Today is International Women’s Day so I’m off to lunch at Bizerca Bistro with Steve Straker to celebrate with Cyrillia Deslandes, who’s got a big birthday coming up later this month. Something that puzzles is why Veuve Clicquot, my best grande marque Champagne, seems so afro-misogynist. I even wrote to the brand manager (a man) at importer RGBC on January 11 pointing out that the Veuve Business Woman Awards, which celebrates its 40th birthday this year, take place in 17 countries around the world but not (yet?) in Africa. No reply. For heavens sake chaps, get a grip. We surely drink more Veuve than New Zealand!
SA is not short of candidates: Bassie Kumalo, Wendy Luhabe, Isla Galloway, Jenna Clifford, Su Birch, Gabi Williams, Wendy Appelbaum… Here is something I wrote for Prestige magazine in January which never appeared as the editor wanted a rehash of the 2010 Veuve Clicquot Dossier magazine. She departed shortly afterwards, no connection.
“If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it” makes eminent sense. So the news that the Champenoise are abandoning flutes for wine glasses causes eyebrows to fly off the Richter scale. What would widow Clicquot, the 19th century grande dame of Champagne, make of it all? Being the consummate business woman, the Wendy Appelbaum of her age, she’d surely have had an opinion. A tradition continued by her Grande Marque Champagne house that funds Veuve Clicquot Business Woman Awards in 17 countries, with Africa conspicuous by its absence.
Drinks Business magazine hit the ground running in January with the news that after centuries of serving fizz in cups based on the left breast of Queen Marie Antoinette and latterly in narrow flutes, “the Champenois are starting to serve their sparklers in white wine glasses as the larger surface areas give more aromas, complexity and a creamier texture” according to stemware manufacturer Georg Riedel. Although Marie’s embonpoint was abandoned precisely as the surface area was too large and the bubbly went flat too soon. “Flutes are too narrow and don’t allow the aroma and richness of the Champagne to shine as there isn’t enough air space,” Georg continued, noting that flutes are often mistakenly filled to the top, leaving the wine no room “to breathe” as enthusiastic waitrons seek to ensure another order.
But then Georg would say that, as he has stemware to shift and flutes are far more robust than those signature sommelier balloon glasses bigger than your head that are his fragile flagship. Cui Bono? as they say in the classics – to whose benefit?
I fondly remember the halcyon days chosing bubbly for SA Airways and lunching with Georg who spoke a wonderful story of how SA speciality Pinotage needed its own glass with a special shape to unlock the full potential of our controversial national cultivar. American Coleman Andrews was in the national cockpit and conspicuous consumption was the order of the day. Judges were flown business class and accommodated at Michelin three star temple of gastronomy Boyer les Crayeres in Reims (highlight: breakfast of truffled scrambled eggs in bed, served by French maid in Prada mini) while airline minders and facilitators flew first. O tempora, o mores!
Alas Georg failed to get sufficient producer orders to fulfil his dream and that particular gravy train failed to leave the station, despite the SAA wine consultant doubling as Riedel agent. So will Georg’s clarion call trigger a restock of stemware this time round?
Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger (PET, of the eponymous Champagne House) sounds a note of caution, focusing on the unique glass used for bubbly as a USP for Champagne. “But we have a specific glass… and Champagne is not a wine but a great symbol,” he told a gaggle of UK wine masters in London in December, noting “Champagne is not only a wine but a symbol of love and generosity and if we forget that we are dead.”
Something Veuve Clicqot focus on in their brilliant new social media marketing strategy. Brand Channel reports that Veuve’s new community platform “called (wistfully, enticingly) Wish You Were Here, is an invitation to share inspiring moments that celebrate the spirit and lifestyle of the brand through photos and videos — and virtually hobnob with the beautiful people and party-hopping jetsetters who embody the brand.”
Wish You Were Here is a virtual portal onto how the otherhalf live. The Foodista blog lists “lunch in St. Tropez, rubbing elbows with designers at the Salone Internazionale del Mobile in Mailan, taking in the sights at the Spring Polo Sotogrande in New York, and congratulating Anne Sophie Pic on being named the Best Female Chef at the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards.”
The Widow invented modern Champagne and put her eponymous house firmly on the international map, breaking the British blockade of Napoleonic France to smuggle bubbly to St. Petersburg where the Romanovs called it klikofs koé and would accept no alternatives. The House maintains its international outlook today with over 90% of production exported to 150 countries. My biggest coup was draining Makro dry over a decade ago when they had Yellow Label on Christmas special at R199 a bottle in the days when the Rand was flirting at 20 to the Pound. Given a bit of bottle age, bog standard Brut is as good as Bolly at thrice the price – a handy tip in these days of financial calamity.
But my largest fizzy fish was the one that got away. Invited to the Christmas party of the Kensington Wine Circle, I was amazed to see some of the SAA fizz we’d selected in France earlier in the year being poured with a R39 price sticker on the bottle. Enquiries revealed it came from a bottlestore in Elandsfontein, near Jan Smuts Airport, as it was called in those days.
The next episode was a phone call from one Colonel Venter who introduced himself as head of security at SAA. “We’re about to bust this gang of Champagne crooks” said the Colonel “and if you hold off from running the story, we’ll give you an exclusive.” Months later, with no exclusive in sight, I phoned the airline and asked for the Colonel. “Colonel who?” asked the switchboard. “We have no one of that name working here.” Cheers!