The Champagne widows

Apr 14, 2021 • 4 mins
Team Grappers

Barbe-Nicole Clicquot, Jeanne-Alexandrine Pommery and Lily Bollinger were all widows and all businesswomen in a man's world. These inspired and courageous ladies are behind the success of the Champagne Houses that bear their names. Their guiding principle? Excellence. They were the first businesswomen of modern times and true role models. We took a look at the lives of these famous widows, who were able to transcend national borders and conquer the planet thanks to their champagnes.

Barbe-Nicole Clicquot: bravery and intelligence

Born in 1777 in Reims, Barbe-Nicole was the daughter of Baron Nicolas Ponsardin. At the age of 21, she married François Clicquot, son of the founder of the Champagne House of the same name. He instilled in her his love and knowledge of champagne production and sales. She went on to acquire all the experience and maturity necessary to allow her to successfully take over at the helm of the family business when her husband died prematurely in 1805.

Barbe-Nicole Clicquot carved out a place for herself in a world where women were generally excluded from business. The first woman to run a Champagne House, she managed Maison Clicquot with a steely determination. Uncompromising when it came to the quality of her wines, she perfected champagne production techniques by inventing the riddling rack. In just a few years, she had managed to turn her name into a brand synonymous with excellence and celebrated around the world. Her peers nicknamed her "La Grande Dame de la Champagne". The Clicquot champagne bottle is known as ''The Widow'', ''La Viuda'' or ''La Veuve'', depending on the country; proof that Madame Clicquot was able to cross borders with her champagne. She said, "I want to establish my brand as number one, from New York to Saint Petersburg", and she did.

We will retain from Barbe-Nicole Clicquot:

Barbe-Nicole gave us the riddling rack. While her employees were on their lunch break, Madame Clicquot would sneak down to the cellars to conduct experiments in secret and thereby invented the riddling of champagne bottles on sloping racks. She also invented the first vintage champagne in 1810 as well as the blended rosé.

"One quality, the finest."
The Veuve Clicquot Champagne House’s motto

Jeanne-Alexandrine Pommery: courage and generosity

Madame Pommery assumed control of the Champagne House in 1858, on the death of her husband. As a mother of two young children, taking charge of the Champagne House was a courageous move. But she was a woman of character and not afraid of hard work. All she demanded was quality - quality taken to the extreme. The prime mover behind the modernisation of the Champagne region, Jeanne-Alexandrine Pommery quickly understood that, if she wanted to succeed in international markets, she had to control her grape supplies and equip herself with an industrial facility for the production and ageing of the champagne.

As she didn’t do things by halves, she embarked upon the "construction project of the century". She had an enormous winery built in the same location, on the Butte Saint Nicaise, along a cellar made up of 18 km of tunnels, a vat room, offices and a customer hospitality area. Each building has a different architectural style, but the whole is neo-Elizabethan to appeal to the English. Madame Pommery also wanted to be able to control the date of the grape harvest, which is why she “short-bought” her first grapes in advance. This had never been done before, it was inconceivable.

We will retain from Jeanne-Alexandrine Pommery:

Jeanne-Alexandrine Pommery also gave us Brut champagne as we know it today. Anticipating the evolving taste of her customers, she created the first commercially successful Brut champagne - Pommery Nature - in 1874. She had broken with the tradition of producing very sweet champagnes to create one that was 10 times less sweet to appeal to the English palate.

"I see her again as I went to kiss her early in the morning before leaving for class, sitting at her desk, surrounded by a heap of files, having already written several letters in her own hand and preparing for the hard day of work ahead that she filled with never-ending activity."
The Marquis de Polignac, her grandson,
describing Jeanne-Alexandrine Pommery at work

Lily Bollinger: grace and charm

Born Elizabeth Law de Lauriston-Boubers, the future Lily Bollinger married Jacques Bollinger in 1923. After she was widowed at the age of 42, and in the middle of the Second World War, Lily took up the reins of the Champagne House without hesitation and with great dignity. "Madame Jacques", as she was nicknamed within Maison Bollinger, was a tireless worker with boundless energy.

Lily Bollinger was vivacious, intelligent and a true strategist. Bold in business and a perfectionist, she accepted excellence and nothing less. She surrounded herself with the most talented cellar masters, such as André Bergeot, Guy Adam and Gérard Liot. However, it was she who determined the style of her champagne, a combination of body, finesse and distinction. And Madame Bollinger knew how to promote it: she regularly entertained her best customers and was a brilliant conversationist. She was also a woman with a big heart. During the bombing of Aÿ in 1944, she helped the wounded, took in the homeless and comforted the families. What’s more, she knew every one of her employees and regularly asked after their families.

We will retain from Lily Bollinger:

Lily Bollinger gave us the mythical “Bollinger R.D.”, R.D. standing for Récemment Dégorgé (recently disgorged). This is an old vintage champagne, disgorged shortly before its release, and given a very low dosage. This champagne embodies the audacity of Lily Bollinger, a woman ahead of her time. Madame Bollinger was also famous for riding her bicycle through her vineyards in summer and winter.

"I drink champagne 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 if I'm not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise, I never touch it -- unless I'm thirsty."
Lily Bollinger
Talking about champagne