In 19th century France, married women weren’t entitled to a bank account or able to pay wages, meaning running a business was a non-starter. The only way around this was rather extreme – a dead husband. Widow status bestowed the independent social standing that most women, who were essentially the property of the men in their lives, were denied. A widow, in contrast, achieved financial independence and could become the head of a family business.
As it happens, Champagne is a story of widows, its production notable for yielding one of the first industries in which women took a leading role. Indeed so successful were these pioneers that several Champagne houses added the title Veuve to their name just to add mystique – and commensurate market value.
Louise Pommery was one such authentic trailblazer. Her husband died in unexplained circumstances in 1860, and on his death his young widow inherited the business. Under her leadership, Pommery launched the world’s first brut Champagne – the dry Champagne we know today – in response to a request from Queen Victoria (previously, Champagne was as sweet as dessert wine). The move revolutionised the industry, and the house, which was known as Veuve Pommery for decades, thrived. Eventually, the “Veuve” was removed, and the house entered a less happy period.
For much of the second half of the 20th century, its ownership was bounced around and many of its vineyards – which were once recognised as among the finest in the region – sold. Many commentators, myself included, expected Pommery to become a minor player at best, or even to disappear completely, and certainly it went through some hard times prior to ending up in the hands of today’s owners, the Vranken family. That Pommery now appears stronger than ever says much about the current management team.
For me, Pommery is a house that has always been there, but in the guise of a venerable old house rather stagnating in the background. A house with an important history and beautiful cellars, but whose wines have, until now, never stuck with me. This tasting, of the house’s prestige cuvée named after its famous widow, changed all that.
The first vintage of Cuvée Louise was created by Prince Alain de Polignac in 1979. It is sourced only from three grand-cru villages – Avize and Cramant for the Chardonnay and Aÿ for the Pinot Noir. It is a Champagne with an absolute purity, one of the rare Champagnes that shows very evenly in quality and brilliance over every vintage. Looking at my scores says it all – it’s so even in quality that some of the greatest vintages don’t stand out as much as they normally do. This is seldom the case in Champagne. Indeed, when I compare Cuvée Louise to other prestige cuvées, it is its purity that stands out – especially in the less famous vintages.
Marina Olsson, a private collector who puts on annual tastings of extremely rare prestige cuvée Champagnes with her Gomseglet Champagne club, was able to bring together this extraordinary vertical tasting largely from her own private collection, along with some some pre-release and special edition wines direct from the maison. The tasting was split into flights of four wines, where we knew the vintages being tasted, but not the order in which they were presented. Scroll down to read my verdict (NB the 1998 Blanc and 1999 Rosé were corked).