The Widow

Franck Fernández – translator, interpreter, philologist

Since immemorial times, human beings have harvested the vine, which is the grape bush, and has learned more about how to process it to obtain what we know as wine. Wine has not always been as we know it today. Its modernization and quality have greatly improved throughout the millennia. There are several types of wine, winemakers list 12 types. One of these types is what is the sparkling wine. Sparkling is understood as those which, due to their natural fermentation process, or the voluntary addition of a gas, have bubbly characteristics. The king among them is, champagne, of course.

 It was in the Reims region of France, where a monk named Don Perignon discovered how to control this natural fermentation process, to obtain what we know now as champagne. It was precisely in the beautiful cathedral of this city, where the consecrations of the kings of France were carried out, linking such an exquisite concoction to these events, becoming the wine of the French nobility.

Since 1887, champagne producers have obtained a decree before the Reims Court of Appeal, delimiting the specific area where this wine is cultivated, harvested, manufactured and bottled. It is what is called “Controlled Denomination of Origin” or DOC. Others, even if they apply the exact same process, are prohibited from using the word champagne. They use the denomination “cava”, among others, which is the denomination this type of sparkling wine, but produced in the region of Catalonia, in Spain.

There are many prestigious champagne houses, and even small producers with limited production. But, today I would like to tell you about a character who marked the history of champagne, her name was Barbe Clicquot Ponsardin. She was a lady, and she was born in 1777, into an aristocratic family. Her father was a baron and she married the young heir to the champagne-producing house, François Cliquot, a house founded in 1772. The Cliquot were bankers and cloth merchants and decided to become involved in the production of champagne, a region in which they had significant land extensions.  

François knew how to transmit to his wife Barbe his love and knowledge about it and,  necessary for the wise mix of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay grapes, to produce a high quality champagne. In 1805 François died suddenly, due to a malignant fever, leaving his family and his industry in great desolation. But Barbe was not intimidated by this situation. At a time when ladies had the sole mission of caring for their family, being good mothers and dealing with charity issues, Barbe took charge of the business inspired by the knowledge her husband had inherited with. Thus she became known as “the Widow” or “The Great Lady of Champagne.” In 1814, at the fall of Napoleon, her business was almost bankrupt. She took more than 10,000 bottles from her warehouses, rented a boat and took them to Saint Petersburg, then the capital of the Russian empire. And she knew exactly what to do sell all and each one of them. Resounding success. Champagne ceased to be exclusive to the greats of France, to go to other European courts. It was only after World War II that champagne was trivialized and could be served at every table.

Barbe Cliquoit Ponsardin was not only an excellent merchant, she also knew how to introduce major modifications in the manufacture of this glamorous wine. This is the reason for the creation of the moving table, which is nothing more than a panel, where the inclined bottles are turned by hand from time to time during their production, at a certain angle to favor the natural effervescence that characterizes champagne. She also owes the incorporation of a little red wine to the mixture of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay  strains to obtain a rosé champagne. This was previously accomplished by adding elderberries. She was also the creator of the vintage, that is, the selection of the specific production of a year, with specific quality characteristics. These innovations were gradually adopted by the rest of the manufacturers of this and other wines.

Since 1972, and to celebrate the Casa Cliquot bicentennial, each year the “Veuve Cliquot Award” is given to a businesswoman. Similar to the brand’s international vocation, the award does not only honor French businesswomen, but all those in the world who possess the qualities that make them pioneers capable of going beyond all challenges. This award is a way of honoring that great lady, who faced with the adversity of the loss of her husband and the very probable bankruptcy of her business, knew how to overcome it, going against the social conventions of her time, giving the company she had inherited from her late husband’s family, global recognition.

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