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

She invented the “table de remuage” (riddling table) to clarify champagne, and found out how to make wine clear and beautiful in a glass. Clicquot innovated the very first blend of rose champagne. The person who actually loved champagne and made it the drink of pomp and circumstance today was a woman named Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin. She would become the widow of Clicquot and create the champagne world-renowned for quality, Veuve Clicquot.

At 27, Madame Clicquot became one of the first businesswomen of modern times when she took over the business established in 1772 by her father-in-law. 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 Ponsardin, 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. Champagne or more correct the bubbles in the wine were actually a problem in the wine industry in the 1700s, as people didn’t want their wine to be sparkling. A double fermentation process that people of the time didn’t know about caused the unintended bubbles. In the middle of the century, an English chemist found out what was causing the bubbles, and many winemakers learned to create or prevent bubbles scientifically. Champagne was a region of France known for making excellent wine, not sparkling wine.

It wasn’t until the 1800s that sparkling wine became synonymous with the region. 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. Moët was a salesperson and distributor and bought most of his wine from women, especially widows. Women in the 1700s played a crucial role in winemaking and enjoyed the freedom to do so. It wasn’t until Madame Clicquot’s generation that women became ostracized for working thanks to Napoleon’s edict.

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 their 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 allows her to provide an excellent education, founded upon the traditional morals and values of the time. 

In 1798, she married François Clicquot, son to the founder of the Maison Clicquot. François shared his passion and knowledge for champagne creation and distribution with his young wife. It was because she had spent this time at his side that Madame Clicquot was able to take the reins of the family house after the untimely death of François in 1805.

When they got married, the now-Madame Clicquot convinced her husband and father-in-law to convert the winery into a sparkling winery. Owning some of the best vineyards in the country, this winery saw profits in its second year of business. This was before sparkling wine was called champagne. Madame Clicquot was obsessed with winemaking. She spent hours watching the process and visiting the vineyards. Her husband took care of her finances. In 1804, the Napoleonic code was passed, making it difficult for women to do anything other than become wives and mothers. The following year, Madame Clicquot’s husband died of typhoid fever. She was 27.

How the 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 continue to run her flourishing, sparkling winery. He conceded and invested in her venture, provided that she apprenticed with a famous winemaker of the region. She agreed. Madame Clicquot worked daily from 7 am to 10 pm in her home office, and the business flourished until the Napoleonic wars began in 1810.

Their international business model wouldn’t succeed with the closed borders, and not only the war was her problem, but her business partner left. Madame Clicquot then focused her efforts on domestic champagne drinkers. When the Russian troops invaded Reims, Madame Clicquot worried that they would pillage her vineyards, which would be the end. Instead, they bought sparkling wine from her. The Russian troops loved the widow’s champagne and drank it in large quantities during 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 coveted item and expensive.

Invention of riddling

Champagne, at the time, had a couple of significant drawbacks. It was cloyingly sweet and had large bubbles and unsavoury sediment in the bottle. 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 put the bottles upside down. The dead yeast sediment would gather near the cork, 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.

Champagne is a wine of legend. Mythical wines, all of which respect the demand for quality, that was the force that drove Madame Clicquot to mark the entire history of the Veuve Clicquot House. True to this heritage, the House is proud of its motto: “Only one quality, the finest”. 

Enjoying the fruits of her labour

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, as she worked tirelessly to build an empire of champagne that lives on today. See more resources here

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Today in wine history

December 16, 1777: Barbe- Nicole Ponsardin Clicquot was born in Reims. May 18, 1803: The Napoleonic Wars began. 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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