Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin is one of the most famous and admired Champagne houses, thanks not only to the quality of its Champagnes but also to its remarkable history. “Veuve” means “widow” in French, and the house gets its name from the formidable Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin, who became a widow seven years after her marriage to Francois Clicquot, whose father had founded a company involved in trading, banking and Champagne production. Though it was highly unusual in 1805 for a woman to run a family conglomerate, Madame Ponsardin’s genius for business and marketing meant that by the middle of the 19th century the Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin brand was one of the most prestigious Champagnes in Europe. Today the company, which is in Reims, is owned by Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy, the luxury brands conglomerate. Its 855 acres are planted to Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. The distinctive yellow label vintage Champagnes remain Veuve Clicquot’s signature wines.
Champagne is a small, beautiful wine growing region northeast of Paris whose famous name is misused a million times a day. As wine enthusiasts and all French people are well aware, only sparkling wines produced in Champagne from grapes grown in Champagne can be called Champagne. Sparkling wines produced anywhere else, including in other parts of France, must be called something besides Champagne. Champagne producers are justifiably protective of their wines and the prestige associated with true Champagne. Though the region was growing grapes and making wines in ancient times, it began specializing in sparkling wine in the 17th century, when a Benedictine monk named Dom Pierre Pérignon formulated a set guidelines to improve the quality of the local sparkling wines. Despite legends to the contrary, Dom Pérignon did not “invent” sparkling wine, but his rules about aggressive pruning, small yields and multiple pressings of the grapes were widely adopted, and by the 18th and 19th centuries Champagne had become the wine of choice in fashionable courts and palaces throughout Europe. Today there are 75,000 acres of vineyards in Champagne growing Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier. Champagne’s official appellation system classifies villages as Grand Cru or Premier Cru, though there are also many excellent Champagnes that simply carry the regional appellation. Along with well-known international Champagne houses there are numerous so-called “producer Champagnes,” meaning wines made by families who, usually for several or more generations, have worked their own vineyards and produced Champagne only from their own grapes.