Move Over, Dom: Here Come the Veuves!
“I drink Champagne 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.”
Lily Bollinger, House of Bollinger
What a fabulous quote! Yes, Veuve Bollinger, I couldn’t agree more: Champagne is for every occasion and not just for christening ships or toasting the bride. It is seductive, alluring and magical. What else can bring an instant smile to one’s face than the sight of a bottle of bubbly. It says celebration, joy, pleasure.
There are some mysteries and myths surrounding this wine, and I (she says with great abandon and a bit of determination) am going to set the record straight and give credit where credit is long overdue. There, I’ve said it.
Some questions and statements I’ve heard:
1) What is Champagne anyway, and how do they get those bubbles in the bottle?
2) Is Champagne a white wine made with white grapes?
3) Wasn’t it a monk named Dom Pérignon who invented Champagne and made the region famous?
Corrections … um, I mean answers:
1) Champagne is the most northern wine region in France. While there are other sparkling wines from around the world, only sparkling wine made in this region can legally call itself Champagne. The bubbles are created by the addition of yeast and sugar mixed into a base still-wine, or cuvée, tightly sealed and then left to develop in the bottle. As the yeast eats the sugar, it produces gas, which is trapped in said bottle. Voilà, we have bubbles.
2) Champagne is made from three principal grape varieties, one white and two red. Yes, you did read that correctly, two red grapes. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier are the stars of the show. Each Champagne house has its own style and blends. A Blanc de Blancs is a wine made from white grapes, in this case Chardonnay. A Blanc de Noirs is made from the two red grapes. Different houses may make 100 per cent Pinot Noir Champagne.
3) And now we get to the heart of the issue for me. Dom Pérignon, while important in his own right to wine history, didn’t invent Champagne as is often believed. Rather, he detested the annoying, pesky nuisances (the bubbles) that were forming in his wine and did everything to try and rid himself of these dastardly things. It was actually Veuve Clicquot (veuve = widow) who put the Champagne region on the global map.
In fact it was a number of women who made Champagne what it is today, but unfortunately history has not recorded their story in any great detail or clarity. As 19th-century France was a chauvinistic society (c’est terrible!), women were to concern themselves only with homemaking and child-bearing, you know, being so fragile and all. (Sounds a bit like Mad Men.) But, if you were a widow, then these rules did not apply. After all, what possible harm could you do?
Well, let me see now as I drum my fingers. You could create an invention that would alter the Champagne industry and its production and that continues to be the industry standard practice to this day. You could market your brands beyond the borders of your own country while using all your savvy to slip through military blockades and embargoes to get to the rest of Europe, Russia in particular. You could entertain invading troops at your cellar door while your sales rep sneaks out the back door with a huge stash of your wine, off to meet an awaiting ship at the dock to transport them. Perhaps a dry Champagne was more to your liking and you anticipated that the British would buy your “brut” style, making it the industry norm. Those veuves! What else could they get up to?
France was a country at war for well over one hundred years (not consecutively, mind you). For most of the duration of the Great War, the region of Champagne was bombarded daily. Unfortunately, the area was but a hundred miles due east of Paris, putting it smack in the way of enemy armies en route to capture the capital.
From the French Revolution to the Franco-Prussian War, and for the original Mini-Me, Napoleon Bonaparte, with his visions of grandeur, men were in short supply (no pun intended). Just as the story is told of the women of WW II stepping up to the plate, working in the factories producing all the machines and ammunitions while the men were at war, so too did the women of 19th-century France perform work — they cared for the vines. With secateurs in hand they pruned and planted, trained and trellised, undeterred by the sounds of the Prussians marching toward them. It’s somewhat ironic that the wine from a region that has historically seen so much violence is typically associated with celebration and romance.
So who are some of these tenacious women? For one, Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin — Veuve Clicquot. Her husband died prematurely, and she took over the family business at the tender age of 27. She revolutionized Champagne with her invention of the riddling rack whereby wine that was once cloudy due to the difficulty in extracting spent yeasts would become bright and glistening. This rack, literally an A-frame with slotted holes, is able to hold the necks of wine bottles. They can then be rotated and the angles adjusted in order to ensure the yeasts eventually make their way to the neck for ease of release from its bottled prison. This system is still used to this day and is the job of the remueur, or “riddler.”
Veuve Clicquot’s ability to market and brand her product in the face of incredible odds and political instability speaks volumes of her entrepreneurial spirit. Her 1811 vintage known as the “Year of the Comet” was a huge success in Russia, and her sales rose astronomically in a span of just five years. She was one of the most famous women of the 19th century.
Veuve Pommery, another brilliant entrepreneur whose husband also died suddenly, took over the reins of his firm. Having been schooled in Britain, she was well aware of the wine market there. Being a passionate and innovative gal, she decided to return to her old stomping grounds in search of new clientele. Upon her return to France she knew that a drier Champagne style would sell like gangbusters among the Brits. And gangbusters it did. Sweet was out! Dry it is and dry it will be. To this day the “brut” style is accredited to the ingenuity of Veuve Pommery.
Marie-Louise Lanson de Nonancourt was another visionary. While you may be familiar with the Lanson name, this Champagne house was not her crowning glory. She was a member of the Lanson family but saw the writing on the wall (so to speak) due to France’s Napoleonic inheritance laws that would divide the company into many little pieces. Coming from a large family she decided to sell her share.
When her husband died in WW I, she decided to buy a company that was on the verge of bankruptcy. That house was none other than that of Veuve Laurent-Perrier. VLP had died, leaving no heirs. While others thought Marie-Louise was off her nutter, she saw things long term. She had three sons who had been learning the ropes at the house of Lanson. Marie-Louise had the courage and the faith that one day her sons would bring “her” house to the prestigious status it holds today.
And so we end off where we began, at the House of Bollinger. Lily (born Emily Law de Lauriston Bourbers) married into the already-established Bollinger family. While she did not take over at a young age like that of her compatriots, she did take over during a time of strife: WW II, German occupation, rations. Like her counterparts, her husband (and there seems to be a theme here) died prematurely. Lily knew enough to bulk up her vineyard count. She got into the real-estate market, if you will, securing her company’s ability to produce even more wine. So confident was she in her wines that she refused to bottle anything other than her vintage Champagne. In 1961, she did decide to enter into the premium market, but without creating another wine; rather, she aged a small portion of her vintage Champagne on their lees (a.k.a. dead yeasts) for an additional ten years, which added depth and complexity. And thus the R.D. line was created. R.D. is the initialism for récemment dégorgé, or “recently disgorged” (the spent yeast cells are expelled just prior to shipping).
I’ve barely scratched the surface of the many accomplishments of these fine women, and the many other women whose stories have not been told. Dame Geoffrey, for instance — many Champagne houses purchased her ready-made wines to sell as their own. Or perhaps Veuve Germon — wine broker, bottler of her own sparkling wines. And there’s the widow Robert’s warehousing facilities in Paris, and the widow Blanc, yet another supplier of ready-made wines. So next time you pick up a bottle of Veuve Clicquot, look a little closer, and you will see her handwritten signature wrapping around the bottle’s label. Her signature, and her signature style, are a reminder of the influence and impact of women in the history of Champagne and its wines.