June 28, 2009


david ellis

AT a time in the early 19th century when young married women were expected to stay home and look after the children, or if they were rich, stay home and pay someone else to look after the children, Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin turned such norms on their head.

The daughter of Count Nicholas Ponsardin, a wealthy and influential textile manufacturer through his friendship with Emperor Napoleon, Barbe-Nicole had inherited strong genes, and when she married winemaker Francois Clicquot immediately set out to prove she was never going to be your normal wife.

Sadly this came about somewhat quicker than she'd hoped: in 1805 her husband of only six years died.  Barbe-Nicole shocked family, friends and her late-husband's business associates by announcing that rather than taking on a business manager, she herself was taking change of his wine-making business at Reims in the north of France.

Sacre bleu cried the other winemakers. How could a woman run a company? Particularly a physically demanding winery?

But the 27-year-old veuve (widow) Clicquot soon turned Reim's winemaking industry upside down – literally.

And the result is that two centuries later, we still toss down the drop she made famous by one of her innovations, Veuve Clicquot Champagne.

And while she borrowed from her rich father-in-law to help market her tipple, it was her invention of a novel technique called riddling after the primary fermentation of Champagne that put her on the world stage.

Until then, Champagnes had a cloudy appeared caused by dead yeast in the bottle.

To get rid of this, Barbe-Nicole came up with the idea of having holes cut in her kitchen table, and put her Champagne bottles upside down in these so that the dead yeast fell and settled in the neck against the cork. After several weeks the corks were taken out, the dead yeast removed and new corks put in.

To further improve the technique she and her cellar master, Antoine de Muller devised a rack that held the bottles at a 45-degree angle, and each day a cellar-hand gently shook and turned each bottle; when the cork was eventually removed the yeast sediment was discarded, the bottle topped up with sweetened wine and re-corked to encourage secondary fermentation – and, hey presto, Champagne was now ferociously bubbly and sparkling clear.

Her other move was to re-open trade in Champagne with Russia – which had stopped during the war with France. And as she got in before other makers, her label soon captured a huge slice of Russia's renewed interest in French bubbly.

By the time she died in 1866 at the age of 89, Barbe-Nicole had become known as La Grande Dame de la Champagne, a title that lives on with a prestige cuvée of the same name.

And today tourists come from around the world to visit her famous cellars in Reims.

For €13 (around $23) they get a 90-minute guided tour of the winery and some of the 26km on underground storage tunnels – and at the end, a tasting of the famous Champers.

Reims is just 45 minutes from Paris by super-fast trains that travel at 320km/hr; it's a fascinating city, with some 80 per cent of the city having been destroyed in World War I, but lovingly restored to its original design – with much of the funding actually coming from American billionaires such as John D Rockefeller.

One particular must-visit is the Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Reims, where the old Kings of France were crowned – with the celebrants toasting the future of their new monarchs with Champagne, of course.

There are 2300 religious statues in the cathedral, and if you don't suffer from vertigo, it's worth climbing the 249 steps to the narrow walkway around the roof for a spectacular view of the city.

Find time also to go to the so-called Salle de Reddition, an old schoolhouse where German generals surrendered to General Dwight D Eisenhower in May 1945 at the end of World War II. It's been preserved as it was on that day.

The French renamed the street on which it sits 'rue de Franklin D Roosevelt', after the American president.

If you're heading to France, ask your travel agent to include a visit to Reims, and the Veuve Clicquot cellars.



[] CLEAR view on Champagne – the widow Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin with one of her granddaughters

[] FAMOUS Reims Cathedral – crowning point for France's kings of old

[] HISTORIC 1920s enticement to visit France's Champagne region

[] PICTURESQUE Reims: a 16th century chapter house gateway

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