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Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Person Who Changed the Course of Champagne

                    The process of riddling and the riddling rack was invented by Veuve Clicquot

Prior to my last post, many readers may have thought this article was about Dom Perignon who is erroneously credited with inventing Champagne. Not only is it not about him, but it’s about a woman….a widow no less. This story is about how the iconic Veuve Clicquot (veuve means “widow” in French) changed the landscape of the modern day Champagne industry.

Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin was the daughter of a wealthy father who was a member of Napoleon’s inner political circle. (In fact, Mr Ponsardin was granted the title of mayor of Champagne’s most famous city, Reims, by the Emperor.) Mademoiselle Ponsardin married into an equally affluent and well-connected family, the Clicquots. A few years later her young husband died leaving her a significant business involved in banking, wool trading and wine production. The year was 1805 and the widow Clicquot was only 27 years old.

In the early 1800’s it was unthinkable for a woman to run a company but the veuve Clicquot was determined to take over Clicquot’s wine-making operation. To complicate matters further, France was in turmoil due to the Napoleonic Wars, as well as the French Revolution. But the clever, unstoppable widow persevered against all odds. Totally immersing herself in learning every minute detail of the family’s wine business, she embarked on a career of risk-taking that few men may have had the guts for.

Although the widow Clicquot is known for several innovations in Champagne, the one that she is most famous for is inventing a process that revolutionalized the sparkling wine industry. Prior to her invention, Champagne was cloudy and gritty. These unpleasantries were caused by dead yeast cells (yeasts are used to create the bubbles in Champagne). Madame Clicquot developed a method to get rid of the disagreeable yeast debris. She called it “riddling.” Here’s how it works.

Riddling is a several month process of gradually turning Champagne bottles into an upside-down position. This painstaking and labor-intensive process moves the yeast sediment by gravity to the neck of the bottle where it settles against the cork.  The neck of the bottle (still turned upside down) is then frozen in an ice bath and the dead yeasts freeze into a small ice cube up against the cork. The bottle is opened, the cork very quickly removed (and with it the frozen plug of dead yeasts), a new cork is replaced. Voila! The Champagne is now clear and free from any grainy yeast debris.

Not only did Madame Clicquot invent the riddling process, but she designed a special rack to efficiently and effectively rotate (or “riddle”) the bottles. This process and these racks are still used today in sparkling wine production around the world, although larger wineries have recently begun using mechanical riddling machines.

When the veuve Clicquot died at the age of 88, she was still intimately involved in her wine business. Madame Clicquot was also one of the richest women in Europe. Over the course of >60 years, she had taken her namesake brand from a small family winery to one of the leading Champagnes. While the widow Clicquot will always be remembered for her critical impact on the sparkling wine industry, she should also be acknowledged for being one of the first businesswomen of the modern era.

For a fabulous read on the widow Cliquot’s life and her many contributions to the world of Champagne don’t miss The Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It by Tilar Mazzeo. Moreover, if you’re coming with Wine-Knows to France in September, we’ll be visiting Veuve Clicquot for a private tour and tasting where you’ll be able to see many of the widow’s memorabilia which have been preserved in the a special museum.    

A toast to the widow Clicquot!

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