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Champagne widows stamped grand legacy on wine

Monday - 12/9/2013, 10:23am  ET

This Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2013 combination of photos shows the portraits of Mrs. Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin, left, and Mrs. Louise Veuve Pommery displayed at the entrance of their companies' headquarters in Reims, eastern France. Without the widows of Champagne, mankind’s most seductive fizz might well not be what it is now. One of the world’s most famous Champagnes - Veuve (“Widow”) Clicquot - explicitly evokes the rather grim tradition. But other legendary houses - Bollinger, Laurent-Perrier and Pommery - also got their starts from tragedy-tinged widows. Then there are the many lesser-known names that still carry the widow tag, such as Veuve Fourny and Veuve Doussot. (AP Photo/Remy de la Mauviniere)
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THOMAS ADAMSON
Associated Press

REIMS, France (AP) -- For Champagne to become the tipple it is today -- popped at weddings, quaffed in casinos, sprayed by racing drivers and smashed against ships -- a few men had to die.

Not just any old men. Young ones married to clever young women.

Without the widows of Champagne, mankind's most seductive fizz might well not be what it is now. One of the world's most famous Champagnes -- Veuve ("Widow") Clicquot -- explicitly evokes the rather grim tradition. But other legendary houses -- Bollinger, Laurent-Perrier and Pommery -- also got their starts from tragedy-tinged widows. Then there are the many lesser-known names that still carry the widow tag, such as Veuve Fourny and Veuve Doussot.

From its bottle shape to its taste, color, labeling and even marketing, Champagne owes its uniqueness to a series of widows from the early 19th century who used the sometimes mysterious deaths of their husbands to enter the male-dominated business world. The widows became so successful that dozens of Champagnes added "Veuve" to their names even though no widow ran the house -- just for its mystique and marketing value.

"Champagne is the story of widows," said Francois Godard, scion of Veuve Godard et Fils Champagne house. "Women who lost their husbands, and then outshone the men."

Widowhood gave these figures an independent social status in France. Unlike other women -- who were the property of a father or a husband -- only a widow could become a CEO.

"In the 19th century ... if you're not married you're dependent on your father, you can't have a bank account and you can't pay staff. If you are married you are reliant on your husbands," explained Fabienne Moreau, Veuve Clicquot's archivist. "Only a widow can take this position as head of a company."

Experts say that Champagne was one of the first industries in the modern world that women shaped and in which they enjoyed a prominent role.

The stern expressions of these women stare out from portraits that hang in their sprawling Reims-based mansions in the French region of Champagne, the only place in the world where bubbly can legally be called Champagne.

The story of the Champagne widows begins with Barbe-Nicole Clicquot.

Once upon a cold October's day in 1805, Francois Clicquot, the young heir to a Champagne dynasty, suddenly died after a grape harvest, a few years after marrying the fresh-faced Barbe-Nicole.

It was a thunderbolt in the conservative Champagne landscape when the 27-year-old widow defied male opposition to take over the house.

Opportunistic and tough as nails, the young widow transformed the small house into a global empire. Madame Clicquot exploited the chaos created by Napoleonic wars to tap the European market, before taking in tipple-loving Russia and then the United States.

"Champagne owes a lot to her. Madame Clicquot was the first businesswoman in France, and maybe the whole of Europe," says Moreau, who says that the house created the annual Business Woman Award in 1972 to evoke her legacy and champion the success of female entrepreneurs around the world.

Working until she dropped dead at 89, Veuve Clicquot left behind a formidable legacy: She invented rose Champagne, the world's first Champagne label and -- according to Moreau -- was behind the distinctive modern Champagne bottle: slender and elegant in contrast to its clunky, heavy-set predecessor.

With the glass bottle, Veuve Clicquot smashed the glass ceiling.

Added to this was the invention of Veuve Clicquot's revolutionary technique of "rilling." It was a method of turning the bottle to get rid of nasty, cloudy sediment that stagnated in the drink, a process that made the beverage clear and pleasant. It's still used today.

Widow Pommery was next.

Her husband died in unexplained circumstances in 1860.

"We don't know if Monsieur Pommery drank too much Champagne, or perhaps not enough, but he dies and leaves his business to the young widow," said Christine Prudhomme, head of visits at Pommery.

"When he died, it was perhaps the opportunity she was looking for," said Prudhomme. "She didn't just want to be a wife. Her (widowhood) really gave her wings."

Prudhomme said that the house for decades was called Veuve Pommery, before the "Veuve" was removed. Subsequently, the widow was celebrated with the house's best Champagne -- Cuvee Louise -- named after her.

The proliferation of Champagne widows may seem mysterious or suspicious, but experts explain the phenomenon through its era: The 19th century was a time before the invention of antibiotics, when men working in biting conditions outside would more easily succumb to deadly illness. The Champagne region was also an occasional stomping ground for foreign armies.

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