WineInk: The Widow of Wine |

WineInk: The Widow of Wine

How Madame Clicquot Changed Champagne

Kelly J. Hayes
The "Clicquot in the Snow" festivities on a spring afternoon at the Ajax Tavern.
The Little Nell/Courtesy photo

This one was inspired by an advanced sommelier at The Little Nell.

Last week, I happened to catch Rachael Liggett-Draper, a member of the Nell’s cracker jack wine team, doing a television interview with host Diana Lane on the Local show from atop Aspen Mountain. Liggett-Draper was there to talk about wine and women in honor of Women’s History Month (which we are commemorating in March), and she brought up the history of what many consider to be the unofficial favorite wine of Aspen: Veuve Clicquot.

Liggett-Draper told the tale of how the Champagne with the Yellow Label, which is poured (and sprayed) with such vigor in the restaurants and on the slopes here, had a founding story built around one of the great female figures in the history of wine.

“The Veuve (meaning ‘widow’ in French) Clicquot, which we know and love in Aspen now, was at the forefront of popularizing Champagne as she took over her deceased husband’s business,” Liggett-Draper explained about a little known facet of the bubbly beginnings of the brand. “It’s wild. Most people don’t know the history behind it or why her (the widow Clicquot’s) face is on the bottle caps of all the bottles we pop here in Aspen.” Fascinating indeed.

The inspiration for this story, The Little Nell sommelier Rachael Liggett-Draper.
Courtesy The Little Nell

It is said that in years past, the No. 1 account for Veuve Clicquot in America was our very own Cloud Nine on Aspen Highlands. What was once a tradition, built on the spontaneous enthusiasm of spraying a bottle of Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label Champagne on patrons in celebration at the on-mountain restaurant, has evolved into an advanced form of debauchery where guests book their bottles — and their celebrations — months in advance. Thousands of dollars of Champagne are showered on a regular basis in displays of excess that are always raucous and occasionally cringe worthy. I wonder how many of those popping the corks know the history behind the woman whose portrait is on those foil caps?

A portrait of Madame Clicquot that is seen on the top of the Veuve Clicquot corks.
Courtesy Veuve Clicquot

In his award-winning book, “The Widow Clicquot: The Story of  a Champagne Empire and the Woman who Ruled It,” author Tiar J. Mazzeo divulges the engrossing, yet improbable tale of how a young woman in the early 1800s, challenged by the circumstances of the times, became the savior of a Champagne house that is today one of the most famous and revered brands in all the world, selling over a million and a half cases annually.

The story begins at the turn of the 19th century, when a young Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin married one François Clicquot, whose family was the  founder of a Champagne house in Reims, France, the de facto capital of Champagne. When François passed in 1805, Barbe-Nicole found herself a widow, or “veuve,” at just 27 years of age with a small child to raise. The Champagne house her husband left behind was in significant financial distress, and in all of France, there were very few women who had the audacity to run businesses.

In fact, under the Napoleonic Codes then in effect, there were only three ways a woman was allowed to take control of a business: be granted permission from a father, granted permission from a husband, or be made a window.

Despite being in a position where financial and political challenges could seem overwhelming, Barbe-Nicole became the first woman to run a Champagne house, and she dedicated her life to building the business into a force in the world of wine.

“The Widow Clicquot,” written by Tilar J. Mazzeo.

The business and the art of Champagne were difficult in the early 1800s, but Madame Clicquot, a diminutive (She stood less than five feet tall) but powerful woman, was willing to break the rules. Taking a loan from her father-in-law, she focused on building new markets and, with the advent of a Franco-Russian peace treaty, set about making in-roads in the Russian aristocracy, positioning her wines as a luxury brand (before there was such a thing) and increasing demand for the wines.

She also used the name Veuve Clicquot-Ponsardin, identifying the brand as the product of a woman, a widow, no less. It is said that this provided an enhanced degree of respectability to the Champagnes. Indeed, other Champagne houses would ultimately use the word “veuve” on their labels, attempting to benefit from the association. It was a trying time, but her strategies for selling the wines eventually proved successful and were the building blocks for a brand that celebrated its 250th anniversary in 2022.

According to Mazzeo in the book, “Barbe-Nicole did more than just run the boardroom of a world-renowned Champagne business; she also took a central role in crafting the sparkling wines that carried her name.”

Indeed, under her tutelage in 1810, Veuve Clicqout introduced the first “Vintage Champagne.” Before then, Champagnes were made exclusively by blending wines from grapes harvested in different years. But this innovation introduced the concept of making a Champagne with grapes grown in a single great year, or vintage, increasing the perceived value of the wine. The 2015 Veuve Clicquot “La Grande Dame” Brut single vintage was recently released to great reviews.

The “Clicquot in the Snow” festivities.
Courtesy The Little Nell

Like your bubbles pink? You can give thanks to Madame Clicquot for her efforts there, as well, as she was the first to produce sparkling rosé wines by blending red wines into white wines rather than using maceration as the technique to provide color to a wine. It was her vision of adding red wines to a blend in 1818 that still informs how rosé Champagnes are made to this day.   

But perhaps her most significant contribution to the production of Champagne was her innovation of the riddling, or “remuage,” process to remove sediment and improve the beauty of sparkling wines, giving them their pure and clean appearance.

In need of a technique to remove the sediment or yeast that formed inside the bottles during the secondary fermentation, Madame had her winemakers cut holes into a kitchen tabletop and load the bottles in the holes with their necks pointed toward the ground. Then, as the sediment settled in the necks of the glass, they would turn the bottles just so, ensuring that all of the residue would be deposited in the necks to be disgorged. The technique is mostly automated today but remains a substantive part of the codified rules for the “méthode Champenoise” that rules how a Champagne can be produced.

Beyond all of that, Madame Clicquot set a standard that remains to this day of how to be a success in the wine business. Her determination, creativity, and attention to quality transcends gender and is an inspiration for others who followed in her footsteps — both in Champagne and the broader wine world.

Now you know the story behind the woman on the cap. Thanks for bringing the Veuve Clicquot and her story to our attention, Rachael!

Under The Influence

The famed Yellow label was legally established in 1877 after being introduced in the 1830s during Madame Clicquot’s reign. It is one of the most recognizable bottles in all of wine. You can enjoy a glass of Veuve and après-ski with bubbles at the base of Aspen Mountain, at the weekly “Clicquot in the Snow” celebration of springtime at Ajax Tavern. Veuve Clicquot specials, Ajax favorites, and a live DJ all are on call on Ajax Tavern’s sun-soaked patio Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays from 2-5 p.m. through April 2. Seating is first-come, first-served.

Veuve Cliequot.
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