Confession: I can’t pronounce “Veuve Cliquot.” The closest I can get is something that sounds approximately like “verve click-oh” (French speakers all over the world are wincing at this minute). I rationalise this by saying that I prefer to be in a situation where someone else orders the expensive champagne, and I just contribute to the drinking of it.
I am sure Tilar Mazzeo would be able to pronounce Veuve Cliquot impeccably, after completing a biography of the Widow (Veuve) Cliquot. Reading the forward to the book, it sounds like she doesn’t mind the drinking part either. In fact, the widow herself began her career on the drinking side of the equation, after her husband bought a small champagne production house. It was only after his death that the Widow Cliquot – Barbe-Nicole Cliquot Ponsardin – defied those who expected her to liquidate the business and instead, took the reins.
The beauty of this book is that the history of Barbe-Nicole is in many ways the history of champagne. It wasn’t just her success in managing the business that made her a legend, it was her innovative approach to the winemaking itself. For example, she introduced the technique of remuage which involves clearing the wine of sediment by storing it on an angle, so that the sediment settles onto the cork and can be easily removed. She was also one of the earliest to recognise that the traditional champagne, which resembled more than anything a sparkling dessert wine, was giving way to the drier brut style that dominates today.
There is limited information on Barbe-Nicole’s personal life, but this is where Mazzeo’s talent is most evident. Using a mix of contemporary sources, suggestions, and empathetic imagination, she creates a picture of Barbe-Nicole’s world and manages to paint a portrait of this elusive woman. We are left with the image of a woman who managed to break out of the shackles imposed on women of the age and did whatever was necessary to stay there. Barbe-Nicole lived for her business in a real sense; she was happiest when blending wine or thinking about new techniques for blending it or plotting the next daring manoeuvre that would keep her on top of the champagne market. In contrast, most of her family and descendants lived the idle life of aristocrats, which perhaps explains why she left the champagne business to her second-in-command rather than her daughter.
Mazzeo manages to roll several books into one; a history of the Widow Cliquot contains the history of champagne, an early history of women in business, and also a vivid picture of Reims at the turn of the 19th century. The book is an easy and charming read, and Barbe-Nicole is a character that will remain with the reader long after closing the final page. In fact, since finishing this book, I think of Reims and the Widow Cliquot every time I drink a glass of champagne, and that more than anything is a testament to this fascinating woman. Even if I still can't pronounce her name.