Historical Champagne Women
12th October 2023
Champagne is a universal symbol of celebration par excellence, of love, happy moments, and grand success. It was not until the 19th century that Champagne became what we know as the golden sparkling. Wine has been in existence for over 7,000 years! Thanks to the efforts of key women in wine influencers transformed the status of a simple cloudy wine to a luxury elixir. To understand the role of women in Champagne, it is important to review how Champagne became ‘Champagne’.
Legend has it that Champagne was discovered by French Benedictine Abbey of Hautvillers, Dom Pérignon, and English scientist, physician and metallurgist Christopher Merret, but as Edward S. Hyams concluded, “Champagne invented itself” Jean-Luc Barbier, a lecturer at the University of Reims and a Doctor of Law, is the author of several publications on Champagne further proves this point in the published findings where did Champagne come from?1
The turning point for Champagne occurred in the 17th century when still wines were deliberately made into sparkling fizz. The Champenois wine merchants and winemakers tirelessly pursued their efforts in the research of sparkling fizz – use of better quality grapes, disgorgement, second fermentation, literally the entire process of making Champagne. Together, they brought their efforts and knowledge to the table. They followed consumer demand and what was in fashion to create a new type of wine with effervescence. The Argonne glassmakers followed suit and created a bottle that was suitable for effervescence and extended ageing. In addition, the bouchonniers created hermetic corks, which enabled storage of the bottles for several years before release. The creation of Champagne was achieved through a long, arduous, and successful process that involved multiple stages.
It wasn’t until the 18th century that Champagne gained popularity. Both the French King, Hugh Capet and the Duke of Orleans served Champagne at official dinners to the French elite and royalty. The domino effect was a huge increase in demand for Champagne. The great Champagne houses were founded to meet the growing demand for this trendy fizzy drink. Gosset is the oldest ‘house’ established in 1584 produced a ‘still wine’ Ruinart was first to open its cellar doors in 1729, with Taittinger (formerly Forrest Fourneaux) following in 1734. Moet opened soon after in 1743, Lanson (formerly Delemotte) then in 1760, Louis Roederer (formerly Dubois Père & Fils) in 1770, Veuve Clicquot in 1772 and Heidsieck in 1785.1 Over a 50-year period, the production of Champagne grew from 300,000 to 20 million bottles.2
There is a long history of revolutionary leading ladies of Champagne. These ladies paved the way for today’s chef de caves and champagne house leaders. Some were visionaries, some were innovators, some were marketers and born leaders, but they all had one thing in common, their passion for elevating Champagne.
Champagne houses, like any other business in France, were traditionally passed down from father to son in the early 1800s. When the husband died (often at a young age in the many wars during the century) the widow (a.k.a. La Veuve) was often the next in line in unexpected circumstances.). At that time, women who were either unmarried or married were dependent on their male family members (fathers, husbands, or brothers). They were not allowed to have bank accounts or ownership. The only way women could gain property was through inheritance as a widow. The strength, gumption and especially the fresh perspective of these newly independent Veuves led to a revolution in the way Champagne was made and the styles we drink.
For several centuries Champagne has been a favorite of kings and sovereigns, the elixir of courtesans and a symbol of universal celebration. At the beginning of our Champagne history in the 18th century, many of the great ladies of history were also the great consumers of Champagne. Madame de Pompadour (Jeanne Antoinette Poisson) who was a favorite mistress of Louis XV was a grand hostess for the King’s parties at the palace. She and other ladies of court often enjoyed Champagne in the salons or their private rooms. Her favorite Champagne was from a wine merchant, Claude Moet. He shipped unlimited amounts of champagne to Paris Court. She became the most prominent brand ambassador for Champagne Moët & Chandon. Catherine The Great employed a significant amount of bubbles to reinforce and enhance her lovers. However, it wasn’t until the 19th century that women took a leading business role in the Champagne industry.
How, do you ask? The most famous Grande Dame and widow of Champagne was Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin-Clicquot. Widowed at the age of 27 and a surprisingly savvy businesswoman, she quickly intervened and saved her husband’s wine business. She immediately saw an opportunity to enter the Russian market at the end of the Napoleonic wars, something other houses were slow to realize. She smuggled 10,550 bottles into Imperial Russia to be ready for the celebrations once the treaties were signed. The Tsar Alexander declared that he would drink nothing else but her wine. In order to keep up with the sudden demand, she created new ways to streamline production to take advantage of this royal endorsement. She developed the racking process in the second fermentation, known as riddling, which reduced waste, increased efficiency, and created a clear and more stable product.
The wine of Veuve Clicquot quickly became the brand ambassador of all Champagne as a luxury product. Like the widow Clicquot, another Veuve, Apolline Henriot, courted Netherlands, Austrian and Hungarian royalty with her Champagne to great success. It was Louise Pommery who was the visionary behind the Brut style of champagne. In the late 19th century, there was a strong preference for a sweeter, demi-sec style of champagne. Louise Pommery entered her husband’s firm as a businesswoman when she was 37. Educated at English boarding school, she knew of the British affection for a drier style of ciders and beer. She viewed England as a great opportunity because of their desire for high-quality bubbles, which represents an untapped market. She transformed her husband’s red wine production into a thriving Champagne business. She successfully switched to a drier brut style, which also indirectly changed the flavor and aromatic profile of Champagne to one that is globally loved and considered a gold-standard style today.
As for the 20th century, women in Champagne had different challenges, the Great Depression, Prohibition but most notably the First and Second World Wars. Champagne’s location has been a military crossroads for centuries. The region of Champagne has seen destruction from enemy armies, vineyards destroyed, cellars raided, plantings and maintenance of vineyards disrupted. Jeanne Krug managed her family’s Champagne Krug business following the capture of her husband by the Germans during World War I. She oversaw all aspects of the house during the war, raised their children and volunteered as a nurse for the Red Cross. She sheltered troops and citizens in her wine cellars, established schools, a chapel, and an infirmary in her wine cellars. Following the war, she set up a charity to help restore the destroyed city of Reims and collaborated with the United States government to build the American Memorial Hospital for Children. During World War II, Jeanne continued her good deeds and was arrested twice by the Gestapo for smuggling secrets related to Spain. In order to negotiate the German occupation diplomatically, she provided German military officers with wine allotments, just like all Champagne houses. She was respected and released from custody after both arrests. She survived the war and received three awards from the French government, the Croix de guerre, Médaille de la Résistauce, and the Légion d’Honneur.
It’s important to understand how Champagne became such a highly coveted luxury item. It was due to the efforts of Camille Olry-Roederer of Champagne Roederer. The Russian Revolution weakened their stronghold on the market and The Depression resulted in substantial loss of revenue. Following her husband’s death, she took over the company and saved her husband’s Champagne business, which was on the verge of bankruptcy. She revived the notion of glamour, and elegance with her style, her socialite savoir faire with the Cristal Cuvée. She revamped their business and aimed their Champagne at high society with her Cristal Champagne, which she promoted endlessly. Riding the momentum of her Champagne’s popularity, she marketed the prestige cuvee to high society circles of horse racing, the opera, Studio 54 in New York City and high society all social events and parties. She was both a trendsetter and a glamour influencer of her generation, known for wielding an iron fist in a velvet glove.
Elizabeth (Lily) Bollinger took over the management of Champagne Bollinger in 1941 following the death of her husband during the Nazi occupation of Champagne in World War II. You would often see her riding her bicycle in the vineyards during the occupation. She remained diplomatic with the Nazis by supplying Champagne to them however kept the best vintages hidden in her cellars. Her cellars were opened for the locals of Ay as a bomb shelter. She also organized funerals for the local victims. After the war, she continued to manage Champagne Bollinger for the rest of her life. She continued to follow the winemaking traditions that were established during the first 100 years of winemaking at Champagne Bollinger. She was a highly talented wine taster and knew how to blend wines. One of her greatest creations was she launched ‘Recently Disgorged’ vintage bottles aged for 12 years – these labels were the first in history to feature a disgorgement date. Odette Pol-Roger of Champagne Pol-Roger, a close friend of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, launched the famous Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill in 1975. The champagnes are praised for their elegance and complexity. The Court of England granted the Champagne House the Royal Warrant in 1884.
Today, though a very small percentage of Champagne cellar masters are women (a paltry 17%), 40% of the estates of Champagne growers are owned by women. In addition, women account for 28% of the high powered management roles in Champagne houses, while 70% of wine purchases in France are made by women.3 In the United States, women account for 86% of wine purchases in a $56.65-billion wine industry.4 Although the impact of women’s purchasing power is significant financially in the wine industry, that importance does not correlate with the social, cultural, and economic status of women who work in the industry.
Nevertheless, there has been significant progress towards a bright and sparkling future. To see that future (and understand the present), it is important to know the stories of the leading ladies.5
With all the advancements of these great ladies, there is still much to be done today. As time passed, women came together to help one another. As the saying goes, “Together we are stronger; together we are unbroken; together we can do anything.” There is surely more to follow on the role of women in Champagne today.
1 https://winehistoryproject.org/celebrating-womens history/#:~:text=The%20International%20Celebration%20%E2%80%93%20French%20Women%20in%20Cha
Kathleen grew up in Montreal, Canada and is now based in Rhode Island, USA. A DipWSET certified professional she wears many hats: is a journalist, wine judge, ambassador for the Concours Mondiale des Vins Féminalise and a well established blogger @thehappyvineks.