Champagne is synonymous with good times and celebrations, from a sports team winning the semifinals to birthday parties to New Year’s Eve. Today, the Champagne region of France has around 84,000 acres planted with grapes, 340 champagne houses, and 16,000 wine growers [PDF]. In 2019 alone, just over 297 million bottles of this golden bubbly were shipped around the globe.
But it might be surprising to learn that there was a time when this wine industry was barely hanging on. Its popularity today took the hard work and perseverance of winemakers past, especially Madame Clicquot, whose winery, Veuve Clicquot, is still known around the world for its champagne.
Madame Clicquot not only saved a failing winery in the early 1800s, but helped turn the region into the powerhouse that it is now. Here are a few facts about this innovative businesswoman.
1. Madame Clicquot lived through the French Revolution.
The future Madame Clicquot was born Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin to a wealthy family on December 16, 1777, in Reims, France. Her grandfather, Adrien Ponsardin, had made a fortune in the textile business. He later passed the business onto his son, Nicolas Ponsardin, who at one point employed the majority of Reims's textile workers, according to The Widow Clicquot by Tilar J. Mazzeo.
But the French Revolution broke out in 1789, when Barbe-Nicole was 11 years old. France's involvement in the American Revolutionary War cost the country up to 1.73 billion livres, or about a trillion dollars in today's money. This, combined with poor harvests, mass starvation, and high taxes on the lower class, eventually led to a major uprising. King Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and countless others would eventually be guillotined during the Reign of Terror.
The Ponsardin family's wealth made them a potential target of the revolutionaries during the Reign of Terror, so Nicolas Ponsardin abruptly switched his political allegiance from the monarchy to the Jacobins, a party that fomented the unrest. By doing so, the family was able to hold on to their fortune.
2. Madame Clicquot was smuggled out of school.
Barbe-Nicole attended Saint-Pierre-les-Dames, an ancient school for aristocratic women in Reims—Mary, Queen of Scots was a former student, and Renée de Lorraine, Mary Stuart's aunt, was an abbess. But when the Revolution reached Reims, the Ponsardin family had no way to retrieve their daughter without attracting unwanted attention. The family’s dressmaker supposedly met the girl at the school, dressed her as a peasant, and snuck her home. (Some historians have said it's unclear whether the girl was Barbe-Nicole or her sister Clémentine.)
3. Madame Clicquot was a widow.
In 1798, Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin married François Clicquot. He was the son and heir of Philippe Clicquot-Muiron, another wealthy textile merchant who had founded a small wine operation in 1772 in Bouzy, a village in Champagne. Their Catholic wedding was held secretly in a cellar, since revolutionaries had banned religious practice in France in 1794.
While the business would eventually be known as Veuve Clicquot, back then it was called Clicquot-Muiron et Fils ("Clicquot-Murion and Son"), and was not only a winery, but a bank and trading post as well. François increased the company's wine sales to 60,000 bottles in 1804. In 1805, however, François died of what was most likely typhoid. Twenty-seven-year-old Madame Clicquot was left alone with their young daughter, Clémentine.
4. Philippe Clicquot, her late husband's father, was Madame Clicquot's first investor.
After his son's death, Philippe Clicquot planned to liquidate his champagne house. But Madame Clicquot surprised him by asking if she could take over the business, and by seeking his investment in the company. This was a risky proposition, since she had very little experience in business or wine.
Philippe Clicquot eventually agreed under the condition that she engage in an apprenticeship with Jérôme Alexandre Fourneaux. He was a widely known winemaker who was particularly skilled at blending various wines together before they were bottled in a process called assemblage, which is how champagne is made.
Both Madame Clicquot and Fourneaux invested 80,000 francs, while her late husband’s father invested 30,000 francs and the business assets.
5. Madame Clicquot invented a piece of equipment that is still used today.
Making champagne is a complex process, and it's commonly produced with only pinot noir, chardonnay, and pinot meunier grapes. To start, the grapes are harvested and pressed, and then undergo primary fermentation. From there, different still wines are blended together and sugar is added to kick off a second fermentation process, which creates champagne's famous bubbles. But this process leaves behind dead yeast cells, called lees, that make the wine look cloudy.
Originally, winemakers got rid of the lees by pouring the wine from one bottle to another, but it took time, and a lot of bubbly ended up on the floor. To streamline the process, Madame Clicquot devised the riddling rack, which stored bottles at an angle, allowing all the lees to collect in the cap over time and making them easier to remove. As a result, she could produce bottles much faster than her competitors. The method is still used today in many champagne houses.
6. The Napoleonic Wars hurt Madame Clicquot's sales.
Following the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar, a major naval engagement of the Napoleonic Wars, Britain and France put up blockades and embargoes that devastated international trade. Many of the widow’s clients were foreign, and she watched her sales drop to barely 10,000 bottles a year.
At the end of her apprenticeship with Fourneaux, the business was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. Once again, Madame Clicquot had to go to her late husband’s father and ask him for money. Again, she was successful.
7. Madame Clicquot created the first recorded single-vintage champagne.
Champagne is a blend of different wines and grapes that are often harvested in different years. But to be considered a vintage bottle, all the grapes must have been harvested in the same year.
Being the trendsetter that she was, Madame Clicquot created the first recorded vintage in 1810 because of a particularly good harvest. Coincidentally, that year Fourneaux left the business and the house officially became known as Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin.
But it would be her 1811 vintage that would go down in history, and it started with a comet.
Winemakers have long seen comets as a favorable sign that they’ll have a good harvest and a good vintage. For the majority of 1811, the Great Comet (a.k.a. C/1811 F1) burned brightly in the sky. To commemorate it, Madame Clicquot named her 1811 vintage “The Year of the Comet," and even added a star on the cork.
This vintage has been called "the first truly modern champagne." Previously, Madame Clicquot's champagne had big gassy bubbles that some called "toad's eyes," which created an unpleasant foam. Her riddling technique allowed for smaller bubbles and a sharper tasting wine rather than a sickly sweet one.
8. Madame Clicquot defied Napoleon's trade blockades.
After Napoleon was defeated in Russia toward the end of 1812, Reims found itself occupied by Russian armies. Many producers buried their wines and fled to safer territory, but Madame Clicquot saw this as a business opportunity to get the word out about her wines.
Rather than try to prevent Russian troops from pillaging her wine cellars, as they had done to many others, Madame Clicquot invited them to drink all they could, in the hopes they would spread the good word about her wines when they returned home. “Today they drink. Tomorrow they will pay,” she said. She kept her 1811 vintage hidden, though.
Toward the end of the Napoleonic wars, Madame Clicquot was on the brink of bankruptcy, so she decided to make yet another risky business decision and defy Napoleon's trade blockades. In 1814, she chartered a boat, loaded about 10,550 bottles on board, managed to sneak the boat around a fleet of warships, and delivered the cargo to Königsberg (modern-day Kaliningrad, Russia).
It turns out her decision to let the soldiers drink paid off. Each precious bottle sold for approximately $100. Czar Alexander I, who was instrumental in Napoleon's defeat in Russia, said that Madame Clicquot's "Year of the Comet" vintage was all he would ever drink.
9. Madame Clicquot was one of the first producers of rosé champagne.
Rosé champagne can be made either two ways: by blending wine or by letting the juice from red grapes sit on the fruit’s skin for a few hours, both of which give the classically golden bubbly a pinkish hue.
Though champagne house Ruinart produced rosé champagne in 1764 by adding elderberries, Madame Clicquot was the first to make this pink bubbly drink by blending still red wine with sparkling wine in 1818.
10. Madame Clicquot died in 1866, but her legacy lives on.
Over the course of her life, Madame Clicquot took a business that was barely selling 10,000 bottles a year and turned it into a business that was annually exporting 750,000 bottles of bubbly at the time of her death. Today, Veuve Clicquot is said to produce 1.5 million cases of wine each year.
The widow died in 1866 in a château that she had built for her daughter's family. Today, the same property operates as the champagne house Château de Boursault.
But Madame Clicquot did more than turn a struggling wine business into a successful one. She played a key role in transforming Champagne into a world-renowned region. And beyond that, she created a window of opportunity for women in the wine business where there previously hadn’t been one at all. She may have said it best in a note to her great-granddaughter toward the end of her life: “The world is in perpetual motion, and we must invent the things of tomorrow. One must go before others, be determined and exacting, and let your intelligence direct your life. Act with audacity.”