It's a girl thing

Drink - Victoria Moore toasts the <em>grandes dames</em> of champagne

Napoleon used to say he could not live without champagne: "In victory I deserve it, and in defeat I need it." But while few men are resistant to its charms, and despite attempts by the lacklustre Wendy Richard to send the industry spiralling into financial ruin by telling everyone that champagne has been her "favourite tipple" since her father fed her with it on a silver spoon at birth, champagne is a drink that belongs to women - in particular, to women who major in style and verve. Marie Antoinette declared that it made women beautiful. Empress Josephine bought hers from Ruinart, although her supply dried up when she refused to pay her bills after her divorce.

Those are just the drinkers and, while the most famous champagne-maker of all, Dom Perignon, was a man, some of the greatest champagne houses have been buttressed by fearsome grandes dames.

We recently lost one of them. Odette Pol-Roger, who struck up a great friendship with the late Sir Winston Churchill, died in December at the age of 89. Sir Winston was said to have been as enamoured of Odette Pol-Roger's elegance and beauty as he was of the champagne that bore her name. Such was his devotion that he named one of his racehorses after her and gave instructions that Odette was to be invited to dine with him each time he was in Paris. When Sir Winston died, the Pol-Rogers began to border their labels in black and, later, they launched Cuvee Sir Winston Churchill in tribute to him.

Mme Pol-Roger was possessed of a ferocious energy and voracious appetite for living that seems entirely appropriate for one raised on champagne. She once related how, after dining in Paris, she got into her car and drove to her house in Normandy. By dawn, she was prepared to contemplate going to sleep, but, out of her bedroom window, she caught sight of a huge trout in the stream. Change of plan. Still wearing her dinner gown and stopping only to seize her fishing rod, she ran down to catch it. "Well, life must be enjoyed, no?"

The first grande dame of champagne was the Widow (Veuve) Clicquot. Nicole-Barbe Clicquot-Ponsardin found herself at the helm of the family business in 1805 at the inexperienced age of 27. Her late husband's main associate, Louis Bohne, initially announced himself unimpressed by the quality of her champagne. But, by 1814, even he was forced to ladle effusive praise on it. "The cuvee of Madame Clicquot's 1811 has no equal," he wrote. "It is a real assassin, and whoever wishes to know it should tie themselves to the chair, otherwise they may find themselves under the table with the crumbs."

But Mme Clicquot did more than simply win the admiration of her contemporaries. She also invented the remuage system, still used, of gradually tilting and turning the bottles in which the wine ferments so that the sediment slips into the neck, from where it can be more easily removed.

The new crop of grandes dames are, by all accounts, equally formidable. Gosset, after 410 years of family ownership, is now controlled by the highly respected Beatrice Cointreau, to whose family the house was sold. And according to Tom Stevenson, a writer on sparkling wine, "Carol Duval is the toughest champagne widow I have ever seen". Indeed, the "bruisingly combative" (as another described her) Mme Duval of Duval Leroy last year launched "Femme de Champagne", which is 89 per cent Chardonnay, 11 per cent Pinot Noir, and aimed solely at women. Mme Duval is reported to have claimed that men have no idea what they are doing. You can almost see the champagne corks popping to the order of one of her steely glances.

This article first appeared in the 15 January 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Dotcoms will rise again