The Widow Clicquot
The story of a champagne empire and the woman who ruled it
Tilar J. Mazzeo
This meticulously researched book is anything but another dry text of facts and figures on the production of champagne. It is a truly fascinating look inside the life of the woman who revolutionised the champagne industry against the background of Napoleans revolution. Packed with intrigue, disappointments and daring flashes of genius, risking all, she ultimately gained the upper hand and the respect of her greatest nemesis and competitor Jean-Remy Moet.
The Widow Clicquot superbly combines a ripping yarn of well perhaps not quite rags to riches (she was the daughter of a prominent industrialist, wine was merely a sideline) with historical events of the times. Revel in the rivalries of the great champagne houses, the discoveries, the jealousies, documented in the letters of Moet that reveal ‘sufficiently eloquent’ the rivalry that existed between Jean-Remy Moet and the Widow Clicquot..... a climate of imitation that flirted with espionage reigned between the two houses.
During the second decade of the nineteenth century, champagne went from being a regional curiosity, known only at the royal courts of Europe to becoming the world’s most recognizable wine and an iconic symbol of celebration and style.
Within the cellars after her workers had departed each day she conducted her own experiments with racking and turning, when she told the workers of her plan to produce clear wines, they merely laughed and said it would never work. After only six weeks, she was amazed and gratified to discover that with a quick flick of the cork all the residue came shooting out without any harm to the wine and without all the previous tedious work. With this new system she was able to accelerate her production and keep her hard-won share of the export market. Above all she knew that what it meant was growth and a devastating advantage if she could keep it out of the hands of her competitors. The industry was poised on the brink of transformation but it needed new innovations to flourish. Now that the market for champagne was exploding it was a question of whether wine makers could discover new techniques for mass-producing this delicate wine and a question of who would discover it first.
With the success of the experiments Barbe-Nicole brought all the work in her cellars to a halt. Immediately, they would change over to her new way of disgorging the wines. There was grumbling still. She pleaded with her workers not to divulge what she already knew would be a crucial company secret as important to the future of her business as those stealthy plans that had got her wines to Russia before any of her competitors. It is a sign of the loyalty she inspired, and the effects of a generous profit sharing system with some of her key employees that remuage remained a secret for the better part of a decade.
What she discovered changed the way champagne is finished to this day.
Its origin hardly dates beyond the eighteenth century and it was still, even in the middle of that century, so rare that only a few rich and privileged amateurs tasted it. Moet and Chandon in 1780 thought it a bold venture to have made six thousand bottles in a year. In the year following the legendary vintage of 1811, Barbe-Nicole was scraping by on sales of under 20,000. By the 1820’s, industry leaders like Barbe-Nicole and Jean Remy were exporting upward of 175,000 bottles a year. Champagne never looked back. But for Barbe-Nicole, it would not always be such clear sailing.
Madame Clicquot wasn't by any means the only woman to have left an indelible mark on the champagne industry. The celebrated Madame Louise Pommery also forged the way forward of women in the industry, but that is another story altogether.
Today Champagne Veuve Clicquot is owned by the luxury conglomerate LVMH (Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, acquired 1987) which also owns Champagne Moet et Chandon.
TIKI TOURS - Country Roads France tour highlight: Tour the Champagne region and towns of Reims and the legendary cathedral of Notre Dame, a true masterpiece of gothic art, Epernay and of course without a visit to the prestigious house and cellars of Moet and Chandon for a tasting your day would not be complete. Contact us for a brochure and itinerary details - Country Roads France tour - 20 days - May.