The bottle of sweet red was re-corked in 2019 to ensure that its quality was intact.

By Mike Pomranz
May 25, 2021
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A bottle of wine can derive its value from many things. The actual liquid inside can be renowned, as was the case with the 1945 Romanee-Conti that became the most expensive wine ever sold. Other times, the story is the selling point—like the 400-year-old bottles found in a shipwreck that were auctioned off a couple of years back. But apparently, sometimes the selling point can be what didn't happen—as was the case with a bottle of Grand Constance 1821 that was earmarked for Napoleon Bonaparte but never reached his lips. Over the weekend, the rare bottle sold for about $30,000.

According to the Cape Fine & Rare Wine Auction (CFRWA), where the wine went under the hammer, Grand Constance, produced at the Groot Constantia vineyard in modern-day South Africa, was one of the most coveted wines of its day—even getting a shoutout in Jane Austen's 1811 novel Sense & Sensibility. By 1821, a large portion of the harvest was specifically slated to be shipped to the island of St. Helena where Napoleon was being forced to live in exile after losing the Battle of Waterloo. However, Napoleon died that same year, and so instead of being consumed by the former emperor on the daily, the wine was released into the market at large.

Napoleon I in Saint-Helena.
Napoleon I in Saint-Helena tracing the letter "N" in the sand. 1815. Paris, Fondation Napoleon.
| Credit: Photo 12 / Contributor/Getty Images

It's believed that less than a dozen of these 200-year-old wines still exist today, with this specific bottle coming from the collection of South African wine producer Distell. As an added bonus, the bottle was recorked in 2019, which CFRWA explained was "not only aimed to prolong the wine's already venerable lifespan, but to also check and ensure that the precious liquid's pristine condition remains intact." So yes, this sweet red wine—"believed to have been a blend of ripe and raisined red muscadel with pontac"—is considered drinkable.

Grand Constance 1821 Bottle
Credit: Cape Fine & Rare Wine Auction

"As Napoleon breathed his last on St Helena in 1821, the grapes for his favorite wine were just ripening on the vine," Christie's auctioneer Charlie Foley said before the event. "The chance to acquire and drink a bottle of wine 200 years after its birth is sensational. I can only imagine the honeyed, spun sugar and hazelnut depths of this wine. Very few bottles of this wine still exist and for the CFRWA to have one up for auction… A true unicorn wine!"

That said, the bottle was initially estimated to sell for between $5,725 and $9,300, meaning its final $30,000 price tag may leave the buyer—a UK-based Christie's client—debating whether it's more of a "drink now" selection or a "save until the next auction" bottle.

"Following a year that has impacted the South African wine industry like no other, the Cape Fine & Rare Wine Auction today became a beacon of resilience, showcasing the tenacious spirit of the country's wine makers—and the massive favor they carry with wine enthusiasts globally," Niel Groenewald, head of CFRWA, said after the auction, according to Decanter. Turns out maybe that Napoleon guy knew what he was talking about when it came to wine.