Som­me­lier, takes us on a waltz through the history of Cham­pagne with the many “merry” wid­ows who made the fa­mous drink what it is to­day.

Pro­vin­cial Liv­ing’s

Provincial Living - - Taste -

Thehistory of Cham­pagne is full of “Merry Wid­ows”, not to men­tion a monk or two. It seems you had to be sin­gle to suc­ceed in the Cham­pagne in­dus­try; a fact that lends a new mean­ing to the phrase “mar­ried to the bot­tle”.

At first glance, it’s a lit­tle sur­pris­ing that the Cham­pagne in­dus­try was one of the few in which women were able to break through the ranks of the boys’ club. The Cham­pagne depart­ment is the most northerly of the French wine grow­ing re­gions. It’s a chal­leng­ing en­vi­ron­ment in which to grow grapes, with cold win­ters, mild sum­mers, spring frosts and au­tumn storms. The wine­mak­ers of Cham­pagne have al­ways had to adapt to suc­ceed. But per­haps that’s why they were so will­ing to welcome the wid­ows into their ranks.

Cham­pagne’s wine­mak­ers first in­tro­duced their wines to the Royal Court at Ver­sailles dur­ing the sec­ond half of the 17th Cen­tury. At that time, Cham­pagne wines were not at all like the Cham­pagne we drink to­day – they were non-sparkling, light, acidic and pink­ish in colour. But who would have had the courage to tell King Louis XIV, the most pow­er­ful man in the world, that the wine he served was not up to scratch?

Of course, no­body did, and it soon be­came pop­u­lar across the chan­nel, too. When Lon­don high so­ci­ety heard that a new kind of wine had be­come all the rage at the French court, it sim­ply had to try some. Wine mer­chants im­ported the wine to Lon­don in bulk, where it was bot­tled and sold. They faced two ma­jor prob­lems, how­ever – a large pro­por­tion of the bot­tles ex­ploded, and those that man­aged to stay in­tact grew cloudy over time.

En­ter a monk whose name is syn­ony­mous with Cham­pagne – Dom Perignon from the Abbey of Hautvillers. He worked out that the fer­men­ta­tion process of the bulk wine had ceased in win­ter, prior to bot­tling, and had then recom­menced in the warm sum­mer months af­ter bot­tling. This caused a build up of car­bon diox­ide gas, cre­at­ing a pres­sure too strong for the bot­tle.

The English de­vel­oped hardier bot­tles, made from thicker glass, and bet­ter cork­ing meth­ods. So we have both Dom Perignon and Eng­land to thank for sparkling Cham­pagne. In­ter­est­ingly enough, Dom Perignon pre­ferred to use his un­der­stand­ing of the fer­men­ta­tion process to pre­vent the bub­bles form­ing. (He also, re­put­edly, never drank al­co­hol!)

Fur­ther de­vel­op­ments were re­quired to cre­ate the Cham­pagne that we know to­day, how­ever. The wine may have gained its sig­na­ture bub­bles, but the bot­tles were still grow­ing cloudy. Luck­ily, Cham­pagne vine­yard owner, Fran­cois Cliquot, mar­ried Made­moi­selle Ni­cole Barbe Pon­sardin in 1798.

Ap­pro­pri­ately enough, the wed­ding took place in a Cham­pagne cel­lar. M. Cliquot died just seven years later, how­ever, leav­ing his wife, Veuve (Widow) Cliquot, in charge of the busi­ness. She changed the name to Veuve Cliquot Pon­sardin and ran the Cham­pagne House for the next 60 years, in­creas­ing busi­ness turnover by an as­ton­ish­ing 2000%.

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