The Widow Clicquot: How One Woman Changed the Entire Champagne Industry

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 (Widow Clicquot in English), 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. Veuve Clicquot

Léon Cogniet, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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, Madame Clicquot 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. Madame 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

Madame 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

Want to read more about wine? Try reading this book!

Clicquot, The Widow Madame Clicquot: How One Woman Changed the Entire Champagne IndustryClicquot, The Widow Madame Clicquot: How One Woman Changed the Entire Champagne Industry

Today in Wine History

December 16, 1777: Barbe- Nicole Ponsardin Clicquot was born in Reims.

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.

References:

[1] Most of the references in this article come from Girly Drinks: A World History of Women and Alcohol. Mallory O’Meara. October 19, 2021.  

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