Champagne Families

Champagne Families

Named after the Benedictine monk and cellarmaster who rejuvenated the vineyards in the Marne Valley, you'd think champagne house Dom-Pérignon would have a squeaky clean history. Mais non. It turns out that the long-cultivated belief that this lonely, save-the-day monk invented champagne in his beautifully dilapidated abbey is not entirely true.

The honour, in fact, lies with Maison Clicquot. Not only did Clicquot's Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin refine the method champenoise to create the champagne that we know today, but she also gained total control of the use of the very word 'champagne', smuggled 10,000 bottles of it into Tsarist Russia and became the first woman in the world to run an international commercial empire, thank you very much.

At the age of 27, Philippe Clicquot-Muiron’s widow ('veuve' means widow in French), Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin took the reins of the Clicquot vineyard near Reims and transformed the small-time producer of cloudy, fermented wine into an international powerhouse making that clear, sparkling wonder that we now, oh-so-carefully, call champagne.

Veuve became a part of the Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy super group (aka LVMH) in 1987 – the same year the luxury fashion house merged with the champagne and cognac producers. These days, LVMH's other champagne trophies include not just Moët & Chandon, but Krug, Mercier and Dom-Pérignon.

But before LVMH was around to do the taking-over, there were the first families of the region.  The Moët family had always enjoyed favour in the royal courts: indeed, they built their business on Madame de Pompadour's (Louis XV's mistress) custom.  After Napoloean set up an account, the French market went gangbusters. (Their Brut Imperial is named after him.)

While some records have it that the Moët family took over the abandoned Dom Pérignon vineyards as their business expanded, others write that the Champagne Mercier-owned Dom was given to the Moët family as a wedding gift in 1927.

This fits pretty snugly with the long-held tradition of inter-marriage amongst champagne families. After all, Moët became Moët Chandon in 1832 after a wedding between Jean-Remy Moët's daughter and Pierre-Gabriel Chandon de Briailles. The Billecart-Salmon champagne house was founded on the marriage between Nicolas Billecart and Elisabeth Salmon in 1818.

The head of the Mumm family was so fond of weddings that he built a chapel in the gardens of the maison which was consecrated and named after him. The Foujita chapel still stands in Reims and was deigned an official historic monument just over 20 years ago.

Veuve now counts itself among LVMH's bubbly children, but the company hasn't forgotten its birth mother: the Grande Dame of champagne who was married in her parents' cellar in a white muslin dress and told her grandchildren: "Act with audacity."
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Order Veuve or Moët.

The Chef de Cave (cellarmaster) of Dom Pérignon blogs here.