Celebrate the season with champagne and learn about the famous young widow…..
A Widow’s Story In the champagne section of any wine store one will always notice the ubiquitous yellow label of Veuve Clicquot champagne but the hidden story behind this label is a fascinating tale of one woman’s grit, determination, innovation and entrepreneurship at a time when such endeavors were rare. This woman was Barbe Nicole Ponsardin Clicquot of Reims, France better known as Veuve Clicquot (1777-1866). Just a child during the upheaval years of the French Revolution, Barbe Nicole was married at twenty-one years to Francois Clicquot who owned a diversified business which included a champagne winery in Reims (the main town in the Champagne region of France). Just six years into her marriage, in 1805, Barbe Nicole becomes a widow (or “veuve” in French) – hence the name Veuve Clicquot. It was very likely, that in the 1800s, nobody expected the young widow, 27 years old, to have any knowledge, ability, or interest in running a business. Not only did she prove everyone wrong at that time, but the brand that she created, with its conspicuous yellow labels, is considered one of the hallmark brands of the 21st century.
To understand her impact on the wine business, it is important to know a little about the complex art and science of making champagne. The process begins in the vineyard and for a wine to be called champagne, the grapes used must be grown in a demarcated area, in the Champagne region in France. (For those who want to visit, it is a nice day trip from Paris). Once the grapes are harvested, the initially wine making process is very similar to that used in any wine. The grape juice is fermented using yeast and filtered to get wine with an alcohol content of around 10-12%. The wine is bottled and at this point there are no bubbles present. The winemaker then inserts a small quantity of grape juice and yeast into the bottles and caps them. This mixture begins a second fermentation inside the bottle and the byproduct of carbon-di-oxide is not allowed to escape, thus creating the bubbles. This second fermentation also results in a sediment of solid particles (the spent yeast cells) and when the bottles were opened to remove the sediment, the wine lost much of its fizz as the carbon dioxide escaped from the bottle.
The young widow, Madame Clicquot (along with her winemaker), is credited with figuring out the process of removing the sediment without losing the fizz in the champagne bottle. This process is called riddling, where the bottles are placed facing downwards on a wooden rack to allow the sediment to move slowly down to the neck of the bottle thus allowing the collected sediment to be removed easily and quickly with minimal loss of CO2 . This breakthrough innovation is still used by most producers and also allowed for the mass production of champagne. This Photo by Unknown Author is licensed In addition, Madame Clicquot, is also credited with making the first rose (or pink) champagne and the first vintage (all the grapes used come from on year’s harvest) champagne. Her focus and business savvy made Clicquot champagnes into one of the most prestigious and brands in the wine world in the 1800s and is still recognized today as one of the premium luxury brands. In her final days in 1866, she wrote to her granddaughter, “The world is in perpetual motion, and we must invent the things of tomorrow. One must go before others, be determined and exacting, and let your intelligence direct your life. Act with audacity….” (quoted in The Widow Clicquot by Tilar Mazzeo). So celebrate this Holiday Season and the New Year with a bottle of Grande Dame champagne as a fitting tribute to this remarkable 19th century woman entrepreneur.