I’m indulging my interests again this week, as I’ve discovered a fascinating story behind my favourite champagne. Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin was born in Reims in 1777 to a wealthy family, and married Francois Clicquot at the age of 21. But her husband died just 6 years later, probably killed by his own champagne. Believe it or not, it was a common treatment for typhoid. He left Barbe-Nicole with a child and a struggling business of which champagne only formed a small part: the rest involved banking, wool trading and wine.
The Napoleonic Code at the time dictated that a woman’s place was in the home. But instead, Barbe-Nicole discovered that widows were the only women who were allowed any social freedom. With financial help from her father in law, she took over the running of the business and focused entirely on champagne, renaming the champagne house in her name: veuve is French for widow. But the early years were difficult; she sold her jewellery to keep the business afloat. She was also frustrated by the quality of her early efforts. Champagne at the time was sweet and cloudy, with big bubbles. She helped develop a new technique called riddling, which allows the sediment of dead yeast to collect in the neck where it can easily be removed, and is a key component of the méthode champenoise that is still used today.
1811 brought a superb grape harvest, and the glut of good wine caused prices to plummet. So Barbe-Nicole turned the wine into champagne, which meant that it wasn’t ready for market until the winter of 1812, a gamble that didn’t help her cash flow. It wasn’t the best time to be building a business empire: the Napoleonic Wars had plunged France into turmoil. But Barbe-Nicole turned the situation to her advantage. When Reims was taken over by the Russian Army, she served her champagne to the officers. When the war put a stop to commercial shipping, she managed to sneak a boat around the armada, delivering 10,000 bottles of the 1811 champagne to Russia. When it reached St Petersburg, Czar Alexander insisted on drinking nothing else. Within two years, Barbe-Nicole was the head of a commercial empire – one of the first women to do so. Napoleon’s abdication in 1814 set the scene for champagne becoming synonymous with celebration.
Now Barbe-Nicole had the best product in the world, had developed an international market and decided to make her brand instantly recognizable, by putting bright yellow labels on the bottles. The labels feature an anchor in the middle of a star, which represents the great comet of 1811, which was believed to have caused the legendary vintage of that year. By the 1820s, she was exporting 175,000 bottles a year.
Sadly, professional success came at personal cost. Barbe-Nicole thought nothing of working from seven in the morning until ten at night. She sent her daughter away to a convent boarding school in Paris, and later encouraged her to lead a more conventional life; she married a nobleman.
Barbe-Nicole died in 1866, but her legacy lives on in a product that everyone recognizes. Veuve Clicquot also produces a prestige product in exceptional vintages called La Grande Dame, a tribute to its founder. In 1972, an award was launched in her name to recognize the achievement of female entrepreneurs and business leaders. Shortly before her death, she wrote to a great-grandchild: “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.”