In the early 19th century the Code Napoléon and bourgeois codes of behaviour forced French women to live in the shadow of their husbands. It took confidence and a fair amount of pluck to venture into business. Barbe-Nicole Clicquot, born in 1777 and widowed at the age of 27, made good use of her tough character to establish a name that went on to achieve iconic status among champagne buffs. Before Madame Clicquot’s innovations, wine from the Champagne region bore little relation to the sparkling wine we know today.
Wine-growing in the Champagne region began in earnest in the seventh century with the founding of monasteries around Épernay and Hautvillers, Marne, in eastern France. Wine was a major source of income for the clergy, so woodland was cleared to be planted with vines. The wine produced there tended to be naturally fizzy.
In the 17th century a monk, Dom Pérignon, introduced new methods of producing sparkling wine. By combining several varieties of grape into an assemblage, he was able to harness the fermentation process. He went on to use more solid, corked bottles. But the vin du diable had yet to be completely tamed. Yeast would form sticky filaments and leave a deposit that made the finished wine cloudy and spoiled its taste. But Madame Clicquot would change all that.
Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin was born into a family well-versed in local politics and business. In June 1798 she married François-Marie Clicquot, whose father had interests in banking and trade. He also owned vines at Bouzy and a small wine-making concern, launched in 1772. With the revolution still in full swing, the wedding service was held in secret, in a cellar. Auspiciously, the priest gave the happy couple a book by Dom Pérignon. Clicquot, who had worked for a while in Switzerland, had a good head for business. Under his guidance, sales rose from 8,000 bottles a year in 1796 to 60,000 in 1804. Thanks to his loyal sales representative, Louis Bohne, courts all over Europe got a taste for champagne.
Madame Clicquot might have led a life of comfort at home, but her husband died in October 1805, leaving her a widow with a three-year-old daughter. Drawing on her force of character, she managed to convince her father-in-law to let her manage the business.
The following February she invested a further 80,000 francs and went into partnership with Alexandre Fourneaux, who had mastered the art of assemblage. Her first years in charge were disastrous. Europe was at war and the naval blockade severely hampered trade. Sales dropped to 10,000 bottles a year and bankruptcy loomed. In 1810 Fourneaux gave up the business. The same year Bohne wrote: “Business terribly stagnant. No sea traffic due to the English fleet. In Vienna the nobility has no money to pay tradesmen not having sold any wheat for three years. Prices are plummeting.” But the widow was a resourceful woman, with a nose for innovation.
Assisted by her cellar-man Antoine-Aloys de Muller, Madame Clicquot perfected the art of remuage, or riddling. The bottles were placed in special racks to hold them at an angle. For six to eight weeks they were rotated by a quarter-turn every day. The lees gradually settled in the neck of the bottle. The cork was then drawn, the sediment removed and liqueur (a mixture of still wine and sugar) added, its strength determines how dry the wine will be. Once this technique was perfected the champagne was crystal clear. With a few minor improvements this method is still used today.
Thanks to tight control over costs and the relationship of trust Madame Clicquot established with Bohne, the company survived the political and economic turmoil across Europe. Facing stiff competition in the British market, they decided to look for custom further east.
Unfortunately in the summer of 1812, the Russian tsar placed an embargo on French bottled wine. To dodge the measure Bohne packed champagne bottles into coffee barrels. But it was not enough to prevent 60,000 bottles of surplus inventory building up in the cellars. Something spectacular was needed. After Napoleon Bonaparte had been sent into exile on Elba, the company chartered a Dutch ship, the Sweers Gebroeders, to convey 10,550 bottles to Königsberg on the Baltic sea and a major port for the Russian market. Clicquot specified that no other wine should be carried. It sailed on 6 June 1814, as hostilities were ending, and arrived on 2 August. The whole shipment was quickly sold. Scenting success, the diligent widow dispatched another 12,780 bottles a week later, on the Bonne Intention, which sailed from Rouen. The Russian market was at her feet.
With the defeat of Napoleon, the Congress of Vienna was convened to decide on the new frontiers of Europe. The negotiations started in September 1814, soon turning into a huge party which carried on until June 1815. Champagne was in great demand and the gathering proved a huge promotional operation for the wine. It became an essential ingredient for festivities in European courts, but was soon taken up by the whole of high society, and then by the well-heeled bourgeoisie. By the Belle Époque champagne was found in cabarets, restaurants and even brothels. Without bubbly something was missing at a party, sporting event or ceremony.
But much of what was consumed was not the real thing. Madame Clicquot took fraudsters to court and carried on innovating. Originally there were no labels on her bottles. In 1798 the firm started marking its corks with an anchor, adding a green wax seal as an additional feature. For much of 1811 a comet was visible in the night sky, supposedly the sign of an outstanding vintage. Clicquot dubbed her production le vin de la comète and added a star to the cork, alongside the initials VCP, as in Veuve Clicquot-Ponsardin.
From 1876 onwards the firm pasted a yellow label on all its bottles of dry champagne for sale in Britain. In February the following year the colour of the label was registered as a trademark and it use extended to all bottles.
When Bohne died in 1821 Eduard Werler, another German, started an internship at the company. He went on to make a major contribution to the development of Maison Clicquot. In 1830 he became a partner, investing 100,000 francs in the concern. The same year he adopted French nationality and changed his name to Mathieu-Edouard Werlé. Sales steadily increased, rising from a modest 17,000 bottles of champagne in 1811 to 43,000 only five years later, and exceeding 200,000 by 1836. In 1850, when Werlé took over full control of the business, it sold 400,000 bottles.
When Madame Clicquot died in July 1866, sales had reached 750,000 bottles a year. Newspapers all over the world paid tribute to the old lady. She and her loyal assistants had conquered the world, triumphing where Bonaparte and the Grande Armée had failed.
This article appeared in Guardian Weekly, which incorporates material from Le Monde
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