Even you don’t know a lot about Veuve Clicquot I’m sure you’ve seen the yellow-label. Lined up alongside other top Champagnes like Moët & Chandon, Mumm, Pommery and Taittinger, Veuve Clicquot’s yellow is hard to miss. I hadn’t thought much more about it until I stumbled across The Widow Clicquot, by Tilar Mazzeo. This is the fascinating true story of how a young widow became the most dynamic and innovative person in the wine industry, certainly at that time.
In the late 1700s the main industry in Champagne, France was textiles and wine was really only a side project. But, as you will discover in the book, Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin, not only became a widower (“veuve ” in French) at 29, but went on to build a large champagne business during one of the most chaotic times in French history – the French Revolution, Napoleonic wars and subsequent international trade bans.
Somehow she managed to champion an entire industry. From inventing the first riddling table, which made it possible to produce a clear wine; she was the first champagne producer to sell the wines outside of France; she introduced the first recorded vintage champagne and pioneered the rosé – as well as a signature colored label (previously all labels were white). It’s what we see today as the yellow label. I wonder, without Madame Clicquot, how different would the champagne industry be today? I had to discover more.
I visited the champagne house last week in Reims. The visitor’s center was under construction and closed for public visits. But, luckily for me, the team had arranged a private visit. First, one of the guides took me down to the chalk cellars. I can tell you that here the wow factor begins straight away. With an impressive 24 kilometers of limestone cellars or galleries, there are countless bottles stored in 482 crayères (chalk cellars) beneath the maison. (It was impossible to take photos or video due to the lack of light, but I promise you it is spectacular)
The wine angels must have been on my side as part of my visit included a professional tasting with Pierre Casenave, one of Veuve Clicquot’s ten winemakers. Champagne is traditionally a blend of three different wines (Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier). During the tasting we tried each of the wines separately after their first fermentation, called the base wines. At this point they are unfiltered and don’t look like the wines as we know them. They taste somewhat similar, but not the same as wines we all know in those varieties. We also tried the reserve, a wine that is added to the final blend, and then the final blend on its own before the second fermentation. The point of all this was to understand why champagne is a blend and the characteristics the winemakers look for to make the final blend. With my sparkling wine exam coming up in a few weeks, this is exactly what I needed to understand the make up of the wines. Merci Pierre!
Next we visited Veuve Clicquot’s very chic private hotel for entertaining and VIPs called Hôtel du Marc. It’s a hotel but its not. You can’t book it and have to be invited. It’s where Veuve Clicquot entertain special guests for dinners and overnight visits. The hotel is a historic building that is decorated with sophisticated, contemporary and playful colors, of course plenty of “jaune” – the Veuve Clicquot yellow. It’s not a place most people get to see but if you’re in the trade or visit for an event it is quite a special treat. As was lunch with winemaker Delphine Coustheur!
Delphine explained that champagne can be paired with so many things, and served right throughout a meal. In the US, we tend to serve it only for special celebrations, or maybe as an aperitif. This is not the case in France! Even the duck dish made a perfect pairing with the Rose. Cheeses can also be a perfect complement to champagne.
Delphine also said that the biggest challenge they face in Champagne is the changes in weather patterns. Like Madame Clicquot, winemakers here are perfectionists. “We want to make aromatic, complex wines,” Delphine said. “We have been doing this for many years so we have the experience to make the perfect blend, the weather is the only thing we cannot control.” – This is not just in Champagne, as I heard this from wineries in Bordeaux as well.
After my visit I can now see why the dynamic yellow label not only represents a fabulous champagne brand, but the color is also a reminder of Madame Clicquot’s passion, persistence and innovation that changed an industry. It’s experiences like these that I think give a deeper meaning to brands we buy and a warm memory for me every time I visit a wine store.
- Veuve Clicquot own 390 hectares of vines in Champagne
- During harvest it takes three weeks and 1,000 people to hand harvest the grapes. They buy grapes from top growers in the region
- The house style (yellow label) is dominated by Pinot Noir and has a “toasted bread” characteristic
- Veuve Clicquot was the first champagne house to produce a vintage champagne (in 1810) a rosé blend, and was first to export internationally
- Champagne makes up 7% of the world’s wine production but it makes up 35% of the world’s wine sales
- Champagne can only be called Champagne if it is made from grapes grown in this region of France, otherwise it is sparkling wine
- Champagne producers are subject to the laws if they want to call the wine champagne and these include what day they can start the harvest, what machinery is used, grape varieties, labeling, hand harvesting, winemaking and of course where the grapes come from
- Veuve Clicquot like Moet et Chandon is owned by LVMH, but operated separately
Expert tip: All tours are by appointment only. There are several different types of tours, depending on what you are interested in. Depending on the time of year appointments should be made 4-8 weeks prior to visiting. Check the website for any winter closures.
Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin House
Place des Droits de l’Homme
51100 Reims, France
Special thanks to:
Pierre Casenave – Oenologue /Winemaker at Veuve Clicquot
Delphine Coustheur – Oenologue /Winemaker at Veuve Clicquot
Anick Benoit – Visits and receptions at Veuve Clicquot