“May I recommend Veuve Clicquot ’26, a good French wine” – Captain Louis Renault, Casablanca (1942)
French History is studded with stars – women whose influence shaped the world we know today. Joan of Arc, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Coco Chanel, Edith Piaf; in the world of wine, Barbe-Nicole Clicquot, without whom we would not know Champagne as we do today.
Born 1777 in Reims, Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin was the daughter of a wealthy politician and textile manufacturer, Ponce Jean Nicolas Philippe Ponsardin. Jean became Mayor of Reims by decree of Napoleon himself. She married Francois-Marie Clicquot at the age of 21; right in the heart of the revolution, the ceremony was conducted quietly in hiding.
François’ father, Philippe Clicquot-Muiron was involved in trade and banking. He had also founded a small Champagne house in 1772, producing the first rosé Champagne in 1775 by including a small portion of red wine in the blend – or assemblage.
Philippe had chosen the anchor as the House signature, a symbol of hope and hard work. In the days before labels, this was the only way to identify the house, and a symbol of hope seemed the perfect choice for his young entrepreneurial son. By 1804, François had grown sales to 60,000 bottles. Then tragedy struck.
François died in 1805, to typhoid, and Madame Clicquot became Veuve – French for widow – Clicquot. She might have fallen back upon her family wealth, instead, she petitioned her father-in-law to allow her to manage the business.
Her first years were troubled. War ravaged Europe, and naval blockades disrupted trade. Sales fell, and by 1810 bankruptcy seemed inevitable. It was the crucible which would temper her.
Champagne then was a different drink to the style we enjoy. Originally a still wine, it was sweetened, bottled, and sent on its way. During transport, and unbeknownst to those who made it, the wine underwent a second fermentation. This added the fizz, but often resulted in bottles exploding. It was an Englishman, Christopher Merritt, who invented the heavier weighted bottles to withstand the increase in pressure, but the wine was still cloudy and filled with spent yeast.
Madame Clicquot set her mind to make her wine better, and solve the problem of cloudy wine. Together with her mâitre de chai Antoine-Aloys de Muller, she repurposed old tables to hold bottles at an angle, and developed the technique of remuage to remove the sediment from the wine. The bottles were rotated by a quarter-turn every day over the course of two months Gradually, the lees slid down the neck until the bottle was upside down and the sediment settled. The cork was then drawn, and the wine topped up with liqueur de tirage, a mixture of still wine and sugar.
In 1811, a comet was visible in the sky for most of the year, which vignerons took to be the sign of an outstanding vintage. The first wines using her new technique were released following this year and dubbed le vin de la comète. Madame Clicquot added a shooting star to the cork along with her initials: VCP.
Hers was the first champagne to ship to Russia through the blockade during the Napoleonic wars. She sent bottles to the Prussian guards enforcing the blockade, who opened the wine with their swords – beginning the tradition of sabrage.
After Napoleon’s defeat and exile, Madame Clicquot set about conquering the world where he had failed. Sending huge shipments to Russia in 1814, she recaptured the market ahead of her competitors.
By her death in 1866, Veuve Clicquot had annual sales of around three-quarters of a million bottles. She had steered the company to become a well respected Champagne house. Ten years later, the famous yellow label first appeared on bottles shipped to England – a recognisable trademark that remains to this day.
Veuve Clicquot is available online at majestic.co.uk.