“Three be the things I shall never attain: Envy, content, and sufficient champagne,” wrote Dorothy Parker in her poem “Inventory”.
In 1772, Philippe Clicquot-Muiron established the original enterprise that later became the house of Veuve Clicquot. It was his son, François Clicquot, who married Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin in 1798 and died in 1805 leaving his widow (veuve in French) in control of a company involved in banking, the wool trade and champagne production.
Under Madame Clicquot’s guidance, the firm focused exclusively on champagne – avec un succès fou. During the Napoleonic Wars, Madame Clicquot established her wine in royal courts throughout Europe, notably that of Imperial Russia. By the time she died in 1866, Veuve Clicquot had become both a highly respected brand.
Madame Clicquot is credited with a breakthrough in champagne handling that made mass production of the wine possible. In the early 19th century, with the assistance of her cellar master, Antoine de Müller, Clicquot invented the riddling rack – which made one of the crucial processes in champagne production both more efficient and economic. Clicquot’s innovation involved systematically collecting the spent yeast and sediment left from the wine’s secondary fermentation in the bottle’s neck using a specialised rack.
The rack allowed a bottle of wine to be placed upside down. Every day a cellar assistant would gently agitate the bottle to encourage the wine solids to settle to the bottom. When this was completed, the cork was carefully removed, the sediments removed and a small dose of sweetened wine added. Et voilà!
In 2008 a bottle of 115-year-old champagne was found hidden in a sideboard at a Scottish castle. The 1893 bottle of Veuve Clicquot had been locked away in Torosay Castle, Isle of Mull, for more than a century. Owner Chris James made the find after employing a specialist locksmith to cut a key and open the piece of furniture. He contacted the firm of Veuve Clicquot, which said the bottle was the oldest in existence. The company now has it on display at its visitor centre in Reims, France.
In 2010 divers found 30 bottles of champagne thought to pre-date the French Revolution off the coast of Aaland, Finland. When opened, the wine – believed to have been made by Clicquot between 1782 and 1788 – was found to be still in good condition.
The whole story of this eminently merry widow is told in Tilar J. Mazzeo’s book The Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It (Harper Collins, 2008).