Hats off to Champagne’s Historic Women

Food & Drink

If you’re a follower of French bubbles, you know that Bollinger, the venerable Champagne house, released its “R.D. 2008,” the latest vintage of the “Recently Disgorged” this week to the trade (set to arrive stateside later this spring). The process was introduced in 1967 by Madame Lily Bollinger, one of France’s famous “Champagne widows,” who assumed operations of the house upon the death of her husband in 1941. The “R.D.” was one of several innovations she introduced, including the first wine made from French “old vines” in two plots that escaped phylloxera. It is said that during the Allied bombings, she slept in the Bollinger cellars. When the war ended, she took charge of rebuilding the estate.

She’s known, too, for riding her bike in the Ay countryside to inspect the vineyards, and for her famous quotation, “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.”

Madame Bollinger ran the historic house, personally launched its marketing campaign in New York in 1951, and remained at its helm until 1971. Yet, the headline of her obituary in the New York Times on Feb. 23, 1977 read “Champagne Maker in France, Mrs. Jacques Bollinger, Dead.” Despite her accomplishments, the Gray Lady could not even give a first lady of Champagne her own name.

Well, let’s do better than that this month, which is dedicated to the achievements of women across the globe. On International Women’s Day, here’s a hats off to Lily Bollinger and these other historic women of Champagne.

Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin Clicquot. Before there was Bollinger, there was Madame Clicquot, known more familiarly as the Widow (Veuve) Clicquot and later as the Grande Dame of Champagne. Born in Reims in (1777-1866), she is credited for being “one of the world’s first international businesswomen,” who rejuvenated her family business and turned the Clicquot name into a Champagne marketing juggernaut. Daughter of a textile industrialist, she married into another textile family, but she and her husband took a detour into the wine trade: It wasn’t a complete outlier, as one of Barbe-Nicole’s grandmothers had been in the trade. Her husband died before the Clicquot name would become synonymous with Champagne, but the young widow convinced her father-in-law to invest in her—twice. On the cusp of her second near-failure, Barbe-Nicole had the idea of getting her 1811 vintage to the Russian market on the hunch it would become a popular toast at the end of the Napoleonic Wars. She rustled her best bottles to Amsterdam, where they sat portside until peace was declared, thus positioning her to get her wines quickly into Russia and beat her competition to market.

In “The Widow Clicquot,” Tilar J. Mazzeo’s 2009 biography of the savvy widow, he retells her success, reaching the market and the Tsar Alexander’s tastebuds, who declared he would drink nothing else. The rest, they say, is history. Madame Clicquot is also credited for finessing the standards of mousse—the bubbles for which the wine is known. Once considered gauche because of their size and effervescence, she worked with her cellarmasters to develop remuage or riddling, the bottle-rotation process that helps refine the bubbles to an elegant standard that remains the hallmark of fine Champagne today. Finally, she is credited for creating rosé Champagne by blending some of her Bouzy red wines with her bubbly.

Louise Pommery. Madame Pommery may be lesser known in popular culture, but no less historically dynamic in women’s contribution to the Champagne sector. Upon the death of her husband in 1858, she assumed operation of Pommery & Greno, expanding the estate to collect some of the finest vineyards. In 1874 she introduced “Pommery Nature,” the first brut Champagne that broke away from the wine’s sweeter profile and established Champagne as a dry style of wine. She is known for transforming Reims’ chalk quarries into a network of wine cellars 30 meters (98 feet) deep. It was a subterranean architectural feat spanning 18 kilometers (11 miles) of interconnected galleries with barrel and rib vaults, that stored more than 20 million bottles at the time. Above ground, her open-plan, H-shaped Tudor-Elizabethan-styled estate was an innovative design that foresaw future expansion and bucked the trend of a more closed French estate style. As a business woman, she was one of the first company directors to create retirement and health benefits for her employees. She died in 1890 at age 70.

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