Friday, November 28, 2008

The Widow Clicquot & Champagne

Imagine a world where champagne is commonly served as a dessert wine, sometimes so cold that it is almost slush. The champagne is sweeter than almost any dessert wine you will find at your local wine store. It sounds like a fantasy, especially in a world where brut (dry) champagne, rules. But that was not always the case.

Reach back about two hundred years ago and you will find that the above "fantasy" was actually the reality. What an amazing transformation has occurred with champagne. Yet how did it occur? If you are curious about the history of champagne, then I have a book you should read. Especially if you would also like to learn about the fascinating life of a woman integral to the popularity and transformation of champagne.

The Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It by Tilar Mazzeo (Harper Collins, October 2008, $25.95) is both a history and a biography. Most people are familiar with the yellow label of Veuve Clicquot champagne but few know much about the woman who really made this champagne famous. The Widow Clicquot fills in that gap, telling the compelling story of Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin, a determined widow who became a powerful business woman and the head of a major champagne house.

As a history buff, this book further intrigued me as it also provides some of the history of the times, from the French revolution of 1789, through the Napoleonic Wars, and into the aftermath. Plus, you learn about the history of champagne, including its disputed and controversial origins. Were you aware that champagne may have originated in Britain? I learned much from this book and found it to be an easy read that peaked my interest from start to finish.

Champagne in the 1790s, and through the early years of the nineteenth century, was much different than what we know now. First, it was rarely even called champagne. It was most commonly known as vin mousseux, sparkling wine. It would not be common to refer to it as champagne under the 1860s. Second, they drank it as a dessert wine, wine makers often using plenty of sugar syrup and brandy to make it sweeter. It might have as much as 200 grams of residual sugar, more than nearly all dessert wines we now have. They might even serve it ice cold, almost like a slush. It would not be until later in the nineteenth century that brut champagne would replace the sweet versions.

There were plenty of other interesting facts I learned from this book as well. I learned about Bouzy, a still red wine made in the Champagne region, and which is still made today, and which can be as expensive as champagne. I learned about the possible origin of sabrage, the use of a sword to open a champagne bottle. It might have begun with Napolean's soldiers who had difficulty opening champagne while on horseback, finding it easiest to use their swords to lop off the top of the bottle. I learned how it was not until 1811 that wine bottles stopped being blown by hand, which had led to uneven bottles that did not stack well and sometimes caused stacks to collapse, bottles breaking.

And then there is the life of the Widow Clicquot, a compelling story of a strong woman persevering against hardship and powerful obstacles. She took a small champagne company and transformed it into a powerhouse, yet there were years of adversity, many times when a lesser person might have just quit. Obviously the fact she was a woman during those times was difficult enough, yet she faced those problems and far more, meeting each challenge head on. You will admire this woman once you finish this book.

Transportation of champagne at this time was largely by wagon and ship, difficult and dangerous, especially when the Napoleanic wars raged across Europe. Plus, there were several poor vintages when the weather failed to cooperate. When the famed 1811 harvest came, the year of the comet, hopes were big that this vintage would transform the industry. Yet who would best capitalize on this? Could the Widow somehow outwit her competitors? Such a tense and exciting story.

There is much more in this book and I highly recommend you read it, whether you love wine or history, or both. It kept my interest throughout and I think it will do the same with you as well.


Dale Cruse said...

Thanks for turning me on to this book, Rich. I have a friend for which this would be a perfect Christmas gift.

Richard A. said...

You are very well welcome, Dale. It was an excellent book and I hope your friend enjoys it.

Shawn N. said...

Thanks for the great review. We linked to it at