This is the story of the Madame Clicquot Ponsardin and her vision for Veuve Clicquot. Affectionately referred to as The “Widow Clicquot,” Barbe-Nicole revolutionized Champagne and made it the unique star that it is today.
Women. Women are strong and powerful and yet remain elegant. It’s quite the paradox…and that’s coming from a woman.
Name a wine as enigmatic as a female. Champagne, perhaps?
Champagne offers quite the paradox, itself. Something that just shouldn’t be: sparkling, explosive wine, trapped behind a cork. Six atmospheres worth of pressure, created on accident.
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Today, labels like Veuve Clicquot, Dom Perignon, and Cristal line retail shelves across the world. This beverage speaks of luxury and extravagance, but it wasn’t always this way.
We can thank many for the Champagne we have today, but a woman stands out.
Her name was Barbe-Nicole. She was a bold pioneer of Champagne, and a bad ass lady (before being a bad-ass lady was a thing).
Artistic interpretation of Barbe-Nicole at 23. Illustration by Madeline Puckette
Barbe-Nicole: The Lady Herself
Born: December 16, 1777
Her story starts ninety miles east of Paris in the town of Reims, France. Barbe-Nicole grew up as the eldest daughter of one of wealthy textile industry tycoon: Ponce Jean Nicolas Philippe.
Barbe-Nicole was a tiny woman. Probably no taller than 4 and a half feet tall, she had light colored hair and grey eyes.
Visually, she was nothing extraordinary, but her true value had nothing to do with wealth or looks.
It wasn’t until shortly after the French Revolution, when she was throttled into world of wine, that Barbe-Nicole found her purpose.
Pictured: NOT the Widow Cliquot.
From Extravagance to Stoicism
The French Revolution turned the family’s boisterous wealth into something that needed to stay under wraps.
In the midst of the political rebellion, Barbe-Nicole’s affluent father joined a radical fringe group called the Jacobins. This group outwardly rebelled against the monarchy and their wealth.
At this point, the family lived a reserved life because showing riches and prosperity was dangerous.
Still, Ponce Jean Nicolas Philippe wanted a bright future for his eldest daughter. So, at twenty years old, she married François Clicquot, the son of another wealthy textile family (who also dabbled in wine).
Barbe-Nicole, The Good Wife
Her new husband, François, always dreamt of entering the Champagne business. Their ample dowry made this possible.
Within the first months of their marriage, the couple were choosing parcels of property for grape growing.
For some time, François was the face of the company; meanwhile, Barbe-Nicole remained in the background. Still, she worked alongside her husband learning the ins-and-outs of winemaking and working in the vineyards.
At the time, women of the era were directed towards a reproductive life. However, like many other women in Champagne, Barbe-Nicole wanted to do more.
Madame Clicquot painted in 1861 when she was 84 years old. Courtesy of Veuve Clicquot
Where does the name “Veuve Clicquot” come from?
Veuve means “widow” in French. This is where the story takes a turn.
François died in hands of the Typhoid Fever in 1805 at just 30 years old (Barbe-Nicole was just 28). Surprisingly, Barbe-Nicole took over the company.
Without batting an eye, the young “Widow Clicquot” took affairs into her own hands. Neither her gender or social class defined her. She had a fire, a determination, and a vision for her brand.
Barbe-Nicole handled everything from international strategy to wine production. Her role became more than that of just business and pivoted towards her noteworthy developments in marketing and technology innovation.
“In an era when women were excluded from the business world, she dared to assume the head of the company, a role she undertook with passion and determination.”
-Veuve Clicquot website
Veuve Clicquot’s first use of the yellow label appeared in 1877. Here it is in an American paper ad in 1959. Courtesy Maison Veuve Clicquot Archives
Innovations in Marketing for Veuve Clicquot
Madame Clicquot became the first woman to run a Champagne house built on direct sales. She cut out middlemen and sold wines directly to customers to increase profits.
She was constantly working the brand image of Champagne and Veuve Clicquot to make it feel luxurious.
You have to remember that Champagne during the time of Barbe-Nicole was cloudy and incredibly sweet–like soda.
In the book, The Widow Clicquot, Tilar J. Mazzeo notes that,
“Champagne sold in France during their lifetime often had two hundred grams of residual sugar. The Russians liked it sweeter still.”
For comparison’s sake, a can of Coke contains approximately 113 g/L of sugar.
Barbe-Nicole’s Innovations for Veuve Clicquot
Here are a few the many bold innovations Madame Clicquot made to the Champagne industry:
- Madame Clicquot created an identity for Champagne outside of France. The brand was popular early on in Russia.
- She bottled the first recorded vintage Champagne in 1810.
- Clicquot innovated the Remuage (“rem-moo-ahj”) system – a technique that clears sparkling wine of cloudy yeast after fermentation. (scroll down to learn more)
- In 1818, Madame Clicquot made the first rosé Champagne when she blended some of her red Pinot from Bouzy with Champagne.
In 1816 Madame Clicquot invented the riddling table, “table de remuage,” a simple design to remove cloudy lees from Champagne. credit Veuve Clicquot
Making Champagne Sparkle
Champagne of this time was alright. The wines were sparkling and sweet, but they were also cloudy.
Cloudy with sludgy yeast floating around in the bottle from the second fermentation.
Madame Clicquot questioned, “How can this be better?” She felt as though a clear Champagne would market itself better than a “muddy” one.
During this time, the only way to remove yeast sediment from a bottle involved expensive drugs, clarifying agents, and elaborate processes.
Madame Clicquot arrived at a simple concept: storing bottles upside down to collect the sediment in the neck. She “riddled” her kitchen table with holes just large enough to put in the neck of Champagne bottle.
After just six weeks, Madame Clicquot had created the first system to easily remove the sediment from the bottle.
Riddling tables have since been angled for better worker ergonomics. Picture Courtesy of Kevin Day / Opening a Bottle
- Wine bottles rest at an angle so yeast collects in the neck of the bottle.
- Yeast expels as bottle is opened with pressure inside.
- A small amount of sugar and grape is added back to refill bottle.
- Final Product = a clear wine.
Madame Clicquot’s Remuage system helped to both clarify the wines and produce quality wines in scale at a decent price.
Riddling tables are still used today, along with gyro palettes, to accomplish the same process. Today, this technique is a fundamental part of champagne production.
The records showing the first recorded rosé Champagne from 1818. by Xavier Lavictoire for Veuve Clicquot
A Lady Of Legend
The list of her accomplishments and innovations goes on and on.
The one word to sum up Madame Clicquot’s legendary history? BOLD.
A woman who broke the mold and inspired ideas for generations to come. She stands out for her impact and her unique ability to inspire.
It wasn’t just her innovations, but her unique capability to bring life to Champagne as we know it today. She breathed an identity into being.
Her legacy is found in a bottle of Champagne: not a bad place to spend eternity. Today, her name is found adorned by a yellow label and scattered across shelves around the world.
The bottle reads: “Veuve Clicquot.”