Champagne Widows: First Woman of Champagne, Veuve Clicquot

Written by Rebecca Rosenberg
Review by Vicki Kondelik

Champagne Widows tells the story of the famous winemaker Veuve Clicquot, born Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin. Barbe-Nicole inherits her grandmother’s extraordinary sense of smell, Le Nez (The Nose), and she decides to use her talent to make the best champagne in the world. Rejecting all her suitors, Barbe-Nicole marries her childhood sweetheart, François Clicquot, and they start a wine business together. François, suffering from mental illness after his experiences in the Napoleonic Wars, dies tragically, but Barbe-Nicole keeps the winery going, even though Napoleon’s laws forbid women from owning a business. Poor harvests and a world at war will not stop her. She and her chief salesman decide to sell the wine in Russia, in spite of Napoleon’s blockade, because the Russians love champagne. When she falls in love with her salesman, Barbe-Nicole must make a difficult choice, because if she remarries, she loses the winery.

I loved the character of Barbe-Nicole, a strong, determined woman, who defies Napoleon to make her business a success. The novel contains fascinating details about winemaking and everything that goes into it: the soil, climate, barrels, glass bottles, and the various blends of grapes. All these things and more affect the smell and flavor of the wine. I felt I could smell the wine along with Barbe-Nicole, because Rosenberg’s descriptions are so vivid. Barbe-Nicole’s narrative is interspersed with brief chapters about the rise and fall of Napoleon, and the evil advisor known as the Red Man, a devil figure disguised as a coachman, who encourages him to conquer Europe. Rosenberg takes the reader into the world of the Napoleonic Wars, with all the devastation they caused, and some of the most moving parts of the book are the scenes where Barbe-Nicole harvests the grapes along with other women who were widowed by Napoleon’s wars.