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Champagne widows stamped grand legacy on wine

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Prudhomme said that the house for decades was called Veuve Pommery, before the "Veuve" was removed. Subsequently, the widow was celebrated with the house’s best Champagne — Cuvee Louise — named after her.

The proliferation of Champagne widows may seem mysterious or suspicious, but experts explain the phenomenon through its era: The 19th century was a time before the invention of antibiotics, when men working in biting conditions outside would more easily succumb to deadly illness. The Champagne region was also an occasional stomping ground for foreign armies.

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Both Veuve Clicquot and Veuve Pommery possessed such great audacity and ambition partly through the influence of an illustrious contemporary, Queen Victoria. The powerful English queen, also a widow, had a weakness for Champagne’s delicate effervescence and was counted among these two houses’ top clients.

Shrewd widow Pommery invented the world’s first brut Champagne — the dry Champagne we know today — in response to requests from Queen Victoria for variations of what had been a cloying drink. Brut Champagne revolutionized the industry again.

"Before it was very sugary, sometimes 250-300 grams per liter, it was like jam or marmalade," said Thierry Gasco, cellar head at Vranken-Pommery.

By the time Veuve Pommery came along, widows had become a commercial asset. Men who ran Champagne houses would scramble to find a widow in the family after whom they could name their house, in hopes of boosting sales. That was the case with Veuve Godard et Fils.

"There are the real widows and then there are the marketing widows," says Prudhomme. "Houses call themselves after widows because people will assume that there is a wonderful story behind the Champagne."

In a modern day testament to the widows’ legacy, Veuve Clicquot’s owner LVMH stands as the world’s largest Champagne maker, followed by Vranken-Pommery. Today there are 349 Champagne houses that together generate 4.4 billion euros ($5.9 billion) in revenue a year.

Widow Lilly Bollinger sealed the industry’s feminist reputation in 1941, when she took the reins from her deceased husband and rapidly expanded Bollinger internationally over three decades to the prominence it enjoys.

Bollinger was known for her bubbly wit.

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"I drink it when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I’m not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise, I never touch it," she once said, "unless I’m thirsty."

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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