Let’s begin with Nicole Barbe Ponsardin, who married vineyard owner Francois Clicquot in 1798. When Francois died in 1805, Nicole renamed the business Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin – “veuve” being French for widow. Veuve Clicquot is credited with the introduction of “remuage”, the French term for riddling, where the bottles containing the wine are slowly inverted so that the dead yeast gathers in the neck of the bottle, making it easier to disgorge.
In the glass, Veuve Clicquot Brut (£36.99 at Tesco by the case) is a light and refreshing afternoon champagne, with a perfumed nose. It has a slightly salty opening before developing appreciable citrus freshness to go with its long-lasting mousse. Pinot noir is the major grape variety used here, as it is for the wines of the second of our great widows of champagne – Lily Bollinger.
Bollinger champagne became popular in the UK in 1865 when it started shipping low-dosage wine (i.e. versions that were less sweet than the style then in vogue). The new wine caught the eye of Queen Victoria, who gave the company a royal warrant in 1884.
Elizabeth Law “Lily” Bollinger (a near relative of Scottish economist John Law) took over the company when her husband died and steered it through – and well beyond – the Second World War. She introduced a number of innovations over those years including Bollinger RD (“recently disgorged”) which is held back in the cellars to provide a more mellow and mature champagne.
To me, Bollinger Special Cuvee (£33.31 at Majestic) ticks the most boxes of the three straight bruts listed here. It shows a good mousse, with fine, active bubbles that contribute significantly to its excellent mouth-feel and big style. It is nicely structured, with exceptional balance, a pleasing biscuit undercurrent, tart lime-centred finish and impressive lemon-centred aromas.
However, it’s not just women in the past who have shaped champagne – some still lead the way today. Carol Duval-Leroy took over the chair at Champagne Duval-Leroy in 1991, following the death of her husband. This is one of the few champagne houses still in family ownership and has been based in the village of Vertus – one of the top “premier cru” communes – since 1859.
Since its champagne is not yet a household name, it is good to see how well Duval-Leroy’s examples are showing currently.
Whereas the two previous wines are based around pinot noir, the Duval-Leroy Fleur de Champagne Premier Cru (£29.99 at Waitrose Cellar) is predominantly chardonnay. It has an exceptionally lively mousse and a creamy texture, brioche-centred complexity, zesty lemon notes and an attractive savoury edge. Its vibrancy and rounded style helped it run Bollinger very close for the top spot.
That success also extends to the long and tasty – yet subtle – Duval Leroy Rosé Prestige (also £29.99 at Waitrose Cellar). Behind its perfect pink colour, it has a gentle toasty nose and the same savoury edge as the brut. Those characteristics, along with the restrained strawberry fruit and citrus-based acidity, make it a star buy among rosés and one I would enthusiastically recommend.
2013 Finest* Douro
Northern Portugal, 13 per cent
A great value option from port country using traditional port grapes to create a ripe and warming table wine. Lighter than you might expect, it has smooth cherry and plum flavours with a mint and vanilla backdrop, lively acidity but soft tannins that accentuate the fruit nicely.
£5 instead of £6 until 23 September at Tesco
2012 Esk Valley Pinot Gris Hawkes Bay
New Zealand, 12.5 per cent
A million miles from its pinot grigio alter ego, this is a complex, fresh white with mellowness and depth, attractive white peach, pear and orange fruit and a hint of minerality and acidity that sings. Not cheap but well worth some extra pennies.
£12.99 at Ellies Cellar’s seven shops in Central Scotland