The French House

Written by Helen Fripp
Review by K. M. Sandrick

After falling in love and marrying François, the scion of the Clicquot champagne estate in 1798, 21-year-old Nicole Ponsardin schools herself in the science and poetry of winemaking. After François’s death, from typhoid or self-inflicted rat poison, Nicole is Veuve Cliquot, the widow who revolutionizes the production and sale of French champagne.

A remarkable woman, the actual Veuve Cliquot was one of the first international businesswomen. She is credited with the production of the legendary 1811 champagne vintage and the riddling technique which eliminated the sediment that spoiled countless bottles of wine at the time.

Fripp’s story takes considerable license with historical fact. Her Veuve Cliquot embarks on a series of adventures: She disguises a shipment of champagne as coffee and guides it across the French and Belgian countryside to circumvent Napoleonic War trade blockades and transport the wine for sale in Russia, faces murderous border guards and henchmen who think nothing of pushing a young woman into icy barge waters, engages in a lesbian relationship with a glamourous Parisienne, and circumvents threats and pressure from a rival vintner. But as Fripp acknowledges, The French House is escapist fare.

The novel’s bouquet is enhanced by undertones of wine-tasting—the essence of almond blossoms, summer strawberries and hay, Black Sea salt—and small changes in daily life that came after the Revolution, including the system of taking measurements and naming the months. Dialogue is crisp; plot development is smooth and silky. All in all, bubbly and refreshing.