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The Unlikely Story of Madame Clicquot

This is the story of a trailblazing woman, a young widow, a French dame who steered her departed husband’s wine business into a wealth of fame and acclaim. This is the story of an 18th-century woman who, by the standards of the time, should probably have been lost in history, seen and not heard. Instead, this is the story of a lady who built a formidable business that’s prized by wine lovers around the world hundreds of years later.

This is the story of the Madame Clicquot, the Grand Dame of Champagne.

The Birth of an Icon

Madame Clicquot

On December 16, 1777, a wealthy politician and textile manufacturer named Ponce Jean Nicolas Phillipe Ponsardin and his wife, Jeanne Josephe Marie-Clémentine Letertre Huart, welcomed a baby girl.

Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin was born into a family with plenty of financial strength and influence to boot. Her father was voted onto the city council and helped plan the festivities surround the coronation of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, but his ambitions of advantageous marriages for his daughters were somewhat thwarted when the French Revolution broke out in 1789. Monsieur Ponsardin shrewdly decided to change sides and began supporting the revolution, thereby saving his family from the angry mobs who might have otherwise made them a target.

Still, Barbe-Nicole’s prospects remained limited. While the Ponsardin family’s standing provided certain privileges and protections, women were still very much considered to be second-class citizens – seen and not heard and definitely not power players in the business world. Barbe-Nicole’s sole role was advance her family by marrying the right person with the right connections. And, in 1798, that’s exactly what she did.

A Sparkling Idea

Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin was just 21 when she married Francois Clicquot. Clicquot also came from a “good family” – his father was involved in both banking and trade and his textile business was in direct competition with Monsieur Ponsardin’s (they were also neighbors. The Clicquot family also dabbled in winemaking, a side business launched in 1772.

Legend has it that the Ponsardin-Clicquot wedding, which was very much the business deal or family merger one might expect, was held in secret thanks to the political upheaval running rampant through France at the time. The young couple seemed to take to each other, though, and Francois dreamed of turning his father’s small wine concern into a larger, more profitable entity.

The existing Clicquot wine business was more of a distribution center. They would take wine from local producers and export cases alongside shipments of textiles. Francois wanted to go into production and shift focus from still wines to the bubblies that had been so popular during the reign of Louis XV. Despite her gender, Barbe-Nicole proved to a valuable partner thanks to her family’s experience in the wine industry. Together, the newlyweds tried to build a business.

Becoming the Widow Clicquot

Unfortunately, a long marriage and an easy road to success were not to be.

In 1805, the wine business was floundering and Francois contracted a fever. Within 12 days, he was dead. A mere six years after marrying, Barbe-Nicole was left a widow and her father-in-law declared his intent to dismantle his son’s wine business for good.

Barbe-Nicole had other ideas.

She approached Philippe Clicquot and asked him to give her a chance to turn the business around – a chance and about $1 million. Despite her lack of experience and the fact that she was very clearly a woman, Clicquot said yes. There were, however, conditions. Clicquot required his daughter-in-law to apprentice with winemaker Alexandre Fourneaux. If she completed the apprenticeship and could prove she knew what she was doing, she’d have Clicquot’s blessing.

Building the House of Clicquot

Barbe-Nicole did indeed complete her apprenticeship but the business was still failing. She got another injection of cash and came up with a plan. The Napoleonic Wars were coming to a close and she sensed that Russians would be ready for the sweet sparkling wine she currently had aging in her cellar. She took a gamble and smuggled her Champagne to Amsterdam where it sat until peace was declared before then continuing on to Russia.

It was a bold move and it paid off massively. Clicquot Champagne was the first to arrive in Russia and it quickly became the drink of choice for Tsar Alexander. That endorsement proved to be a masterpiece of marketing and the bourgeois clamored for more.

Soon the demand for Clicquot was vastly outweighing supply.

The Invention of Riddling

To increase production, Barbe-Nicole knew she had to change the way she was making her Champagne. The popular method at the time involved transferring wine from one bottle to another to get rid of the dead yeast that’s a byproduct of in-bottle fermentation. The problem with that technique is that it’s both tedious and wasteful.

wine in a riddling rack

Pic of wine in a riddling rack, courtesy of Betsy Weber/Flickr

Instead, Barbe-Nicole created a process, called “riddling,” whereby gentle agitation caused the dead yeast to gather in the neck of upside-down wine bottles. She cut holes in her kitchen table to create a riddling rack and then, with help from an employee named Anton Muller, found that freezing the neck made it easy to remove the disgorged sediment in one solid plug.

The result was a less cloudy wine, faster production, and a lot more Clicquot hitting the market.

The Legacy of Madame Clicquot

Madame Clicquot died on July 29, 1866. She was 89.

She passed away knowing that Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin was the of the top-selling Champagnes in the world. It’s still widely popular with production somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 million bottles per year.

Even better, the legendary Champagne is named after the woman who made it such a success – veuve means “widow,” so each signature yellow label is a tribute to the drive and determination of Barbe-Nicole.

Every time a winemaker perfects their juice using riddling, Barbe-Nicole is honored. Every blended rose can be traced back to 1818, when Madame Clicquot first added a bit of red wine to her basic brut. Every time a female winemaker proves her worth in an industry that often still skews male, somewhere, the Widow Clicquot smiles.

It’s a legacy that sits as a beautiful homage to the unexpected rise of a legend.


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About The Author
Alana Luna
Alana Luna
Alana is a freelance food and wine writer currently living in Las Vegas, NV. She is a lifelong hospitality enthusiast, having been born into the industry and raised in restaurants (and perhaps the odd bar or two…). Prior to writing full time, Alana worked on the Las Vegas Strip where she was lucky to learn from some of the leading wine professionals in the world while tasting some of the very best bottles wine country (in the broadest sense of the term) has to offer. Above all, she believes in the power of a really good story, and stories involving food and wine are her very favorite tales to tell.

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