Grand Dame of Champagne
By Amy Lively Jensen
As we are celebrating the holidays with a glass or three of rosé bubbly, we can also celebrate a 27-year-old widow who changed the world of champagne forever. Madam Barbe-Nicole Clicquot was the creator of the first known blended Rose’ Champagne 200 years ago. She also invented numerous processes and equipment that transformed the industry and helped turn the Champagne into the world-renowned region it is today.
Madam Cliquot began her passion for champagne when she married Francois Clicquot in 1798. He was son to the founder of the Maison Clicquot. Francois shared his ardor and knowledge for champagne creation and distribution with his young wife. Despite the couples’ devotion to making champagne, the business was on the brink of collapse. Six years after their marriage Francois suddenly fell ill with a fever which was most likely typhoid. Twelve days later he died, leaving his young widow to take the helm of the failing business. To keep it afloat, she asked her father-in-law to make an investment in the operation. He took a gamble that Veuve Cliquot could turn the business around; it was a risky proposition, since she had very little experience in business or winemaking. Combining all that she had learned from her husband and her remarkable 19th century business mind, she reshaped this struggling wine business into one of the world's most beloved and recognized champagne houses. Over the course of her life, Madame Clicquot took a company that was barely selling 10,000 bottles a year and turned it into a business that was annually exporting 750,000 bottles of bubbly at the time of her death. Today, Veuve Clicquot produces 1.5 million cases of wine each year.
While raising her daughter Clementine, she became one of the world's first international businesswomen; this was when women in France were considered second-class citizens. Women at that time were relegated to the rank of servants to their husbands, but widowhood allowed this keenly intelligent woman to run the business.
Veuve Clicquot (which translates to the Widow Clicquot) brought important innovations to the production of champagne. She created exotic pink champagne by adding still red wine to her sparkling in 1818. This is called the saignèe method and continues to be used over two centuries later.
The "Grande Dame of Champagne" is credited with other advancements. The elegant shape of champagne bottles was her brainchild. Perhaps her greatest contribution was the ingenious process of riddling that changed the cloudy appearance of champagne into the crystal-clear champagne we love. Originally, winemakers got rid of the lees (the dead yeast cells that are left behind after the wines’ second fermentation process which creates champagnes bubbles) by pouring the wine from one bottle to another. This took time and a lot of bubbly ended up on the floor. To streamline the process, Madame Clicquot devised the riddling rack, which stored bottles at an angle, allowing all the lees to collect in the cap over time and making them easier to remove. As a result, she could produce bottles much faster than her competitors. Once only enjoyed by the nobility, mass production brought champagne to the public. The method is still used today in many champagne houses. Riddling also improved the quality of champagne. Prior to using the riddling method, Veuve’s champagne had big gassy bubbles. Her technique resulted in smaller bubbles and a sharper tasting wine rather than an overly sweet one.
She created a window of opportunity for women in the wine industry that continues to grow. She summarized her philosophy in a note to her granddaughter toward the end of her life: “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.”
Being the trendsetter that she was, Veuve Cliquot created the first recorded vintage champagne in 1810 because of a particularly good harvest. But it would be her 1811 vintage that would go down in history, and it started with a comet. Winemakers have long seen comets as a favorable sign that they’ll have a great harvest and a great vintage. For the majority of 1811, the Great Comet burned brightly in the sky. To commemorate it, Madame Clicquot named her 1811 vintage “The Year of the Comet,” and even added a star on the cork. This vintage has been called “the first truly modern champagne.”
Veuve Clicquot champagnes are always pinot noir dominant as they believe it adds strength and structure to their wines. As the Veuve Clicquot website explains: The blend is made using 50 to 60 different crus, and 30 to 45% of Reserve wines. The cuvee is based on Yellow Label’s traditional blend. The Pinot Noir predominance (50-55%), Chardonnay (28-33%) and Meunier (15-20%) rounds out the blend. The blend is then completed with 12% of still red wine using red grapes, providing fruitiness. They age the rosé for a minimum of three years.
With the vast array of Blanc de Blancs champagne found in wine shops and on restaurant menus, you would think that Chardonnay is very widely planted. Actually, it is the least planted grape variety in Champagne. In fact, Chardonnay-based champagnes make up less than 5% of the category. Pinot Noir is the most widely planted variety in the region encompassing 32,000 acres. That is more than in Pinot Noir’s ancestral home, Burgundy.
It's not surprising that rosé champagne has skyrocketed in popularity over the last few decades. With its slightly red color, delicate bubbles and crisp, clean flavors that tingle on your tongue into a long-lasting finish, who wouldn’t want to be drinking such a resplendent beverage? During the pandemic, rosé champagne catapulted to the top of the sales boom. While rosé accounts for only 5% of the champagne segment, it has outperformed the rest of the bubbles with over 75% growth for the quarter. This clearly shows that it is quickly becoming the champagne category preferred during festive seasons and special occasions. Higher quality rosé is an expensive choice. Making it is far more labor-intensive and time-consuming, which reflects in the cost. It is interesting to note that high priced rosé are selling more than their cheaper, generic counterparts. This is mostly because the expensive ones mean the producers paid attention to the quality, which further enhances the drinking experience. A bottle of nearly 200-year-old Veuve Clicquot purportedly broke the record for the most expensive champagne ever sold. In 2011, a bidder paid $34,000 for a bottle of shipwrecked Veuve Clicquot found at the bottom of the Baltic Sea. It was estimated to have been made between 1825 and 1830.
What should you pair with rosé champagne? As an aperitif, it excels when served with smoked salmon or smoked ham canapes. For a main course, its smoothness works particularly well with dishes that include mushrooms, fish in sauce or fine white meats. Others suggest that vintage rosé champagnes can take a slightly meatier pairing, due to the higher proportion of Pinot Noir used to create them. A stronger-flavored fish, such as salmon, roast venison or pheasant also would make a perfect pairing. When it comes to desserts, never pair it with bitter flavors such as chocolate. Another no-no is a very sweet dessert, as it will become unpleasantly sour. It would, however, be an excellent accompaniment to less sweet, fruity desserts, particularly if they have a touch of acidity. I loved it with a rhubarb and strawberry crumble.
The premiere foodie magazine, Food and Wine featured several tantalizing recipes that pair well with rosé champagne. They suggest beet risotto, chicken with slow-roasted tomatoes and cheesy grits, chicken sofrito, pork braised in champagne vinegar, creamy risotto with edamame, puff-pastry tomato tarts and panko-coated chicken schnitzel. If any of these sound appealing, you can find the recipes at:
As you make toasts this season with a glass of rosé bubbly, give another toast to the effervescent trailblazer who created it, Veuve Clicquot.