Recommende​d Reading: The Widow Clicquot

widow clicquot

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.

Published in: on October 22, 2013 at 1:20 pm  Comments Off  
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Black Velvet

December has arrived in Washington and with it, falling temperatures and the Christmas season.  Although decorations appear earlier and earlier each year, Black Friday truly signals the holiday’s arrival.  Following the Thanksgiving weekend, several publications spent the week discussing a multitude of non-traditional holiday beverages.  And by non-traditional, I mean everything but eggnog.

The New York Times in particular produced an impressive interactive feature entitled “For Every Holiday Party, the Right Drink.”  While many of the feature’s dozen seasonal beverage recipes required extremely specialized and obscure ingredients – green Chartreuse, allspice liqueur, Cynar, and dried horehound, to name a few – one required only two, easy to find components: Guinness and champagne.  Combined in equal proportions they make a Black Velvet, a winter drink perfectly suited for both holiday parties and cold, snowy afternoons at home.

Considered by some drink experts to be “the most elegant and delicious of beer drinks,” the Black Velvet combines two flavors – bitter and sweet – that complement one another.  As if by some Christmas miracle, the heavy, bitter beer envelops the light, sweet champagne to produce a drink both sweet and savory.  When poured, the drink’s pillowy head sits carefully atop the dark black stout, whose color clearly inspired the drink’s name.

Black Velvet’s simplicity allows and encourages variety; any stout can be paired with any champagne, according to taste, loyalty, or simple convenience.  The same goes for choice of glass: I prefer a champagne coupe, the wide, shallow, and less feminine alternative to the traditional flute.  The coupe is a touch more masculine yet no less appropriate or festive.

Before winter sets in and brings those snowy weekend afternoons, try the gift of Guinness at your next holiday party.  You will have, after borrowing some of that ubiquitous champagne, a simply delicious drink while conveying individuality, festivity, and sophistication.

Published in: on December 15, 2010 at 10:36 pm  Comments (8)  
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The Morning Cocktail

Rising late on a Saturday morning and taking the time to start the day with the newspaper and a drink is one of life’s simpler pleasures.  A morning cocktail suggests a European laissez faire attitude towards the day, liberation from one’s professional constraints; a bold proclamation of the absence of schedule.

In years past drinking before the noon hour has long been frowned upon as the mark of excess.  Those partaking before mid-day either had too much the night before or a larger problem altogether.  However, the of-late popularity of weekend brunch and Mad Men has begun weakening this long held stigma. 

Outside the office a single malt for breakfast might still raise eyebrows.  Bloody Marys have all too obviously signified the discomfort following overindulgence.  The feminine staples – Mimosas and Bellinis – are far too sweet.  Other than coffee (black coffee, or espresso if one is so inclined), is there not a suitable beverage to appropriately begin the weekend?

A friend’s recent suggestion provided a solution to this quandary – adding a bit of champagne to his glass of red wine.

This mixture was a curiosity.  Other publications have advocated for a glass of wine with breakfast, but the thought of combining the two was indeed novel.  The champagne’s sweetness complimented the red’s bold and substantive taste.  Most importantly, it felt like a morning drink; light but full, sweet but not overpoweringly so.  It greets the morning gracefully, much like first light through partially drawn curtains.  Hazy yet renewing.

The only reference founded named the drink Royal Plush: half red burgundy, half champagne, served in a Collins glass on the rocks.  I prefer it with just a splash or two of champagne rather than the full fifty percent – it’s just a bit more potent.

So whip one up this weekend after a good long rest.  Then cancel your lunch plans, finish reading the paper, and take a walk.  Then consider starting your day.

Published in: on August 5, 2010 at 11:05 pm  Comments Off  
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