The Wine Widow: Veuve Clicquot
The widow popped the cork on a bottle of her prized 1811 cuvée. A comet that year had brought her good luck. From then on, she’d branded all her corks with a tiny comet. It had become her signature.
Standing next to the winepress in the storeroom where it had all started—the very room where she and her dead husband, François, had carefully laid the foundation of their dream—she set the cork aside and poured herself a glass. Her golden champagne burst with enthusiasm, sending tiny droplets into the air. The effervescent bubbles called her to join them in a dance of celebration. Napoléon’s War was over. The emperor had finally abdicated and had been banished to Elba where he belonged. Just weeks prior, she and her brother had entertained him on his sweep through her hometown of Reims. How she despised him! But it was her duty to see to his comfort in her father’s absence. To snub the emperor could have put her entire family out of favor, and worse, jeopardized her wine enterprise.
Glass in hand, she paced the storeroom. Even without insulting the emperor, how much longer could she stay in business? Napoléon’s trade restrictions had kept her from selling her wines, had kept all of Champagne’s vintners from getting their product to market at home and abroad.
She closed her eyes and inhaled the wine’s sumptuous bouquet, then sampled it again, swishing it in her mouth, allowing it to roll over her palate. It tasted cool from being stored in her crayéres, a labyrinth of underground tunnels dug into Champagne’s chalk soil, the magnificent terroir that gave champagne its distinctive flavor. All the right notes were there. Pear. Lemon. Almond.
The door stood ajar to capture the morning light. She meandered to it. Fog had blanketed her vines when she had arrived at sunrise but had lifted. Her gaze stretched for miles over rows of vines: pinot noir for her champagne’s body; chardonnay for acidity and structure; pinot meunier to balance the two. Such precious harmony.
Now that the war was over, trade was sure to reopen any moment. The Russians loved her champagne. During their brief occupation of Champagne, they’d drunk hers with the passion of a lover. If she could be the first to flood Imperial Russia’s market with her prized 1811 vintage, she would secure the lion’s share of buyers. Blockades were still in place, however, barring her from selling across international lines.
But if she could be the first…if her wines were already at the border, ready to load into wagons the minute restrictions lifted, she’d have the edge she needed.
If it were only that easy. The widow wandered to a nearby row of vines and ran her hand across the rough stems climbing their way upward. Signs of budding were everywhere, reminding her of her daughter, Clementine. If she began transporting her wine to the border without a license, which she would never get, if caught, the authorities would seize every last bottle. It would seal her fate. How her competitors would love to witness her demise. They had done everything they could to destroy her, had mocked her at every turn. Business was no place for a woman, they’d said. What did she know about making wine? Who did she think she was? Even women had scoffed at her, had shamed her, accused her of acting without consideration for her reputation and disregarding Clementine’s.
The widow had paid them no mind. Her convictions had seen her through the worst of times; then, as now, they would see her through again. She would look to the future as she always did. If her business was to survive, she must be the first ship to Russia. She must beat her most fierce competitor, Jean-Rémy Moët. Defiant, she held up her glass as if proposing a toast. “I shall run the blockade,” she said to her vineyards. To François, who was still with her every minute of every day, she said, “For you…for us!”
The widow to whom I refer in my short vignette is no imaginary figure. She is the audacious Barb-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin, known during her lifetime as The Widow Clicquot, or, as the French would say, Veuve Clicquot. Hers is the name behind Veuve Clicquot, one of the world’s most famous champagne houses.
In 1814, Barb-Nicole really did make one of the most daring decisions of her lifetime: to run the blockades in order to be the first to ship her champagne to Russia. Her risk was her reward. She went on to become a wine magnate, a veritable tycoon at a time when society relegated women to the parlor.
Today, Barb-Nicole is widely considered the world’s first international businesswoman. I ran across her name a few years ago when I discovered in a food magazine The Widow Clicquot, a biography by Dr. Tilar J. Mazzeo. Mazzeo is an American cultural historian as well as a self-described “passionate student of wine and food culture.” My kinda gal.
The Widow Clicquot is a fascinating read, one that peers into the widow’s life and takes readers deep into the champagne wine-making process along with a look at Champagne’s storied past. In addition to the region’s famed bubbly spirit—it is the only place on earth allowed to produce champagne—major battles during World War I occurred on its chalk soil. Champagne’s strategic location placed it at the center of the Western Front, where The Battle of Verdun and both Battles on the Marne, to name a few, took place. Later, the German’s surrendered in Reims in May 1945, officially ending World War II. Both World Wars and previous wars, like the Napoleonic Wars, forced Champagne winemakers to go to great lengths to protect their wines from pillage and destruction, including Barb-Nicole.
Being a widow couldn’t have been easy. She lost François, the love of her life and father to her only daughter, to typhoid. Or suicide, as gossip in those days went. Though there are no facts to prove it was suicide, suspicion at the time ran deep. The young couple’s business was faltering. Had François, who was known to have bouts of deep melancholy, taken his own life? Barb-Nicole was only twenty-seven at the time.
However painful widowhood was it gave Barb-Nicole important freedoms and rights single or married women did not enjoy. When she saw it as her mission in life to make her and François’ dream come true and announced she would run the business herself, men and women alike ridiculed her. Her lonely status as a widow, however, allowed her the authority to call her own shots, to make her own decisions.
Still, she could not have survived such heated criticism had she not been a determined woman. When all the world says to a person you don’t belong, when they say you can’t do what you so fervently desire, only the sturdy prevail. Barb-Nicole was nothing if not sturdy. When you read the details of her life’s story, her grit is undeniable. She was ambitious, smart. In time, she had her hand in all parts of the wine-making process. She became an expert.
In the decades that followed her decision to forge ahead without her beloved François, Barb-Nicole proved to be a brilliant businesswoman. And an innovative winemaker. Consider that at the time, making champagne was a tedious, costly process. During fermentation, to each bottle a vintner had to add sugar and yeast halfway through the fermentation process. This was and still is the case. The added sugar and yeast are what create the lovely bubbles that give champagne its signature fizz. But in Barb-Nicole’s day, when the champagne was ready, winemakers were left with a slug of yeast at the bottom of the bottle, requiring them to transfer the clear champagne to a new bottle. Exacerbating the dilemma, bottles were still hand-blown when Barb-Nicole and François first entered the business. If pressure wasn’t properly released in a timely manner during fermentation, the bottles were prone to burst.
Eventually, better bottles came along. But there was still the problem of the sugar and yeast sediment. The widow insisted there had to be a better way. What if she turned the bottles upside down and agitated the wine ever so gently to force the yeast to gather at the neck of the bottle? All she would have to do when the wine was ready is pop the cover, tip out the yeast ball, and cork the bottle.
So far, so good. But how to do that with thousands of bottles of wine?
Barb-Nicole eventually came up with an ingenious idea. With her assistant, they drilled holes in two boards and hinged them together, placed each bottle upside down at an angle in the holes, then turned each bottle religiously on a set schedule to agitate the wine. The method, known as riddling, or rumauge, became the standard for making champagne for over a century. But not for more than a decade after Barb-Nicole’s invention. She and the few loyal men she hired to turn the bottles kept Barb-Nicole’s method a secret, giving her champagne house miles of lead way in turning out the best champagne on earth. How’s that for business savvy?
A riddling table
The story opens with Nicole Ponsardin at age eleven (the author refers to her as Nicole throughout the novel) at the beginning of the French Revolution. Life in her hometown of Reims is immediately turned upside down. We see how the Revolution impacts Champagne and Nicole’s family, as well as how it shapes her as she grows to womanhood.
When she comes of age, Nicole marries the handsome, buoyant François Clicquot. Fripp masterfully tells the tale of true love shared by the couple. They are filled with hope and passion.
But as we already know, François dies, leaving Nicole heartbroken. In the face of intense grief, she sets out on a daunting path to fulfill their dream without him by her side.
Not so fast, says the era and the society in which she lives. Certain strictures are in place for women. To succeed, Nicole must defy tradition. With extraordinary presence of mind and a mass of self-assurance, she successfully navigates conventions that allowed little room for a woman to maneuver.
I’d love to tell you more about The French House, but no spoilers here. You must read it to fully enjoy the pleasures this story promises. What I will say is this: Fripp bases her lively conflict throughout the novel on true events. Her perfect blend of historical detail and fiction earns high marks with me. In addition, she does a superb job blending characters from real life with those she imagines may have been there to help Nicole along in her journey to becoming a business powerhouse—loyal locals, colorful men and women in Paris, and unpredictable, but ultimately helpful, Russian soldiers who encamp themselves in the Reims area. Fripp even includes a cameo appearance by Napoléon Bonaparte during the time when she did in fact entertain him with her brother in Reims. Among the most interesting exchanges in the novel are those between Nicole and her actual lifelong competitor, cast as her nemesis in the novel, Jean-Rémy Moët. Each encounter demonstrates what an intellectually astute, courageous, and competitive woman she was.
For anyone who likes period fiction about real women that accurately represents the historical record, this is the novel for you. If you love stories about wine and food, Fripp provides an intoxicating feast for the senses. Her luscious descriptions of champagne, the grapes from which this liquid gold stems, and the Champagne countryside are an added course.
After her husband died, Barb-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin never married again. Biographers like Mazzeo and novelists like Fripp paint stunning portraits of the rich life she led and the impact she had on wine-making in the region, as well as her indelible imprint on how society viewed women then and now. The next time you enjoy a glass of bubbly, raise a glass in a toast to the widow. She and others like her have proven time and again what a woman with a mind of her own can accomplish. Salut!
Thanks for reading. I’m glad you’re here.
N.J. (Nancy) Mastro
Photograph by Pline
Other books about the Champagne region you may enjoy:
Wine and War: The French, the Nazis, and the Battle for France’s Greatest Treasure, by Don Kladstrup and Petie Kladstrup
Champagne: How the World’s Most Glamourous Wine Triumphed Over Wars and Hard Times, by Don Kladstrup and Petie Kladstrup
Primary source for factual information for this post other than where noted:
The Widow Clicquot, by Tilar J. Mazzeo
Wikimedia Commons. All photos are in the public domain or credited to the photographer, as per Fair Share Guidelines.
 Geiling, Natasha. “The Widow Who Created the Champagne Industry.” November 5, 2013. Retrieved from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/the-widow-who-created-the-champagne-industry-180947570/