Champagne is synonymous with good times and celebrations, from a sports team that wins the semi-finals to birthday parties and New Years. Today there are around 84,000 hectares of grapes, 340 champagne houses and 16,000 winegrowers in French Champagne [PDF]. In 2019 alone, just over 297 million bottles of this golden sparkling wine were shipped around the world.
However, it might be surprising to learn that there was a time when this wine industry hardly stuck to it. Its popularity today required the hard work and persistence of winegrowers in the past, especially Madame Clicquot, whose Veuve Clicquot winery is still known worldwide for its champagne.
Madame Clicquot not only saved a failing winery in the early 1
1. Madame Clicquot experienced the French Revolution.
The future Madame Clicquot was born on December 16, 1777 in Reims, France, as Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin into a wealthy family. Her grandfather Adrien Ponsardin had made a fortune in the textile business. He later passed the business on to his son Nicolas Ponsardin, who after The Widow Clicquot by Tilar J. Mazzeo
once employed the majority of textile workers in Reims. But the French Revolution broke out in 1789 when Barbe-Nicole was 11 years old. France's participation in the American War of Independence cost the country up to 1.73 billion livres, or about a trillion dollars in today's money. This, together with poor harvests, mass hunger and high taxes for the lower class, ultimately led to a great uprising. King Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and countless others were eventually guillotined during the reign of terror.
The wealth of the Ponsardin family made them a potential target of revolutionaries during the reign of terror, which is why Nicolas Ponsardin abruptly changed his political loyalty to the Jacobin monarchy, a party that fueled the unrest. In this way, the family could hold onto their fortune.
2. Madame Clicquot was smuggled out of school.
Barbe-Nicole attended Saint-Pierre-les-Dames, an old school for aristocratic women in Reims – Mary, Queen of Scotland, was a former student, and Renée de Lorraine, Mary Stuart's aunt, was an abbess. But when the revolution reached Reims, the Ponsardin family had no way to bring their daughter back without attracting unwanted attention. The family seamstress is said to have met the girl at school, disguised her as a farmer and sneaked home. (Some historians have said it is unclear whether the girl was Barbe-Nicole or her sister Clémentine.)
3. Madame Clicquot was a widow.
Her homonymous champagne house, Veuve Clicquot, is French for "widow Clicquot".
In 1798 Barbe-Nicole married Ponsardin François Clicquot. He was the son and heir of Philippe Clicquot-Muiron, another wealthy textile trader, who founded a small wine company in Bouzy, a village in Champagne, in 1772. Their Catholic wedding took place secretly in a cellar, since revolutionaries banned religious practice in France in 1794.
While the business later became known as Veuve Clicquot, it was then called Clicquot-Muiron et Fils ("Clicquot-Murion" and son ") and was not only a winery, but also a bank and a trading post. François increased in 1804 the company's wine sales on 60,000 bottles, but François died of the most likely typhus in 1805. Madame Clicquot, 27, was left alone with her young daughter Clémentine.
4. Philippe Clicquot, the father of her late husband, was Madame Clicquot's first Investor.
After his son's death, Philippe Clicquot planned to liquidate his champagne house, but Madame Clicquot surprised him by asking if she could take over the business and by looking to invest in the company, which was a risky one It was an undertaking because she had very little experience in business or wine.
Philippe Clicquot finally agreed on the condition that s he completed an apprenticeship with Jérôme Alexandre Fourneaux. He was a well-known winemaker who was particularly good at blending different wines before they were bottled in a process called the assemblage. This is how champagne is made.
Both Madame Clicquot and Fourneaux invested 80,000 francs. while her late husband's father invested CHF 30,000 and business assets.
5. Madame Clicquot invented a device that is still used today.
The production of champagne is a complex process that is usually only made from Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier grapes. At the beginning, the grapes are harvested and pressed and then primarily fermented. From there, various still wines are mixed together and sugar is added to initiate a second fermentation process that creates the famous champagne bubbles. But this process leaves dead yeast cells, called yeast that make the wine look cloudy.
Winegrowers originally got rid of the yeast by pouring the wine from one bottle into another, but it took some time and a lot of sparkling wine ended up on the floor. To streamline the process, Madame Clicquot developed the puzzle rack in which the bottles were stored at an angle, so that over time, all the yeasts accumulated in the cap and were easier to remove. As a result, it was able to produce bottles much faster than its competitors. The method is still used in many champagne houses today.
6. The Napoleonic Wars affected Madame Clicquot's sales.
After the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, Great Britain and France issued blockades and embargoes in a major naval battle of the Napoleonic Wars, which destroyed international trade. Many of the widow's customers were foreigners, and she saw her sales drop to just under 10,000 bottles a year.
At the end of her training at Fourneaux, the business was about to go bankrupt. Again Madame Clicquot had to go to her late husband's father and ask him for money. Again she was successful.
7. Madame Clicquot created the first recorded single vintage champagne.
Champagne is a mixture of different wines and grapes that are often harvested in different years. However, to be considered a vintage bottle, all grapes must have been harvested in the same year.
As a trendsetter, Madame Clicquot created the first recorded vintage in 1810 due to a particularly good harvest. Coincidentally, Fourneaux left the store that year and the house became officially known as Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin.
But it would be their 1811 vintage that would go down in history and he started with a comet.
Winegrowers have long seen comets as a favorable sign that they will have a good harvest and a good vintage. For most of 1811, the Great Comet (a.k.a.C / 1811 F1) burned brightly in the sky. In memory of Madame Clicquot called her year 1811 "The Year of the Comet" and even added a star to the cork.
This vintage was called "the first really modern champagne". Previously, Madame Clicquot's champagne had a large gas bubble, which some called "toad eyes", which created an unpleasant foam. Her puzzling technique enabled smaller bubbles and a hotter tasting wine than a sickly sweet one.
8. Madame Clicquot resisted Napoleon's trade blockades.
After Napoleon was defeated in Russia in late 1812, Russian armies occupied Reims. Many producers buried their wines and fled to safer areas, but Madame Clicquot saw this as a business opportunity to talk about their wines.  Instead of trying to prevent Russian troops from looting their wine cellars, as they had done with many others, Madame Clicquot invited them to drink whatever they could, in the hope that they would speak the good word would spread about their wines when they returned home. "Today they drink. They'll pay tomorrow, ”she said. However, she kept her vintage in 1811 hidden.
Towards the end of the Napoleonic Wars, Madame Clicquot was on the verge of bankruptcy and decided to take another risky business decision and defy Napoleon's trade blockades. In 1814 she chartered a boat, loaded about 10,550 bottles on board, managed to sneak the boat around a fleet of warships and delivered the cargo to Königsberg (now Kaliningrad, Russia).
It turns out that she decided to let the soldiers pay off. Each precious bottle was sold for around $ 100. Tsar Alexander I, who was instrumental in Napoleon's defeat in Russia, said that Madame Clicquot's vintage "Year of the Comet" was all he would ever drink.
9. Madame Clicquot was one of the first producers of rosé champagne.
Rosé champagne can be produced in two ways: by mixing wine or by letting the juice from red grapes sit on the fruit skin for a few hours, classic golden sparkling, pink.
Although the Ruinart champagne house made rosé champagne in 1764 by adding elderberries, Madame Clicquot was the first to make this sparkling pink drink by still mixing red wine with sparkling wine in 1818.
10. Madame Clicquot died in 1866, but her legacy lives on.
Throughout her life, Madame Clicquot took over a business that barely sold 10,000 bottles a year and turned it into a business that exported 750,000 bottles of sparkling wine annually the time of her death. Today Veuve Clicquot is said to produce 1.5 million boxes of wine every year.
The widow died in 1866 in a castle that she had built for her daughter's family. Today it is the same property as the Château de Boursault champagne house.
But Madame Clicquot has turned a difficult wine business into a successful one. It played a key role in transforming champagne into a world-famous region. In addition, it created a window of time for women in the wine business in which there has never been one. Perhaps she best said it in a note to her great-granddaughter towards the end of her life: “The world is in constant motion and we have to invent the things of tomorrow. You have to go in front of others, be determined and demanding and let your intelligence guide your life. Act with boldness. “