The Widow Clicquot: How One Woman Changed the Entire Champagne Industry
Madame Clicquot invented the “table de remuage” (riddling table) to clarify Champagne, which created a beautiful, clear wine in the glass. She also created the very first blend of rosé Champagne. Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin, later Veuve Clicquot (Veuve means “Widow” in French), loved Champagne and helped make it a drink surrounded by celebration and luxury. Today, her Champagne is world renowned, and known for its high quality.
At 27, Madame Clicquot became one of the only business women of the time when she took over her father-in-laws’ business in 1772. Imagine the audacity of this decision at a time when women could not even open their own bank accounts!
Here’s the Story of Madame Clicquot, a Remarkable Businesswoman, Celebrity, and Inventor.
A Brief Ancient History of Champagne
Before we talk about Madame Clicquot, let’s backtrack and talk about the world she was born into. Prior to the 18th century, the region of Champagne was actually trying to make still wines. Their wine would often end up bubbly accidentally, something they did not want or like.
It wasn’t until the early to mid 1700’s that Champagne producers began purposely making and selling sparkling wines. Claude Moët was one of the first to market sparkling wine. An adept marketer, his first taste testers were the noble women of Versailles. The women loved the “deliciously feminine” flavour of the wine. Madame de Pompadour, the mistress of King Louis XVI, loved the drink. As a highly influential figure of the time, she claimed that this was the only wine that left a woman more beautiful after drinking it.
From the Very Beginning of the Company
From the very beginning of the company, Philippe Clicquot and his son started with an ambition to “cross borders”. Madame Clicquot used to say, “I want my brand to rank first, from New York to Saint Petersburg”.
Madame Clicquot was born in Reims in 1777. As the daughter of Baron Nicolas Ponsardin, her social standing allowed her access to an excellent education, founded upon the traditional morals and values of the time.
In 1798, she married François Clicquot, son of the founder of Champagne house, Maison Clicquot. François shared his passion and knowledge of Champagne production and distribution with his young wife. Because she had spent time learning the business from her husband, Madame Clicquot was able to take the reins of the family house after the untimely death of François in 1805.
Madame Clicquot was obsessed with winemaking. She spent hours watching the process and visiting the vineyards. As was custom at the time, prior to his death her husband took care of their finances. In 1804, the Napoleonic code was passed, making it difficult for women to do anything other than become wives and mothers. Soon after, Madame Clicquot’s husband died of typhoid fever. She was 27.
How Veuve Clicquot Built Her Empire
With the added difficulty of being a businesswoman in Napoleon’s France, The Widow Clicquot, as she has come to be known, convinced her father-in-law to let her run the flourishing, sparkling winery. He conceded and invested in her venture, provided that she apprenticed with a famous winemaker of the region. She agreed. The business had been flourishing until The Napoleonic Wars started in early 1800s.
Their international business model had troubling succeeding with the newly closed borders. The Widow Clicquot was forced to focus her efforts on domestic Champagne drinkers. When the Russian troops invaded Reims, Madame Clicquot worried that they would pillage her vineyards, and destroy the winery. Instead, they bought sparkling wine from her. The Russian troops loved the widow’s Champagne and drank it in large quantities throughout the occupation.
In 1815, when the war ended, thousands of troops popped Champagne to celebrate. This started the long history of associating Champagne with celebration. Madame Clicquot’s sparkling wine was now an international success. Ahead of all her competitors, Veuve Clicquot became the drink of choice for some of the most influential people in the world. The King of Prussia toasted to it for his birthday, and Tsar Alexander said he wouldn’t drink any other wine. Veuve Clicquot became a expensive and highly coveted item.
Invention of Riddling
During Madame Cliquot’s time, Champagne had a couple of significant issues. It was cloyingly sweet with large bubbles and an unattractive sediment was mixed in with the wine. Madame Clicquot experimented with the bottles to prevent the sediment from ruining the wine.
She took her bottles and set to work. After the second fermentation was complete, she would move the bottles slightly every day until they were nearly upside down. This allowed the dead yeast sediment to fall near the cork. This new technique was called riddling. When the Champagne was opened, the sediment would escape with the cork, leaving behind a delightfully bubbly wine without the chunks. Her competitors couldn’t figure out how she was making so much sediment-free wine without it taking months. Her workers were so loyal it took years for her competitors to learn this trade secret.
Did You Know: To this day the riddling method is still used in Champagne and many other sparkling wine regions to make clear, sediment-free wine.
Enjoying the Fruits of Her Labor
The Widow Clicquot loved to entertain and was frequented by celebrities from all over the world. The only drink that was served at her exclusive parties was, of course, her famous Champagne. She died at the age of 89, still dressed in her widow’s black. She far outlived most women and men of her time, even while working tirelessly to build an empire of Champagne that lives on today. See more resources here
The Widow Cliquot’s Legacy
Madame Cliquot is credited with several innovations in Champagne production, including the invention of the riddling table, which is used to clarify Champagne and remove sediment from the bottle. She is also credited with establishing the first ever exports of Champagne to Russia, and with being the first person to sell Champagne in the United States.
Madame Clicquot’s legacy is one of innovation, dedication, and hard work. She is remembered as a pioneer in the Champagne industry and as a trailblazer who helped to establish Champagne as a world-renowned luxury product. Today, the Clicquot Champagne house that she founded is still in operation and is known for producing high-quality Champagne using traditional methods and techniques.
Timeline of the Widow Cliquot’s Life
Madame Cliquot was born on December 17, 1777, in Reims, France, and she died on July 29, 1866, in Paris, France. Here are some key dates in her life:
1798: Ponsardin marries François Clicquot, a wealthy textile merchant.
1805: François Clicquot dies, leaving Ponsardin widowed at the age of 27. She takes over the family business, which at the time was a textile company, and begins to focus on the production of Champagne.
1810: Ponsardin establishes the Champagne house Veuve Clicquot and begins to produce Champagne on a larger scale.
1810: Madame Clicquot invents the riddling table, which is used to clarify Champagne and remove sediment from the bottle.
1814: She exports Champagne to Russia for the first time, establishing a relationship with the Russian royal family that would last for many years.
1814: Ponsardin invents the riddling table, a device used to separate sediment from Champagne. This innovation helps to improve the quality of Champagne and solidifies the reputation of Veuve Clicquot as a producer of high-quality Champagne.
1815: Ponsardin becomes the first woman to receive the Legion of Honor, a prestigious French military award, in recognition of her contributions to the Champagne industry.
1818: Ponsardin becomes the first woman to be admitted to the French Agricultural Society, a prestigious organization dedicated to the advancement of agriculture and rural life.
1818: Madame Clicquot becomes the first person to sell Champagne in the United States.
1866: Madame Clicquot passes away at the age of 89.
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Today in Wine History
1804: The Civil Code of 1804 by Napoleon took away a woman’s civil, political, and professional rights of women.
November 20, 1815: The Napoleonic Wars ended. Troops celebrate by popping Champagne.
July 29, 1866: Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin Clicquot died in Boursault.
 Girly Drinks: A World History of Women and Alcohol. Mallory O’Meara. October 19, 2021.