Women in Wine History… the Champagne Widows
Did you know that the French word for widow is veuve? You may have seen this word on a Champagne label—and maybe you’ve wondered why. In celebration of Women’s History Month, it’s time to go back to the 19th century when some savvy “sisters” broke the rules and created Champagne as we know and love it today. It’s a story of triumph over tragedy—with a happy ending for lovers of bubbles everywhere!
Widowhood allowed these women to assume roles unheard of for the time. Freed from status as “property” of their now-deceased husbands, these women fought their way to unprecedented power. They were the first female CEOs of France. From the style of the bottles, to taste, color, production—even marketing—their contributions shaped the modern Champagne industry.
Madame Barbe-Nicole Clicquot (née Ponsardin) was the first of these ladies. Only 27 at the time, she rocked the conservative Champagne establishment by taking over the House of Clicquot upon the death of her husband in 1805. A true innovator, she was responsible for the invention of rosé Champagne, the world’s first Champagne label and the distinctive modern Champagne bottle shape. Madame Clicquot was also a production genius, innovating techniques still used in the making of fine Champagne today. Her most famous product is the iconic, orange-labeled Veuve Clicquot. Today, the house of Veuve Clicquot- Ponsardin is owned by the luxury company, LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy).
The widow Louise Pommery followed suit when she assumed leadership of the house of Pommery upon the death of her husband in 1860. The house became known as “Veuve Pommery” and produced Champagne of the highest quality. Some credit Veuve Louise Pommery with creating the world’s first Brut or dry Champagne. She also purchased a number of limestone and chalk pits carved beneath the city of Reims by Roman soldiers in ancient times. These unique cellars allowed her to store and age over 20 million bottles in a temperature-controlled environment and popularized the use of caves among other Champagne houses.
Queen Victoria, a fellow widow, was known to enjoy Champagne frequently and was a top client of both Veuve Clicquot and Veuve Pommery. Widows became quite fashionable. To boost sales, Champagne houses were known to scour family trees for random widows after whom they could name their cuvées. At one time, there were many dozens of fine Champagnes sporting the word veuve on the label. Today, Veuve Pommery is known as Vranken-Pommery.
The third famous veuve was Madame Lily Bollinger, who took over the reins of the house of Bollinger in 1941 after the death of her husband. She expanded the house to international prominence, garnering a reputation as a favorite of James Bond.
She was well-known for her sparkling wit and one of the most famous wine quotes of all time:
“I drink it when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company, I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it when I’m not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise, I never touch it. Unless I’m thirsty.” – Lily Bollinger