Winemaking is not especially known for being a woman-dominated field. But in Champagne, some of the great, enduring sparkling wine houses have been run by women-specifically widows, as the act of surviving their husbands liberated them from the constraints of male-dominated family structures.
Barbe-Nicole Cliquot Ponsardin might be the best known of the “Champagne widows;” she created Veuve Cliquot in the late 18th century at the ripe age of 27, after her husband died unexpectedly. At the time, her late husband’s wine business was small, and focused on still wines. The Widow Cliquot was probably the first woman in France to run a multinational business, but she wasn’t just a marketing presence; she developed the process of “riddling” to purge the Champagne of lees (before this technique Champagne-makers generally racked their wine from bottle to bottle, which endangered the effervescence. She’s also credited with inventing rosé Champagne and innovating the now-standard bottle shape for Champagne.
Madame Louise Pommery also took over a Champagne business left to her at the death of her husband. And like Cliquot Ponsardin, she wasn’t just a businesswoman but also an innovator-you have Pommery to thank for the invention of “brut” Champagne. Prior to her, dosage (the added sugar that sparks the secondary fermentation) was varied, unregulated and generally kind of massive, resulting in pronouncedly sweet wines. Pommery wanted something more elegant and fresh, and the rest of the world quickly agreed. Pommery also popularized the use of caves for aging Champagne and is credited with pioneering wine tourism.
Apolline Henriot founded Champagne Henriot in 1808 and became a luminary in the industry, known for her unique Chardonnay-heavy style. Lily Bollinger also came to business ownership via widowhood and guided the company through the tumult of the second World War. And Mathilde-Emilie Perrier took over Laurent-Perrier upon the death of her husband in 1887.
Given the wealth of female talent in the Champagne region and its history of female innovation you’d think it would perhaps be an unusually warm climate for women leaders, but today Champagne remains quite male-dominated, with only a handful of women in leadership roles (Lenoble, Pommery, Krug and Taittenger are currently run by women, but of 5000 or so producers in the region there are fewer than two dozen women-run houses). But the history of Champagne is one of pioneering women, often thrust into leadership roles they weren’t planning on, taking on challenges, innovating and building businesses to last centuries. And luckily, they have left a legacy of excellent beverages with which to toast Women’s Day. Cheers.