Iron Ladies of Champagne

When it was unheard of for Frenchwomen to run big businesses, these visionaries introduced nearly every innovation in Champagne-making this side of bubbles
Dec 20, 2012

When Madame Louise Pommery broke ground on a 124-acre complex in 1868 in Reims, the tightly knit, vehemently competitive Champagne world scoffed. An establishment of the size and scope she had proposed was unprecedented in the region, and bankers doubted her firm, which had been a minor player when she took it over a decade earlier, could possibly pay off whatever loans they tendered.

To put such speculation to rest once and for all, Madame Louise eventually decided to make the lavish purchase of a Jean-François Millet masterwork and donate it to the Louvre to show off the power of her purse. Investors had been wary not just because of the unusual scale of her plans, but also because the planner was quite unusual for a 19th century French businessman—in that, of course, Louise Pommery was not a man at all.

Louise Pommery guided what was then called Pommery & Greno from a small concern focused on still wines to what would become the grandest Champagne marque of all, sizewise, by the World War era, according to Nathalie Vranken, co-owner of Vranken-Pommery. Louise "developed the business in an incredible way," opening up markets in 80 different countries by the time of her death in 1890. A hard driver and brassy personality, "she was certainly not a very easy lady," added Vranken.

Pommery was not the last iron lady of Champagne to transform a major house and introduce revolutionary techniques and strategies that would change the face of all Champagne. Nor was she the first. In fact, the past 200 years of Champagne history can be viewed through the lives of the powerful women who helped shape it.

The first and still the best known of them, la grande dame de la Champagne as she was called by her peers, Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin, was a 27-year-old single mother of a 6-year-old girl in 1805 when she stepped into the executive position of her deceased husband's little winery. "She wasn't raised to be a businesswoman. She got the education of all the little girls in wealthy families," said Isabelle Pierre, historical resources officer at Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin. (The house retains two full-time historians and archives covering nearly 2,500 feet of shelf space.) "When she took over, there were only men in the company. So she really had to persuade these guys that she was the one able to make it. And she made it."

At the time, among women, only widows could maintain bank accounts; French women did not even get the vote until 1944. So Madame Clicquot's situation was exceptional, but by the time of her death in 1866, VCP was one of only four or five brands known worldwide, from Canada to China. At least for a multinational corporation, "she's probably the first businesswoman in French history," said Pierre.

Clicquot's correspondences show her to be a woman confident of her ability and success—it was she who came up with the VCP motto, "Only one quality: the finest"—and the rest of Champagne came to share that confidence with good reason. Among her first innovations was to call a millesime—to bottle a vintage Champagne. After a few lackluster seasons, Champagne had a nice harvest in 1810, so she bottled the vintage solo, identifying the special bottles with yellow ribbons around the necks.

Even more revolutionary was her invention of riddling. "In 1816, she took a table from her furniture and she asked one of the workers to put some holes in the table. They placed bottles upside down on the tables and it worked," said Pierre. Before this, houses struggled to purge their wines of lees, typically by essentially racking them from bottle to bottle, an obviously problematic solution when the whole point of bottle fermentation is to trap carbonation inside. Clicquot followed up in 1818 by inventing rosé Champagne, adding red wine of the Bouzy cru to one cuvée.

We can conjecture that Clicquot and the much-younger Pommery probably met. "Reims was not such a big town at the time, So all the high society always gathered in the same places," said Pierre. There's no record of any correspondence, but Louise Pommery surely saw what a strong woman could accomplish in Champagne—and set out to accomplish it.

Pommery's two-decade-long, massive construction project encompassed facilities ornately styled after the British manors of her customers and her youth (she studied in England and was fluent in English, which would become a huge asset) atop Gallo-Roman chalk pits that would become her caves. The complex served not just as a wine factory but a tangible symbol of the house, where visitors could actually see how a grape becomes Champagne. "Today when everyone is speaking of enotourism and opening of the cellars as something new for the 21st century, 200 years ago she was already thinking about it," said Vranken. The house remains the most visited in Champagne.

Most significant, Madame Pommery invented Champagne as we know it. In her time, Champagne was a sweet wine; while dosages varied according to the tastes of different markets (Russians preferred very sweet, British, less so), the norm was in excess of 100 grams per liter of sugar. Madame Pommery, in 1874, tried something a little different, instructing her head winemaker to create "a Champagne that is lighter, fruity, elegant," said Vranken. The result, with a dosage of just a few g/L, was a dry Champagne: the brut style. The British went crazy for it, and today, dessert Champagne is nearly extinct.

The opening decades of the 20th century were not easy on Champagne; for example, the once-thriving house of Louis Roederer first lost swaths of fertile acreage to the Kaiser's bombs in World War I, then a quarter of its market to the Bolshevik Revolution and, finally, its main backup market to Prohibition and the Depression. Into this climate stepped Camille Olry-Roederer to helm a house that in 1932 was "literally bankrupt, a house that was really in shambles," as Xavier Barlier of Roederer described it. By 1972, when she died, "the house was flourishing."

The first decade-and-change were lean years, through the Nazi occupation of World War II, and the house remained "in survival mode." Farther south in the town of Aÿ, the occupying armies were rougher on the house of another newly minted Champagne widow, Lily Bollinger. In 1940, the invaders ransacked the house, making off with 178,000 bottles. Only a year later, Jacques Bollinger died, stipulating in his will that Lily was to take full ownership of the house.

Madame Bollinger had a head start, at least: She was a proficient taster and helped her husband run his business, specifically by scoping out new terroirs to purchase. But the occupation wore on. Germans had inconsiderately sited a munitions depot near the Bollinger vineyards; many were destroyed. In spiteful retreat in 1944, the military planned to raze Aÿ, and the arrival of Allied forces just in time saved Bollinger.

Roederer and Bollinger limped along with the rest of Europe for many years after the war, but business eventually brightened. Madame Olry-Roederer identified her Champagne with glamour by cutting a glamorous figure herself. "She was a beautiful woman, very attractive, very social," said Barlier. "She was a great marketer because she was an international socialite."

Olry-Roederer kept a residence in Paris as well as Reims, and associated with the set of artists, writers, auteurs and actors of the nouvelle vague and other artistic movements that converged on the storied Café de Flore, where everyone from Yves St. Laurent to Roland Barthes to Jane Fonda hung out in the late 1950s and '60s. "Whenever you have artists, business follows," observed Barlier.

Another passion was horseracing. Olry-Roederer had a magnificent stable in Normandy, and one horse, Jamin, was the top trotting-horse in the world in the late '50s. Where the racing horses go, the rich people drinking Champagne follow. Soon, they were drinking Cristal.

Eventually, she did get Roederer into the U.S. market, via the same channel as in France: the most fashionable elite in the country. "Cristal became a huge success in the high-end American circles, the society, and in clubs in the '60s and in the '70s, Studio 54, where all the models of the time embraced Cristal as their own wine," said Barlier.

Throughout, both Lily Bollinger and Camille Olry-Roederer kept up vigorous expansion programs at home, investing heavily in grand cru plots. Both held the reins through many decades of change, Camille's ownership ending with her death in 1972, Lily retiring in 1971. Lily, a tireless promoter herself, left us with one of the immortal Champagne sentiments: "I only 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 am not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise, I never touch it—unless I’m thirsty."

Today, the world of Champagne is still overwhelmingly male; of the large houses, only Pommery and Duval-Leroy are owned by women. That is changing, both in Champagne and throughout the wine world. Obviously there have been many influences at play beyond the widows' successes in Champagne. But these willful women provided an example to which other aspiring women could point. As Pierre put it, Madame Clicquot's influence was this: "If you wish, you can make it. Even if it is difficult, you can make it."

France Champagne

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