When you think of Napoleon, pink Champagne is not exactly the first thing that comes to mind. But in addition to exposing the complex all short men struggle with and pushing his way to victory in the Battle of Austerlitz, Napoleon had a very close connection to the Moët & Chandon Champagne dynasty.
The connection began back in 1782, when the future Emperor was at military school in Brienne-le-Château. It was here that he met Jean-Rémy Moët, grandson of Claude Moët, who founded the Moët business. The younger Moët was actually at the school soliciting orders for the family business when he encountered Napoleon. The word “Champagne” was music to Napoleon’s ears. The two boys formed a fast friendship that not only remained strong and steadfast over the years, but arguably led the light, bubbly beverage to play quite a supporting role in French history as well. Before every military campaign, Napoleon made a point of visiting the Moët & Chandon house to stock up on cases of Champagne. Well, every campaign except Waterloo, according to Don and Petie Kladstrup in their book Champagne. Maybe that’s when Napoleon famously said, “Champagne! In victory one deserves it, in defeat one needs it.”
Even in Napoleon’s defeats, however, his friendship with the Moët family remained strong. Take the War of the Sixth Coalition, for example. Terrible, TERRIBLE disaster for the emperor, for France, and for anyone who ever even thought a nice thought about the French. Not only did it lead to the first of Napoleon’s exiles to the island of Elba; in the aftermath of his exile, the Russians took hold of the Champagne region and robbed pretty much every Champagne cellar dry. I’m not talking Extra Sec dry either; I’m talking full-on Brut Nature. “Cellars throughout Champagne were plundered, the worst being those of Moët, which saw six hundred thousand bottles emptied by Russian soldiers camped on the premises,” the Kladstrups write in Champagne.
But even a loss of that scale could not put a dent in the bond that I now like to call “NapoleJean.” Moët didn’t panic. Instead, he recalled an old French proverb: “Qui a bu, boira” or “He who has drunk once will drink again.” “All of those soldiers who are ruining me today will make my fortune tomorrow,” Moët told all his friends. “I’m letting them drink all they want. They will be hooked for life and become my best salesmen when they go back to their own country.”
As it turned out, he was not just being loyal to his friend Napoleon. He was absolutely right, the Kladstrups write. The Moët business soared in those following years, and among the many clients clamoring for a taste of the fine bubbly were some of Napoleon’s famous adversaries — including the First Duke of Wellington, and Frederick William III of Prussia.
If all of that was not enough to convince you of the depth of this connection, consider the gifts that were exchanged between the two friends over the years. Let’s start with the replica of Grand Trianon — the chateau in Versailles — that Moët built at his estate as guest quarters for Napoleon and Empress Josephine whenever they visited. No big deal, right? Just a simple gesture of gratitude. Of course, Napoleon was no slouch in the gift department, either. Not only did he bestow upon the Moët family the last of his famous bicorn hats; he also bestowed upon them his Officer’s Cross of the Legion of Honor — the highest French order of merit for military and civilian accomplishments — for all of their service establishing France’s reputation as a world leader in wine.
With all of that said, perhaps the most meaningful gift bestowed as part of this friendship is Moët Impérial, the white and rosé Champagnes that comprise the majority of Moët & Chandon’s production. In fact, they are the reason “pink Champagne” should be at the top of everyone’s list of things that come to mind when they hear “Napoleon Bonaparte.” Impérial was named after the late Emperor in 1869, and the house has continued to produce it under that name ever since.
Definitely something to ponder the next time you’re polishing the half of a BFF charm what’s-her-name gave you in seventh grade.