but no guzzling of Champagne, let alone the most legendary and luscious wine of the southern hemisphere…)
So I was surprised, while researching the history of Constantia on behalf of Klein Constantia, to find an article written by the late New York Times wine columnist, Frank J Prial, in 1992. “According to the English writer Nicholas Faith,” he wrote, “when the wine cellar book of Louis XVI was discovered many years after his death, it showed that he owned some Burgundy, almost no Bordeaux and many thousands of bottles of Constantia from the slopes of the Cape of Good Hope.”
Curiosity piqued (to put it mildly), I immediately wrote to the Centre de Recherche du Château de Versailles. After my emails went unacknowledged for several months, I contacted Nicolas Faith, who in turn attributed the claim to a French journalist named Fernand Woutaz: “God knows how you can find him, but he seemed pretty firm about it,” Faith told me, not in the least bit surprised to hear that I’d had no joy at Versailles. “As you can imagine, the Frogs don’t like to publicise the fact that Louis XVI preferred Constantia to claret!”
Eventually, however, in my rusty schoolgirl French, I did manage to elicit a response from Alexandra Pioch, scientific publications coordinator at Versailles, and she very helpfully directed me to an article published earlier this year in the Château de Versailles magazine, issue number 13 (lucky for some?).
And there it was, at last. Proof! Alexandre Loire, a mechanical engineer turned tour guide and historian (www.al-histo.com), had been given permission not only to view but also to photograph the Versailles cellar book for his article, Le vin à Versailles, and the Constantia claims were all true.
In November 1782, Louis XVI was cellaring no fewer than 1,794 bottles of “Vin du cap de Constance (rouge)” and 840 bottles of “Vin du cap de Constance (blanc)” – amounting to 2,634 bottles. Meanwhile, he had only 2,031 bottles of Burgundy, the traditional wine of kings (namely 285 bottles of Chambertin, 395 bottles of Romanée Saint-Vincent, 100 bottles of Vin de Tache, 200 bottles of Vin de Richebourg, 879 bottles of Vin de Vougeot, and 172 bottles of Beaune Romanée, most of them from the 1774 and 1778 vintages).
“I was very excited to see these pages,” said Loire after I contacted him to share my excitement about Louis XVI’s Cape wine (also to correct his view that Constantia had been a French Huguenot farm). “I love the idea that Louis XVI, a king passionate about geography and matters of the sea, was able – through wine – to find a way of traveling in his head.”
Through wine, I have traveled in my head not only to different countries but also through time. And in this case without even drinking a single sip!
- Joanne Gibson received her Diploma from the UK’s Wine & Spirit Education Trust in 2003 while working for Harpers Wine & Spirit. She was South African Wine Writer of the Year in 2009 and freelances for many local and international publications.