Serena Sutcliffe MW has been named a Chevalier dans l’Ordre National de la Légion d’Honneur in recognition of her contribution to the appreciation of French wine.

The head of Sotheby’s International Wine Department, Sutcliffe – renowned for her knowledge of Champagne in particular – is the first British member of the wine trade to receive the honour.

She is nevertheless in good global company: American wine critic Robert Parker was made a Chevalier in 1999.

In a statement Sutcliffe said, ‘It is a great honour, beyond my dreams, and I am deeply grateful that France, the country that has so enriched my life, has recognized my work. In my fourth decade of selling French wines, from the grandest to the more modest, I hope to have shown the brilliance of so many wine producers who labour for our enjoyment.’

’This came completely out of the blue,’ she told decanter.com. ‘Someone puts you forward for the honour but you don’t hear about it until after it’s passed by French presidential decree.’

‘In any case, I didn’t buy it,’ she joked in reference to the ‘loans for peerages’ scandal dominating the news.

The honour, which takes the form of a medal ‘which you don’t then wear unless it’s an extraordinarily formal occasion,’ will be conferred at a ceremony in Paris later this year. But celebrations have already begun.

‘We had a magnum of [Veuve Clicquot] La Grande Dame 1990, which was super,’ Sutcliffe said.

Remy Krug, chairman of Champagne Krug, said, ‘I am delighted that Serena has won this prestigious award. It is more than well-deserved, for all that she has done to spread a great appreciation and knowledge of the wide variety of French wines and in particular great Champagne.’

He added, ‘After reading the first few pages of her marvellous book [Champagne: The History and Character of the World’s Most Celebrated Wine] I developed a thirst for some bubbles and had to rush to the fridge and pour myself a glass of Krug.’

Decanter’s consultant editor Steven Spurrier said, ‘As an international ambassador for the fine wines of France, Serena’s Legion d’Honneur is well-deserved and a fitting tribute to someone who discovered Burgundy while working as a translator for Unesco in Paris.’

Hugh Johnson also paid tribute, saying Sutcliffe ‘has always been a great ambassador for France’.

The Légion d’Honneur was instituted by Napoléon Bonaparte to acknowledge high achievers in both civilian and military life, since official orders had been abolished in the French Revolution. Opened to women by Napoleon III in 1852, the Legion accepts nominees – French or foreign – who demonstrate outstanding achievements in all fields.

Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Philip, Lord Mountbatten and Winston Churchill were all awarded the Grand Cross – the highest of the five orders – while film director Martin Scorsese and chef Julia Child were named Chevaliers in the past. This year’s recipients include clothing designer Valentino and Hajime Sasaki, Chairman of NEC corporation.

Written by Maggie Rosen