How Hortense Mancini Changed How We Drink Champagne | Wine Enthusiast
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How Italy’s ‘Runaway Duchess’ Changed How We Drink Champagne

Hortense Mancini, Duchesse de Mazarin (1646–1699), was many things in her life. She was a mother, noblewoman, exiled wife and autobiographer. But perhaps one of her greatest legacies is her influence on how we drink and think of Champagne today.

The Runaway Duchess

Born to a noble family in Rome, Mancini’s father died when she was four. Her mother sent her and her sisters to live in France with their uncle who was Chief Minister to King Louis XIV, making him one of the most powerful men in the country. The Mancini sisters became “important at the French court,” says Annalisa Nicholson, a Laming Research Fellow at The Queen’s College Oxford who recently completed her PhD on Hortense Mancini’s salon and Anglo French social networks.

“They [were] so ingrained in the upper echelons of the French nobility,” she says. “Even though they themselves [were] not necessarily French aristocracy they’re treated as such.”

At 15, Mancini married Armand Charles de La Porte de La Meilleraye, “the richest man in all of France,” says Nicholson. Shortly after they’re married, Meilleraye starts isolating Mancini, confiscating her jewelry, and periodically searching her and her rooms. After six years and three children, she “famously leaves under the cover of nightfall,” says Nicholson. “Her and her servants, all dressed up as men, flee out of Paris” and travel to Rome, where one of her sisters lived.

Unable to return to France, Mancini spends seven years traveling around Europe.

“Some people are shocked and disgusted,” says Nicholson. “And some people are sympathetic and think this is a very thrilling story. This is around the time that you get these precursors to the tabloids [and] early morning gazettes commenting on where she’s going to end up.”

In 1672, Mancini, whom the tabloids have taken to calling “the runaway duchess,” is given refuge by a former suitor, the Duke of Savoy, and after she arrives she pens her memoir.

“She is desperate,” says Nicholson. “The memoirs are a justification for why she abandoned her husband.” When published, it’s translated into French, English, German and Italian. “Europe is very interested in her story,” says Nicholson.

Portrait of Hortense Mancini
Portrait of Hortense Mancini, Duchesse de Mazarin / Getty

From Exile to Champagne Salons

In 1675, Mancini, by then considered something of a European celebrity for her tell-all book and “runaway duchess” reputation, was offered asylum in England. She arrived in 1676 and almost immediately started hosting salons.

“Salons grew out of women looking for spaces, to talk about intellectual things… [and] to socialize. Because women are excluded from most other spheres where you would do this,” says Nicholson.

Mancini was introduced to Champagne by another French exile, Charles de Saint-Évremond, soon after arriving. She, along with the other French exiles, didn’t particularly enjoy English wines—at all.

“They think it’s awful,” says Nicholson. “So, they spend a considerable amount of time importing French wines into England.”

“Mancini then orders in all of the wines from Champagne, popularizing this region, the vineyards of that region and popularizing it as the drink of choice,” says Nicholson.

Her salons continued to be known for hosting the elite and even having celebrities like Nell Gwyn, Barbara Villiers, among others in attendance. Even Charles II and his brother future king James II were known to attend.

“It was at her salon that Champagne was introduced to English society. ‘Suddenly, you have this very trendy, fashionable salon, run by Hortense Mancini, a famous woman–a very early celebrity–and everyone’s got a glass of Champagne in their hands. And so Champagne becomes interwoven with aristocratic socializing,’ Donna Ferguson wrote in The Guardian, quoting Nicholson.

Mancini’s parties linked Champagne to celebrations, creating its enduringly festive connotations, says Nicholson. Because her gatherings are attended by politicians, intellectuals and other powerful people, and “because they’re having this kind of revelry that you get at salons, where people are clinking their glasses and enjoying themselves, other people imitate this,” says Nicholson.

Today, her influence on Champagne endures. Champagne remains indelibly associated with luxury, glamour and celebration. It’s served at weddings, awards shows, high-end sports celebrations and is referenced in music to signify success.

While often remembered for her glamour and exploits, Mancini was a cultural force with lasting impact. She helped create spaces where women could talk freely all while sipping shaping arguably one of the most famous bubbly wines enjoyed around the world today. And that’s worth raising a glass of Champagne to.

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