Women’s history month is upon us! What better way to celebrate then to highlight one of the many women who have helped to revolutionize the male-dominate world of winemaking in Champagne. This particular woman was strong - a fierce trailblazer and one of the first female CEOs of her time. She helped shaped Champagne as we know and love today, all while defying the odds at just about every turn.
She is known as Veuve Clicquot.
Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin was born to a wealthy textile manufacturer in the throes of the French Revolution. At 21 she was married off to the son of their closest competitor in an attempt to unite the family businesses and overtake the industry. Much to their dismay, Francois and Barbe Clicquot weren’t interested in wool and gabardine, instead setting their sights on the wonderful world of winemaking.
Through trials, tribulations, and a bit of old-world tragedy, Barbe steered the ship through the difficult loss of her husband to Typhoid fever. This sudden shift of fate thrust Barbe into the responsibility of keeping the wine trade afloat while playing single-mom to her three year old daughter. These dire times gave birth to one of the most storied and fundamental wine brands in the world.
Veuve, meaning ‘widow’ in French, was a moniker Ms. Clicquot would soon wear with pride. After the death of her husband, she was expected to do what all widowers did in her time: re-marry and devote herself to her new family.
Mais non! Despite many continued failures, Barbe kept making Champagne, found her groove, and used her misfortune to fuel the brand that shook the world of sparkling wine.
In 1811, she finally got her big break.
Fresh on the heels of the Neapolitan War, Mr. Clicquot got word of an opportunity in Russia. She wanted to be the first on the market after the trade blockade was lifted, so she spearheaded her campaign by smuggling her sweet, bubbly nectar directly into the arms of the Russian Czar Alexander (savvy doesn’t even begin to describe it!). Once Veuve Clicquot hit his lips, he publicly declared that he would drink nothing else.
With his endorsement and her hard work and dedication, it all paid off and the business took off!
Word spread quickly, and Veuve Clicquot became the Queen of Champagne almost overnight. Any other business person might have sat idly by their successes and retired into a quiet life on the Riviera. Not Barbe Clicquot. She took her craft to the next level, personally developing the process commonly known today as ‘riddling,” to expedite the process and reduce wasted wine.
Riddling or "remuage," is a practice in making Champagne that effectively collects dead yeast sediment in the neck of the bottle by a series of small turns of the hand. We could talk for pages about the intricacies of this process and how it has developed over the years, but rest assured it is a vital step in the Methode Champenoise, and is still used by winemakers today!
Her legacy continues to be a testament of her strength and dedication to the craft. In a time where women were considered property of their fathers and then transferred in ownership to their husbands, running your own business as a woman was unthinkable! Barbe was a true pioneer, and an inspiration to generations of proud businesswomen. When life gave her grapes, she made Champagne.
Merci Bien Madame Clicquot!