The Clicquot Champagne Empire in France – Le vin, c’est moi !
The French champagne empire developed in times of war, Napoleon Bonaparte, and the French Revolution. The Champagne Region of France was (and still is) limited to 323 villages with a close-knit but competitive community. But how did it all begin?
Author and historian Tilar J. Mazzeo documented the history of Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin Clicquot of the Reims and the Champagne Region in her 2008 oeonbiography (wine biography), The Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It.
Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin (1777-1866) was a 16-year-old when her father, a textile merchant, prospered during the peasant revolt that led to the French Revolution. At the age of twenty, she married Francois Clicquot, who was a small-time wine broker distributing the wines made by local growers.
Francois Clicquot had an idea to make champagne for the international market. It was a time when wines were sold in wooden casks – not bottles – and champagne was sweet and unpopular. In fact, Dom Perignon, a local wine maker, worked at eliminating the bubbles from wine because no-one wanted ‘wine gone wrong.’ And if the bubbles were too big, they were called les yeux de crapard – toad’s eyes.
The early life of Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin is unclear, and Mazzeo’s text is therefore at its weakest in the first few chapters. Mazzeo uses the term ‘perhaps’ excessively because facts are limited and the author is speculating what Ponsardin did or felt. Mazzeo also uses the terms ‘surely’ and ‘certainly’ as if she knew exactly what happened, but there is limited evidence. Nevertheless, let’s continue to the wine years.
In 1805, when Barbe-Nicole Clicquot was twenty-seven, her husband died, leaving her to raise her daughter, Clementine, as a single mother. She was known as Le Veuve Clicquot– the widow Clicquot.
Alexandre Jerome Fourneaux partnered with her for four years to help her continue her husband’s wine-making plans, but he withdrew his investment to establish his own company – Champagne Taitinger – although it was Jean Remy Moet who was their greatest competitor.
By chapter 8, the narration improves due to the availability of letters and company documents, which show the progress and challenges of Clicquot’s company as she partners with Louis Bohne, her international marketer and salesman.
Success, after much hard work, starts from about 1814. When at last they achieve a measure of success, Bohne writes from Russia, where he has been promoting the brand:
‘… your judicious manner of operating, your excellent wine, and the marvelous similarities of our ideas, which produced the most splendid unity and action and execution – we did it …’
By 1819-1820 the story is interesting. In a few years, all the men who influenced Barbe-Nicole Clicquot’s career are dead – her husband, her brother, her father, and her father-in-law. It was the end of the Ponsardin family line. Louis Bohne was dead too.
Her daughter Clementine married – but not to a likeable man. The average life of a women in France at the time was only forty-five, but at the age of sixty-four, the Widow Clicquot had to make decisions to protect her legacy. She certainly did not want Clementine’s husband to get his hands on her hard-fought-for gains.
While the personal history of the Widow Clicquot is scant, Mazzeo’s best writing appears when she writes of the history of champagne and how it is made: the explosions of glass bottles, the corks that don’t fit, the boats that don’t arrive, the bad weather that spoils the harvest, the lack of sales, the sediment that won’t disgorge, the changing palettes for less sugary wine, the complaints about the size of the bubbles, the financial difficulties, and the many times she was ‘alone and on the brink of ruin.’
What the French Revolution taught the Widow Clicquot was that ‘peasants could become politicians. Kings – once esteemed gods – could face the executioner.’ Therefore, anyone could be anything. She could lead the way in champagne-making, she thinks. This is the story of Widow Clicquot’s determination, persistence, experimentation, forward thinking, inventive marketing, and ingenuity.
The distinctive yellow label came much later. Throughout her life, the Widow Clicquot lived and dreamed champagne – Le vin, c’est moi ! – the wine, it’s me! She lived a long, active life, dying at the age of 89 – outliving her daughter and two great grandchildren.
The hard-cover book can’t be called a true biography because the facts are sparse and there is much speculation. Nor can it can’t be called fiction. There is, however, enough about the birth of a champagne empire to be interesting, entertaining, and fascinating.