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.
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%.