The story behind the founding of one of the world’s foremost champagne houses is a curious mix of individual personality, international business, and French society. The story centers on one Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin, the famous widow of Reims, and is told in Tilar Mazzeo’s bestselling book, The Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It.
Mazzeo, a professor and self-admitted oenophile, expertly weaves the tale of the widow’s business acumen, professional drive, and competitive nature, not to mention her luck and amazing timing when it came to European geopolitics and the fluid nature of the early champagne market. All this creates a rich fabric of the widow and her times. Amidst these themes are nestled captive descriptions of French country estates and dank, ancient wine cellars, as well as informative summaries of the winemaking process and its progress between the 1790s and 1860s.
Simple explanations – such as distinguishing levels of champagne’s dryness or a brief overview of grape varietals (which determine the style of champagne) – might be missed, but for careful reading. The book’s brevity betrays the wealth of knowledge it offers to the introductory champagne drinker or wine trivia buffs. One of my favorite quotes, from the prologue: “According to legend, the shallow goblet-style champagne glasses known as coupes were modeled after this lady’s [Madame de Pompadour, mistress to the King of France] much admired breasts.”
Even unexciting topics – the process of fermentation or how champagne’s age affects the bubbles – come alive alongside the overarching story of the widow’s life. Intertwining the two, historical narration and technical explanations, so effortlessly and seamlessly is one of Mazzeo’s most notable talents.
Yet the widow’s world, so often looked at through grainy and colorless photos, comes bursting alive via the author’s words. Even in death, Barbe-Nicole is painted in lushly descriptive imagery: “In the last days of July…1866, when the gardens at Boursault were sending forth their intoxicating blooms and the grapes were beginning to grow heavy on the vines that clung to the hillside below the château, the Widow Clicquot breathed her last.”
This book – from vivid settings throughout pre-industrial Europe, early wine-making tutorials, and insight into the “Grand Dame of Champagne’s” ahead-of-her-time management and entrepreneurial methods – is much like champagne itself: a carefully crafted and leisurely savored luxury item.