The WidowPosted: August 22, 2011
As I may have mentioned once or twice in this space, I love champagne. It’s one of my all-time favorite things on Earth. Now that my kids are off to school (hallelujah!) I have plenty of time to wax poetic about my favorite drink. I could drink champagne every day; contrary to popular opinion, a special occasion is not necessary. But there’s nothing more festive and celebratory than the pop of a cork. and I don’t hesitate to find a reason to drink some bubbly.
National Pancake Day? Bring it on. Armistice Day? Don’t mind if I do. Birthdays & major holidays? Duh. International Margarita Day? I’m not afraid to mix my liquors.
Not only is La Grande Dame a superb champagne, it also has a great story behind it. Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin married Francois Clicquot and was widowed after 7 years during the late 1700s. Francois left his family’s business — champagne-making — to her. At age 27 and knowing little of the fledgling business, she took the reins of the company and never looked back. She invented champagne-making techniques that are still in use today, and those greatly reduced production time, which means less time for the bubbly to get in my glass. She became one of the shrewdest — and wealthiest — businesswomen in France, and IMHO she deserves a place in history.
There’s a book about her called The Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It. I’m a sucker for girl-power stories, so I bought the book, but had trouble reading it because it made me so dadgum thirsty. There are a few things I was able to glean, though, that are worth sharing about the widow who was “a young witness to the dramatic events of the French Revolution and a new widow during the chaotic years of the Napoleonic Wars.” Sounds exciting even without the bubbly.
Barbe-Nicole rebelled against convention by taking over the Clicquot family wine business. She was brave and ballsy, and through “dizzying political and financial reversals” she became one of the world’s first great businesswomen. By her late 30s, she was one of the richest women in France. Clicquot sales are estimated to have been $30 million a year under her command. One of her lasting legacies was to portray champagne drinking as a lifestyle. She “took champagne from marginal to mainstream and made it synonymous with style,” according to the book about her.
I’m not a big French Revolution history buff, and I won’t bore anyone with the details on the first day of school (hooray!!!), but suffice to say that Barbe-Nicole was smart enough to realize that if she could get the Russians hooked on her bubbly, she’s have it made. She “arranged clandestine and perilous champagne deliveries to Russia one day and entertained Napoleon and Josephine Bonaparte on another.” Toward the end of the Napoleonic Wars, she cornered the Russian market by gambling 10,000 bottles of her best vintage. The Russians took the bait, and she became the queen of the bubbly.
The occasion for my enormous treat surprisingly had nothing at all to do with cancer. It wasn’t the marking of a milestone or the celebration of a clear scan or other good news. It wasn’t a drowning of sorrows, which is a very good thing, because all the drinking that’s been required since cancer came to town would make a very deep river.
No, the occasion was a reward for a little party-planning provided for my runnin’ buddy Staci’s 40th birthday fete. I helped her hubby, my buddy The Rajah, plan her soiree and he was kind enough to show his appreciation by flashing the beloved yellow bottle. He’d been teasing me with it for weeks while I was out of town, texting to tell me he was making mimosas with it — oh the horror! The humanity! The thought of mixing such a fine wine made me nearly weep. He’s soooooo funny.
The moment just before the lovely lady was opened, at La Vista (which is such a great restaurant. If you live anywhere near Houston and haven’t eaten there — go there tonight!!). It was a beautiful moment, ripe with anticipation. The bottle glistened with condensation after being chilled in an ice bucket table-side. I kept it as close to me as possible while it chilled. I fretted over it like it was a newborn baby fussing in a Moses basket — was it cold enough? too cold? just right?
As soon as I heard the pop of the cork, I knew — it was indeed just right.
Tiny, tiny bubbles that hit the bottom of the glass and skyrocketed upward in an elegant trip to the open mouth of the glass. Beautiful amber color, like the last rays of the sunset after a most-perfect day. Teensy hint of fruit and even teensier hint of yeast. The delicate scent of bubbles and dry-but-not-bitter loveliness. From the first sip, it was apparent that this was vintage. This was the good stuff.
That’s my version. Here’s another:
“Known among connoisseurs as one of the finest champagnes in the world, it’s the pride and joy of the Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin. Ethereal, free and original, the Grande Dame teases aficionados with its rarity, making an appearance only when nature offers a concordance of perfect conditions.” — eat, love, savor magazine
Well, nature certainly did offer a concordance of perfect conditions, when a group of friends gathered at the end of the summer to celebrate the passage of time, the newest member of the “over-40 club,” and the savoring of the finer things in life. Cheers to the good life! And thanks, Rajah!