Encyclopedia Womannica

Tastemakers: Barbe-Nicole Clicquot

Episode Summary

Barbe-Nicole Clicquot (1777-1866) revolutionized the world of champagne.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, and Grace Lynch. Special thanks to Shira Atkins and Edie Allard. Theme music by Andi Kristins.

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica. 

This month, we’re talking about Tastemakers -- women who changed the culinary game. For much of history, women have been relegated to domestic tasks. Yet female innovators in food and beverage are often undercelebrated. Let’s change that. 

Today we’re heading back to the era of the French Revolution to meet the woman who revolutionized the world of champagne. Pop some bubbles and let’s talk about Barbe-Nicole Cliquot. 

Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin was born in 1777 in Reims, France. Her father was an affluent textile  industrialist who seemed to have an excellent grasp on shifting political winds. As the revolution approached, her father switched from a monarchist to a Jacobin so the family made it out of the Revolution relatively unscathed.   

Barbe-Nicole grew up on a large family estate in the Champagne region. Her next-door neighbors were the Clicquots. They too were successful in the textile industry and were actually Barbe-Nicole’s family’s chief competitors. 

Barbe-Nicole’s father and the patriarch of the Clicquot family, Philippe, decided to join forces. As a sign of the alliance, they married their children. In 1798, at the age of 21, Barbe-Nicole married Francois Clicquot. 

Despite the fact that their marriage was basically an arranged business deal, Barbe-Nicole and Francois’s marriage was a good one. 

The young couple took a serious interest in a part of the family business that was  previously an afterthought: wine. Philippe, the patriarch, sold wine as an add on to textiles when he was shipping large orders and had extra room on ships. He had no interest in production. Rather he would buy wines from the area and export them. 

While Champagne had already been invented, the Champagne region  was still more famous for white wine at that time. 

Barbe-Nicole and Francois believed there was a big opportunity in wine production so they started to learn the ins and outs of the business. 

They weren’t particularly successful. In fact, Philippe seemed to have gotten it right when he said they shouldn’t get into wine production in the first place . Barbe-Nicole and Francois business was in the dumps and in 1805, Francois fell ill with a fever and died. 

Some accounts claim he committed suicide out of depression due to his failing business. Other accounts say he had an infectious fever. 

Barbe-Nicole was devastated by her husband’s death. Philippe was also distraught and was determined to end the wine business. But Barbe-Nicole wasn’t ready to give up. She asked Philippe to invest the money she would have inherited from Francois into the wine business. 

Philippe agreed under the condition that Barbe-Nicole get an internship with an experienced vintner. She did just that and for four years she tried to make the business grow. But at the end of her apprenticeship, business was just as bad as before she started. 

Once again, Barbe-Nicole sought the help of her father-in-law and once again, he helped her out. Barbe-Nicole had her eye on an opportunity she knew could turn things around, and it all revolved around that sparkling white wine we know and love today. 

The Napoleonic Wars were close to ending. Barbe-Nicole figured that if she could get her champagne in position to reach Russia once the conflict was over, she’d be back in business. 

For some context, while the  champagne market was fairly small at that point in time,  the Russians were early adopters. But until the war was over, naval blockades made it impossible to ship product to Russia. 

Barbe-Nicole got it as close as she could -- she smuggled her best wine to Amsterdam and then waited for peace. As soon as the war was over, the shipment made it to Russia, beating Barbe-Nicole’s competitors by weeks. 

Once in Russia, Barbe-Nicole’s champagne became a hit. Czar Alexander I declared it the only champagne he would drink and demand soared. Barbe-Nicole named her brand after herself, using  the French word for “Widow” , so it was called Veuve Clicquot. 

There was just one problem: production. Champagne was complicated and very time consuming to make at that point. The fermenting liquid had to be moved from bottle to bottle to rid it of yeast that affected the taste and clarity of the end product. Once again, Barbe-Nicole found a solution. She devised a method to keep the wine in one bottle and get rid of yeast by gently agitating it. The bottles were stored upside down and twisted regularly, causing yeast to gather in the bottle’s neck. The process, called riddling, is still used today by modern champagne makers. 

Riddling revolutionized the industry. Barbe-Nicole was able to produce her product much more quickly than her competitors and it was better quality. Despite the fact that she had many employees, her workers all kept the new process a secret, a testament to their loyalty. 

It was decades before her competitors, including Jean-Remy Moet, learned the riddling method. 

By the time Barbe-Nicole passed away in 1866, Veuve Clicquot was exporting champagne across the world. Her efforts broadened the market for the beverage beyond the highest tiers of the upper class, helping to make the champagne market what it is today.

Tune in tomorrow for the story of another remarkable tastemaker.

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator.

Talk to you tomorrow!