Review: The Widow Clicquot
New York Times bestseller The Widow Clicquot: The story of a champagne empire and the woman who ruled it by Tilar J. Mazzeo traces the history of how champagne became a symbol of glamour and celebration, first in Europe’s royal courts then in the rising middle class.
It is also the story of Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin, the woman who played a pivotal role in champagne’s success.
Although the Widow Clicquot is still a legend in her native France and her image graces the iconic yellow label, this is the first time her story has been told in such detail. The Widow Clicquot provides a glimpse into the life of a woman who arranged illegal champagne delivery ‘coups’ to Russia one day and entertained French rulers the next.
Mazzeo’s curiosity about the Widow Clicquot was sparked when she read a biography on a small card tucked into a box of the 1996 vintage. So she set out to find the rest of the Widow Cliquot’s story.
As a child, Barbe-Nicole escaped violent revolutionary crowds. The murderous disdain for the ancien régime (the monarchy and aristocracy) pushed her father to organise a marriage to François Clicquot, from another indutrial family. François floundered in developing his family’s wine making division. He died of thyphoid (although rumours circulated of suicide after his financial woes), leaving Barbe-Nicole a young, widowed mother, in charge of struggling wine business.
Mazzeo obviously admires Barbe-Nicole’s cunning and perseverance. She often reminds us that at this point in history, industrialisation was pushing family run businesses to the brink of collapse. Mazzeo constantly tells us that Barbe-Nicole defied stereotypes by becoming one of the world’s first international businesswomen and one of the richest women of her time. This trail blazing seems to have been solely for herself; Barbe-Nicole worked with men, was friends with men and married her daughter off to a charming, ableit silly, aristocrat.
The only family member she appeared to feel any affinity for was her great-granddaughter Anne, to whom she wrote in her later life:
‘I am going to tell you a secret …You more than anyone resemble me, you who have such audacity. It is a precious quality that has been very useful to me in the course of my long life.’
Nonetheless, her escapades are nothing short of legendary. She built the brand through the upheaval of the Napoleonic era, the Bourbon restoration, July Monarchy and Napoleon III’s reign. She hired a ship to break the French trade blockade to ensure her wine got to the Russian market first, particularly to beat rival Jean-Remy Moët.
She faced bankruptcy and ruin many times, the most serious incident of which started by being blindly charmed by her son-in-law.
She also suffered many personal tragedies in her 88 years; her husband was the first of many family members to die. Mazzeo speculates carefully about Barbe-Nicole’s emotional reaction to such losses by drawing from historians accounts, personal letters and business accounts. To be constantly told “Barbe-Nicole must have felt …” and “Barbe-Nicole must have thought …” does, however, get a little distracting.
But I think Mazzeo is quite practical about the gaps in information. For example, she says the little information about Barbe-Nicole’s youth demonstrates the societal expectations that she would lead a quiet life of tending to her husband and children’s needs. According to Mazzeo, this kind of research would be impossible without her formal history training. But Widow Clicquot is not just academic; this journey of discovery and celebration is evocatively told.
Mazzeo also teachers us about the technical aspects of the wine industry, including the current scientific explanation behind its flavours amd its production (‘There are two important by-products of this ‘hot’ organic reaction [in fermentation]: carbon dioxide, which escapes into the air; and alcohol, which thankfully stays put.”). She even explains why some people get splitting headaches when they drink wine.
She also tells us about the technological changes and market demands that shaped the product we now know as champagne. Essentially the British market favoured a drier and bubblier wine. She also weaves in commentary on contemporary wine legislation, including the time-honoured échelle des crus, or ranking of the vineyard growth.
This research helps create a real sense of time and place. The details of life during the tumultuous period in French history, for example, really bring the story alive.
The Widow Clicquot provides fascinating insights into life during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era, into the development of the champagne industry and into Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin, the Veuve (Widow) Clicquot.
Ma Vie Francaise™ had the pleasure of interviewing Tilar Mazzeo, the author of The Widow Clicquot recently published in 2 episodes. You can follow these links to enjoy our interview Episode 1 and Episode 2
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