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How Women Transformed Champagne
By Michael Apstein
Nov 24, 2015
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Dom Perignon, step aside. Although that 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 of 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.

Some of these women catalyzed the metamorphosis. They initiated what we now take for granted: The elimination of unsightly dead yeast in the bottle, the importance of the bubbles, and the reduction of the sugar to produce a drier, brut style. Though some of their contributions were less industry-shattering, they nevertheless produced two of the region’s major houses. As a group, these women created a sparkling wine worth drinking, expanded the popularity and influence of the category and continued to innovate in ways both large and small. Their influence changed an industry and was all the more remarkable because of the male-dominated culture of the times.

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The Champagne region, roughly 100 miles east of Paris, was--and still is--a difficult place to produce still wine. The weather is only adequately warm to make potable still wine two or three years per decade. The rest of the time, insufficient warmth and sunshine prevent the grapes from ripening. These inconveniences of Mother Nature 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 difficulty transporting them to the capital. But advances in transportation--better roads and later railroads--in the 19th century doomed the thin still wines from Champagne as riper wines from further south could reach Paris.

The secondary fermentation in he bottle, with its added flavor and fizz, transformed the wines of the Champagne region and had the potential to save the industry.

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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 instinctively understood the potential for bubbly wine and the need to refine and promote it. And she was smart enough to do so. She transformed the Champagne industry--and unknowingly aided crystal manufacturers--when she invented the crucial riddling process, which effectively allowed the dead yeast to be removed from the bottle after the secondary fermentation. Voilà, Champagne became a bright sparkling wine, which consumers could drink in clear crystal glasses, instead of a murky liquid, which needed to be hidden behind colored stemware. Seemingly overnight clear stemware was in, colored glasses were passé. What must have been the novelty of watching an endless stream of tiny bubbles rise in the glass helped propel this new beverage’s popularity.

She 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 that has been inconsistently followed since.

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 salesman to write, "Your Champagne is . . .exclusively entrenched in Russian life." Despite further hostilities and embargoes, Veuve Clicquot sales in Russia rose almost sevenfold in just five years. Even today, Veuve Clicquot maintains a private label, Cuvée St. Petersburg, for the Russian market.

In Ponsardin’s tradition, Veuve Clicquot still sells about 80 percent 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 that of Nicole Barbe Ponsardin. After Pommery’s husband died suddenly in 1858, she expanded and realigned the company from a small red-wine production to a large Champagne house by also focusing on a foreign market, England, where she had attending boarding school. More important, 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, recognizing familiar architecture, would be sure to stop, taste, and buy Champagne for their vacation.

Pommery cleverly purchased from Ruinart, the oldest Champagne house, an extensive labyrinth of chalk caves originally dug by the Romans for aging her Champagne. In a stroke of entrepreneurial genius, she restored them and encouraged visitors, creating the world's first theme park. Almost 150 years later, the Champagne region is one of France's top tourist attractions and was awarded World Heritage status by UNESCO.

Just as Veuve Clicquot removed the sediment, Veuve Pommery removed the sugar. Until the later part of the 19th century, Champagne was fortified with sweeteners such as Madeira, sherry, port, or fruit brandy. Pommery knew that the British disliked its sweetness, so 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 consumed 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--although some at the time called it stupidity--to leave her family firm, Lanson Père et Fils, one of Champagne’s oldest and most famous houses, to purchase a decrepit label 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 in their book, Wine and War, it ranked near the bottom of Champagne houses at that time--98th out of the 100--in terms of quality. She poured her life into it, confident 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 business, and she believed they could finish building the house. Her son, Bernard, did eventually make the company, known now as simply Laurent Perrier, 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 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 sold the firm. But not Madame Jacques, as she was known. She coped with gasoline rationing by tending to the vineyards on bicycle. Like the other mothers of Champagne, she never missed an opportunity to add pieces to Bollinger's existing vineyards, often by trading other plots for them. Under her leadership, Bollinger flourished, doubling its production while never compromising quality.

In 1961, despite years of insisting that it already made the best wine possible, Bollinger went with the fizzy flow and introduced a high-end prestige bottling. But here Madame Jacques separated herself: Unlike competitors Moet & Chandon, with its top-flight Dom Perignon, or Veuve Clicquot, with La Grande Dame, she elected not to cull the best grapes or use a differently-shaped bottle for this “super-premium” designation. Instead she separated a small portion of her standard vintage Champagne and postponed by 10 years its disgorgement, or removal of the dead yeast from the secondary fermentation. It spent this extra decade aging and gaining complexity in her cellars to produce Bollinger “RD” (recent disgorgement). Today many Champagne houses and sparkling wine producers around the world trumpet their “extended lees aging” bubbly.

Though Madame Jacques maintained that Champagne owed its greatness to blending, she knew when to abandon the blending tradition. Outside of Champagne, the great French wines are segregated compulsively one vineyard from its neighbor. In stark contrast, Champagne is usually a blend of juice not only from different vineyards, but also from black grapes (Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier) as well as a white one (Chardonnay). But Bollinger owns three tiny plots of pinot noir grapes, which escaped the 19th century scourge of phylloxera, the vine-destroying louse. From these very old vines, in 1969, it started making microscopic amounts--less than 200 cases--of a unique wine exclusively from red grapes, a blanc de noirs Champagne called Vieilles Vignes Francaises. Blanc de Noirs sparkling wine is now commonplace around the world.

* * *

Among the contributions of these mothers of invention is that the presence of women in the industry is today common and nearly unremarkable: From 2005 to ’12 Piper-Hiedsieck’s CEO was Anne-Charlotte Amory, and Carol Duval Leroy has been head of the Duval-Leroy house, where the head winemaker is also a woman, for over two decades.

So, this holiday season, remember them as you raise a toast. And take Elisabeth Bollinger’s advice (as quoted by Cyril Ray) regarding when to drink Champagne, "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.”

* * *

E-mail me your thoughts about Champagne at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein