As opposed to the rot-gut I drank, er, swilled in student days, the cheap red sediment laden gorp that made Chianti taste like nectar of the gods, I've developed a taste for champagne. No offense to the wine experts, Stan and Michael here but my allergies to whatever is in red wine saw to the end of le vin rouge for me.
However, for whatever reason, one flute of Champagne does not clog my sinuses, cause pounding in my brain or wither my tongue with red gorp.
I blame the Widow. You might have seen her on the bottle of Veuve Cliquot on the shelf. Almost stern, a little old lady dressed in black with a lace cap, reminiscent of an Italian Mafia matriarch.
But she's French, grew up during the Terror, survived the Revolution and despite Napoleon's taxes, a vineyard on the brink of disaster, kept the Champagne industry alive. By her tiny, little self and the determination of a stubborn Charolais steer. And I thank her for that...
I adore La Veuve Clicquot (the widow Clicquot), born Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin in Reims in 1778. When her husband, Francois Clicquot, died in 1805, she had the courage and strength to take over the Champagne house that today bears her name - Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin.
She was also responsible for devising the riddling system by which bottles are placed on special racks and regularly turned by hand.
Long considered one of the great Champagne houses I only discovered Veuve Clicquot a few years ago. A New Year's eve in a small liquor store in San Francisco stopping on the way to a party. What could I bring? I knew nothing except that a bottle of 'champers' my Brit friend said was required. The store owner suggested 'French champagne you can't go wrong.' Sounded good and being no connisseur what did I know? And then I looked at the prices...sticker shock.
He pointed out the various Champagnes, explained that 'Champagne' referred to only that grown in the Champagne region of France - by French law - and how vintage meant that the grapes used in the Champagne were from one vineyard in contrast to 'regular' Champagne a blend of the grape harvest. 'Brilliant' I said 'but I'm not quite there yet. Nor will the people at the party who'd probably swill the stuff down.'
He gave me a knowing look. 'It's always good to go with best. It's simple. And a nice touch, a statement.'
This was an expat drinking group who liquored up any occasion and even more so on New Year's Eve.
'Try the Widow,' he said. 'You can't go wrong. For the price you're getting the best.'
Well, I liked the dark bottle, the orange label, the picture of the little old woman in black and the orange box. I liked that it was French and truth to tell, might impress my hostess who knew more about connisseurship than I.
That did it. I've never bought or drank anything else. Suffice it to say I only drink Champagne about two or three times a year so I don't break the bank and I'm really a lightweight with alcohol. Ask Leighton. The last time I drank the Widow Leighton and I were with his son-in-law at the brasserie across from the Gare du Nord, eating oysters and sipping the Widow. Perfect.
It's not the amount it's the taste. I love the fizzing velvet down my throat. Talk blending, grand cru, aromas and you've lost me. I like the bubbles, that pale color and fruitiness and the moment in time sharing a glass with a friend.
Last year Denise Hamilton who sometimes reviews for the LATimes sent me her copy of The Widow Clicquot by Tilar Mazzeo. 'You'll like this,' she said. The book was all about the Widow, her life and turbulent times, the history of Champagne, how growers like the Widow struggled to keep Champagne and their vineyards after the Revolution and prevent the wine industry from ruin. Fascinating and full of things I'd never known. In 1798 the wine growers paid up to as much as %40 of their profits to the noblemen and the clergy for the right to harvest and crush grapes. The region had suffered drought in the summer, cold weather, a frost in winter and the peasants were starving. Then came the Revolution and with no bread on the table, how could a luxury like Champagne survive? With marketing astuteness it was the Russian czar and his court who the Widow targeted. For an upper middle class woman with only a convent education she showed amazing business acumen, and sent her Champagne across the Baltic. The Czar and the Russians became her and the wine industry's new clients. This little woman almost saved Champagne single-handedly, a widow with a child to support, a chateau to keep open, workers to employ and vineyards to maintain. The Widow learned the trade, the chemical formulas, tramped the vineyards and never gave up. She carried on the vineyard, the techniques with a passion. It makes me appreciate the contents more.
If you're interested in another book about Champagne I recommend Champagne: How the World's most glamorous wine triumphed over war and hard times by Don and Petie Kladstrup. They point out that so much concerning Champagne is about survival; be it wars, weather, terrible harvests, phylloxera or boycotts.' A fascinating account. Me, I like the bubbles.
Best wishes in the new year and hoping you ring in 2010 with a toast of bubbly,
Cheers, Prost, Salut, l'haim, a santé,
Cara - Tuesday
I'll let Madame de Pompadour have the last word here "Champagne is the only wine that lets a woman stay beautiful after she has drunk it."
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