Champagne owes its fame to women – and perhaps its future, too

For those of us who get a little twitchy at the narrative of maternal virgins and venerated male children, France’s most famous wine region offers a delicious antidote.

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As Christmas lights pierce the high street skies, beckoning us all – like unwise men – to follow, it is soothing to remember that the stresses of the festive season provide a great excuse to drink Champagne. There is plenty to celebrate, whether it’s reaching the end of the year or the bottom of the little darlings’ list to Santa. So much money is being expended that a pricey bottle will hardly stand out, and for those of us who get a little twitchy at the whole narrative of maternal virgins and venerated male children, there is a delicious antidote in France’s most famous wine region, which largely owes its fame to a cluster of determined and solitary women.

First came Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin, widowed at 27 in 1805, who took over the late Monsieur Clicquot’s Champagne house. La Veuve Clicquot (veuve means “widow” in French) also helped invent the technique that clears Champagne bottles of unsightly sediment that forms during fermentation. Her company is now owned by the luxury goods behemoth LVMH, but it’s her name on the label. Both her names, actually. And the top cuvée is called La Grande Dame. Which needs no translation.

Champagne was a sweet drink until Madame Pommery, widowed in 1858, introduced the first Brut (dry) Champagne. Her house’s Disney-ish blue palace is still visible beside the road into Reims. (If you think that location, en route into the capital of the Champagne region, is a coincidence, you underestimate Madame.)

Lily Bollinger lost her husband but found her calling during the Second World War, building a great company despite the German occupation and postwar austerity, when Europe had little to celebrate and no money to pep up any celebrations with bubbles.

I thought of these three wise widows while talking to Anne Malassagne, fourth-generation co-owner of Champagne AR Lenoble and founder of La Transmission, a group of nine female CEOs and winemakers in Champagne. They run a broad variety of estates, from huge brands (Margareth Henriquez is CEO of Krug, which is also about to get its first female cellar master) to small, family-run grower Champagne houses like Tarlant, where Melanie Tarlant’s ancestors have been growing vines since the 17th century.

La Transmission was founded, in 2016, to give these skilled, responsible women a voice. Sheer force of personality worked for les veuves but it’s harder when faced with the whole modern corporate apparatus. La Transmission is a 21st-century solution to an ancient problem.

Has so little really changed? Champagne, antic and effervescent, its tiny spheres of carbon dioxide racing upward toward liberty, is surely the best corrective to stasis, and there are far more women creating those bubbles than there ever were. You’ve probably heard of Taittinger, but did you know that Vitalie, daughter of the house, is about to become its president? Alice Paillard, Chantal Gonet, Charline Drappier, Delphine Cazals and Évelyne Boizel all hold key roles at the respective wineries that bear their surnames. Outside La Transmission, Caroline Latrive is head winemaker of Ayala, as Séverine Frerson is at Perrier-Jouët.

The Champagne widows, like the Virgin Mary, have their assured place in the firmament. Perhaps it’s time, now, to give a few other women the gift of a little attention, in the service of a merrier Christmas. 

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

Nina Caplan is the 2018 and 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and the 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman, and the author of The Wandering Vine: Wine, The Romans and Me, published by Bloomsbury. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.


This article appears in the 04 December 2019 issue of the New Statesman, What we want