“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.” — Madame Clicquot
The life of Barbe-Nicole should not have been remembered by history. The woman who would become Madame Clicquot, was born the daughter of a prominent textile industrialist in Reims, France in 1777. Destiny seemed to have set out a privileged, if dull life for Barbe-Nicole. While her bourgeoise family escaped the horrors of the French Revolution, Madame Clicquot would launch a revolution all her own.
At the age of 21, Barbe-Nicole married Francois Clicquot, only son of her father’s industrial rival, as a way of consolidating the two patriarchs opposing business’. Francois Clicquot oversaw his father’s small wine business, which operated as an aside to his textile empire. The young couple threw themselves headlong into expanding the wine business, much to the disappointment of Francois’ father.
As the Napoleonic Wars broke out across Europe, the couple invested more and more time learning the wine trade, despite warning from Francois’ father that the war would effectively cripple the wine trade. Soon though, that would be the least of the family’s concerns. Tragedy struck 1805 and Francois died from a fever speculated have been caused by Typhoid. It’s a testament as to how bad the wine business was going though, that rumours began to circulate that he had committed suicide because of the dire financial straits the business was in.
Widow Clicquot, or as she is more famously known in French, Veuve Clicquot, would not give up. Aged just 27, she approached her father in law and asked him for a loan to help the business, risking her own inheritance to make the business grow. Her father in law appears to have recognised something in her and agreed to the loan and to let her run the business. Bearing in mind this was at a time when it was almost unheard for a woman to run a business and we can begin to see that Barbe-Nicole must have presented a fierce business acumen that her father in law picked up on. Perhaps for them both there was an element of honouring Francois’ vision and his memory to by trying to resurrect the ailing business.
For 4 years, Barbe-Nicole apprenticed with notable winemaker of the day Alexandre Fourneaux, but in 1810 this partnership would come to an end, with the business still failing to turn a profit. Unwilling to give up on the business and sensing a change in the air, Barbe-Nicole again went to her father in law asking for a loan. Her father in law obliged once more.
This is where Barbe-Nicole’s business acumen really takes off. Her father in law would not have invested in the business again if he thought it would continue to fail, so she must have come to him with something truly remarkable — and that’s exactly what she did.
The vintage of Veuve Clicquot champagne from 1811 is known as the ‘Comet Vintage’. The year had produced an exceptional crop which made for phenomenal champagne, which was attributed to a comet that was passing overhead at the time.
In 1814 Napoleon was defeated and exile to Elba. During his reign, France had been left isolated by naval blockades from the English and crucially, French goods had been effectively banned from Russia by an embargo from the Tsar. Barbe-Nicole had not been idle though and had hid her prized comet vintage in coffee barrels and smuggled it via a Dutch ship to Konigsberg. It arrived on August 2nd, just as the embargo was being lessoned.
An early adopter of champagne, the Russian court was one of the major trend setters of the day and that is exactly where the 10,550 bottles of the comet vintage ended up. Tsar Alexander I adored the drink, proclaiming it was the only type of champagne he would drink. Just like that, through great risk and by out manoeuvring her business rivals, Barbe-Nicole had brought the brand back from the brink of bankruptcy.
Suddenly, the Veuve Clicquot brand is the one everyone wants, and she has the opposite problem — not enough champagne to meet demand. This is where the innovation comes in. Champagne is created by adding yeast and sugar to white wine. The yeast consumes the sugar, creating alcohol and carbon-dioxide. This is often called the ‘second fermentation’. The issue arises when the yeast has consumed all the sugar and dies, settling at the bottom of the bottle and turning the champagne cloudy.
Producers tried to get around this by transferring the champagne to another bottle, but this was incredibly wasteful and inefficient. Barbe-Nicole, ever inventive, worked closely with Antoine-Aloys de Muller, her cellar man and they perfected an old English technique known in French as ‘remuage’ or ‘riddling’ in English. Essentially, you proceed as normal, adding the sugar and yeast, but turn the bottles a quarter turn each day for 6–8 weeks. The dead yeast will eventually settle in neck of the bottle, where it can be easily removed, and the sweetness of the wine can be adjusted by adding more sugar. The champagne is then re-corked and ready for drinking. This process drastically reduces the time required in making champagne, as well as making a noticeably better tasting, sweeter and clearer drink.
To this day, this is the standard way to make champagne and it remains essentially the same as the process perfected by Antoine-Aloys de Muller and Barbe-Nicole. Even her biggest competitor, Jean-Rémy Moët couldn’t recreate her methods. This streamlining and improvement of taste and clarity meant that champagne could be made for a wider market and what was one the drink of the nobility became available to a burgeoning middle-class.
Riddling and business tenacity allowed Barbe-Nicole to conqueror the world with her champagne, and she and the Veuve Clicquot brand have become inseparable. In 1841 she would step down as head of the company, appointing Edouard Werlé to lead the business, which by 1850 was selling 400,000 bottles worldwide. Barbe-Nicole would die in 1866 at the age of 89, having changed the champagne world forever. Across the globe, papers paid tribute to ‘the Grand Dame of Champagne’ and in 1972, the brand released La Grande Dame as a tribute to Madame Clicquot.
Today Veuve Clicquot is one of the best-selling champagnes in the world and continues to push the boundaries, a testament to the spirit of Madame Clicquot and her enduring legacy as one of the first international businesswomen.
Interested in keeping that delicious champagne, crisp and bubbly? Check out another article I wrote on how to keep your champagne sparkling and some of the more unusual ways people try and keep those bubbles bubbling.