Lord Byron once famously declared "that lobster salad and champagne were the only things a woman should ever be seen eating." If this were to be true, then French women would have a headstart given the importance of champagne in french life. Beyond the confines of France, champagne has come to symbolize high glamor and the good life. Its the drink of choice whenever there is a reason to celebrate. Undoubtedly, one of the most recognizable among the champagne houses is the Veuve Clicquot with its distinctive orange label. But as pointed out by author Tilar Mazzeo, hardly anything is known about the person behind the wine. And so she began a search for this elusive woman whose skill, acumen and audacity helped change and redefine the champagne industry.
Thanks to Mazzeo’s laudable efforts, we now have a book devoted to the story of The Widow Clicquot. As the author finds out in the course of her long research, very little material is actually available on Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin. There are only the barest details on her birth, marriage and subsequent widowhood. What the author has done, and in an excellent manner I might add, is to weave these details into a coherent and fascinating story that gives a good idea of the person. We learn for instance that Barbe-Nicole was widowed at a very young age and that rather than give up their shared dream, she chose to pursue the business. And under very perilous conditions. Interwoven into the Widow’s story is the dramatic and often turbulent history of France during the years of the 19th century. It is a tribute to the author’s skills that parts of the book read like a gripping thriller. For example while reading how the Widow conspired to be the first to ship her precious wines into Russia before the actual restoration of international trade at the end of the Napoleonic wars, I actually felt my tension mounting.
Apart from the story of the widow herself, this book is a great mine of information about the wine industry and how champagne itself has evolved. The champagne taste we know and love is actually very different from its original taste. Imagine it 10 to 15 times sweeter, served icy cold and you get an idea of what it used to be. But what is even more unimaginable is the fact that in the beginning, champagne bubbles that are its hallmark now were thought to be disgusting. In fact, wine makers tried very hard to get rid of it. And as for the tale that Dom Perignon was the inventor of the bubbly, it’s a myth. Hard as it is to believe, the British were the first ones to discover champagne.
At the end, I found myself deeply impressed by Barbe-Nicole and her incredible story. And while, centuries separate us, her words continue to resonate with as much, if not more, truth now.
“The world is in perpetual motion, and we must invent the things of tomorrow. One must go before others, be determined and exacting, and let your intelligence direct your life. Act with audacity.”