Dom Perignon, step aside. Although the famous monk is often credited with ‘inventing’ Champagne, in reality, the women of the region made it what it is today.
Two hundred years ago, Champagne’s major production was thin, acidic, still wine, not the bubbly symbol of luxury and celebration that we know today. Champagne’s evolution from coarse swill to refined elegance gives new meaning to the cliché that necessity is the mother of invention. In this case, ‘the mothers’–widows suddenly thrust into leadership of the Champagne houses–provided the vision necessary for the transformation.
Nicole Barbe Ponsardin and Louise Pommery catalyzed the metamorphosis, which is especially remarkable given the chauvinism of the French wine industry in the 19th century. They initiated what we now take for granted: a starbright wine free of unsightly dead yeast, the visual importance of the bubbles, and the minimization of sugar to produce a drier, brut, style.
Then, in the 20th century, two war widows, Marie Louise Lanson de Nonancourt (Champagne Laurent Perrier) and Madame Jacques Bollinger, continued to exert a profound influence over the industry. And in the 21st century, women continue to run major Champagne houses: Carol Duval-Leroy has been the head of the Duval-Leroy House since 1991 (the winemaker is also a woman) and Anne-Charlotte Amory is the CEO of Champagne Piper-Heidsieck.
The Bubbles Saved the Region
The Champagne region, roughly 100 miles east of Paris, was–and still is–a difficult place to produce still wine. The weather is kind enough to make potable still wine only two or three years per decade. The rest of the time, inadequate warmth and sunshine prevent the grapes from ripening sufficiently. These natural inconveniences mattered little to the 18th century producers because their still wines faced no serious competition in Paris, France’s most important market.
Producers easily transported the still wines of the Champagne region down the Marne and Seine Rivers into Paris. There, they enjoyed great popularity because the public compared them to even worse wine made from grapes grown in and around Paris, a locale never known for great vineyards. Better wines, from Burgundy and Bordeaux, were not yet readily available because of the difficulties involved in transporting them to the capital. But advances in transportation–better roads and, later, railroads–doomed the thin, still wines from Champagne in the 19th century as riper wines from further south could reach Paris.
The secondary fermentation in the bottle–with its added flavor and fizz–transformed the wines of the Champagne region and had the potential to save the industry.
Nicole Barbe Ponsardin
In 1805, the 27 year-old Nicole Barbe Ponsardin assumed control of the company, Clicquot Fils, by default when her husband, Francois Clicquot, died suddenly. To compensate for her inexperience in the wine trade, she recruited a partner, Jacques Fourneaux, and created Veuve (French for widow) Clicquot Fourneaux. Amidst turmoil in Europe and plummeting sales, she sensed an opportunity with bubbly wine, dissolved Veuve Clicquot Fourneaux, and created the Champagne house that still bears her name, Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin.
The widow Clicquot either instinctively understood the potential for bubbly wine (and the need to refine and promote it) or she was lucky to be in the right place at the right time–and smart enough to take advantage of it. In either case, she transformed the Champagne industry (and unknowingly aided crystal manufacturers) when she invented the crucial riddling process, which removes the dead yeast from the Champagne bottle after the secondary fermentation.
Consequently, Champagne became a bright sparkling wine, which consumers could drink in clear crystal glasses, instead of a murky liquid, hidden behind colored stemware. Seemingly overnight, clear stemware was in fashion, whereas colored glasses were passé. The novelty of watching an endless stream of tiny bubbles rise in the glass helped propel the new beverage’s popularity.
The widow Cliquot relentlessly developed a worldwide market–especially in Russia–for her Champagne, despite the incredible political instability in France and the rest of Europe at the end of the Napoleon’s rule. She suggested lowering her prices to maintain sales, a practice the current day Champenoise would be wise to remember in the midst of a world-wide economic crisis.
Taking advantage of a lull in the France’s war with Russia and a temporary lifting of the naval blockade, she immediately sent 6,000 bottles of her excellent 1811 (the ‘Year of the Comet’) vintage Champagne via ship to Russia. It was an instant hit, leading her Russian sales agent to write, “Your Champagne is . . .exclusively entrenched in Russian life.” Despite further hostilities and embargoes, sales of Veuve Clicquot in Russia rose almost seven-fold in just five years. Even today, Veuve Clicquot maintains a private label, Cuvee St. Petersburg, for the Russian market.
In the Widow’s tradition, Veuve Clicquot still sells about 80% of its roughly 10 million case annual production outside of France.
In many ways, Louise Pommery’s life was a repetition, a half a century later, of Nicole Barbe Ponsardin. Her husband died suddenly in 1858 and, like the Veuve Cliquot, she expanded the company by focusing on a foreign market, namely, Britain. More importantly, like Veuve Clicquot, she was a visionary whose insight and actions transformed the entire Champagne industry.
She captured the British market by building her winery, a copy of an English manor house, on the main tourist road from London to the Cote d’Azur. Thus, she assured herself a steady stream of vacationers who, attracted by familiar architecture, would be likely to stop, taste, and buy Champagne for their vacation.
Louise Pommery cleverly purchased an extensive labyrinth of chalk caves, originally dug by the Romans, from Ruinart, the oldest Champagne house, for aging her Champagne. In a stroke of entrepreneurial genius, she restored them and encouraged visitors, creating what may be regarded as the world’s first theme park. Almost 150 years later, the Champagne region is one of France’s top tourist attractions.
Just as Veuve Clicquot removed the sediment, Veuve Pommery removed the sugar. Until the latter part of the 19th century, Champagne was fortified with sweeteners such as Madeira, sherry, port, or fruit brandy. She released her 1874 vintage exclusively in England, without added sugar, and overnight popularized the brut style of Champagne. Champagne had clearly come of age. It was good enough to be enjoyed without a sugar coating.
Marie-Louise Lanson de Nonancourt became another widow of Champagne when her husband died during World War I. She had the foresight–some said stupidity–to leave her family firm, Lanson Père et Fils, one of Champagne’s oldest and most famous houses, to purchase a decrepit Champagne house, Laurent Perrier, just as Hitler was invading Czechoslovakia. She did not see a future for herself or her sons with Lanson because she knew that France’s Napoleonic inheritance laws would divide the family company eventually among her dozen brothers and sisters. She felt that such fragmentation would harm the company and the family, so she sold her share and set out on her own.
In 1938, she found a Champagne house, Veuve Laurent-Perrier and Company, whose owner had recently died without heirs. It was on the verge of bankruptcy with little equipment and virtually no stock of Champagne. According to Don and Petie Klabstrue, authors of Wine and War, it ranked 98th out of the 100 Champagne houses at that time. She poured her life into it, secure in the conviction that it would be a successful venture in the future because of her family. She had three sons who had already started to learn the Champagne business, and she was confident they could finish developing the house. Her son, Bernard, did eventually make the company one of today’s great Champagne houses, but had it not been for his visionary mother, he would have had nothing with which to work.
Madame Jacques Bollinger guided the prestigious, family-owned firm for over three decades after the premature death of her husband in 1941. Unlike the young Nicole Barbe, Elisabeth ‘Lily’ Bollinger was knowledgeable about Champagne, having spent 20 years tasting at her husband’s side. Nonetheless, assuming control during German occupation and wartime rationing must have been a daunting task. Lesser individuals would have simply sold the firm. Madame Jacques coped with gasoline rationing by tending to the vineyards on bicycle. Moreover, like the other widows, she never passed an opportunity to add pieces to Bollinger’s existing vineyards. Under her leadership, Bollinger flourished, doubling its production while never compromising quality.
The house of Bollinger long resisted bottling a prestige cuvee, insisting that its straight vintage Champagne was already the finest wine it could produce. Finally, however, Madame Jacques entered the super premium market in 1961. She did not produce a special blend or use a special bottle for her super premium Champagne, as Möet & Chandon had done when introducing Dom Perignon, or as Veuve Clicquot did when launching ‘La Grande Dame.’ Rather, she elected to age a small portion of her vintage Champagne on the lees (the dead yeast from the secondary fermentation) for another decade for added complexity. Thus, changing neither the blend nor the bottle, she created ‘Bollinger RD’ as her prestige bottling, short for recently disgorged (disgorgement is the final part of the process, invented by Veuve Clicquot, that removes dead yeast).
Madame Jacques maintained that Champagne owed its greatness to blending. Outside of Champagne, the great French wines made from specific vineyard plots are segregated almost compulsively from one another. In stark contrast, Champagne is a blend of juice not only from different vineyards, but also from black grapes (Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier) as well as white Chardonnay grapes. Nonetheless, Madame Jacques knew when to violate Champagne’s blending tradition. Bollinger owns three tiny plots of Pinot Noir grapes that escaped the 19th century scourge of phylloxera, the vine-destroying louse. From these very old vines, in 1969, the house started making less than 200 cases of a unique wine from red grapes, a blanc de noirs Champagne, called ‘Vieilles Vignes Francaises.’
According to Cyril Ray in Bollinger, Tradition of a Champagne Family, when asked when she enjoyed Champagne, Madame Jacques replied, “I drink it when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company, I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I’m not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it — unless I’m thirsty.’
December 16, 2008