The distinctive pop of a cork and the subsequent chime of crystal vibrating through the air: these are the familiar sounds that signal the start to any celebration. And from royals on a throne to the masses on a dance floor, no other wine has managed to capture the blend of both opulence and cheer quite like champagne. On screen, in books, and with that distinctive yellow label peppered on tables everywhere, no other brand is quite as recognizable today as Veuve Clicquot.
Founded in 1772 by Philippe Clicquot-Muiron, this house, or maison, has deep roots in the Champagne region and has helped to define what is today a €4.9 billion ($7.4 billion) global industry. But in addition to surviving the test of time, Veuve Clicquot has made many entries in the history books with a notable list of inventions, innovations, and trailblazing. Anachronistically for the 19th century, Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin, the widow – or veuve in French – of the founder’s son, was the force behind these milestones.
Her husband died in 1805 and instead of relinquishing the reins of the business to a male relative as was expected, Ponsardin fought objection and resistance and took hold of a business that included banking and wool trading, and turned it solely toward champagne production. Thus she was billed as the first woman to take over a champagne house, and with her skill in wine making, she would propel the maison to international success and become a critical contributor to the development of the industry. Her peers would come to refer to her as the “Grande Dame of Champagne”.
Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin is billed as the first woman to take over a champagne house.
Her most recognizable contribution is the invention of the riddling rack in 1816. The device, a flat wooden board with holes drilled at a downward angle, allows the spent yeast and sediment to collect into the neck of the bottle for disgorgement, so that the wine is free of deposits. This would revolutionalize the scale of the champagne-making process. On a more fanciful bent, the tradition of sabrage also has loose ties to Madame Clicquot. It is said that to secure passage of shipments to Russia across blockades, she would bribe Prussian guards with bottles of champagne, which they would then open with their swords. Another version has her entertaining Napoleon’s officers, and they would open bottles of champagne with their sabres to impress the widow.
Though some details of history have lost their clarity, there is no denying that Ponsardin was a savvy businesswoman. Her trade was not with Russia alone; the end of the 18th century saw distribution to the U.S. and in 1847, exports to China began. Due to her audacity and determination, she not only established champagne as the drink of royals but also secured the demand for her product beyond her own borders.
To add to the list of firsts, Madame Clicquot again broke tradition and added her favourite red-wine grape parcels from the Bouzy region to her still wines in the pursuit of both taste and aesthetics. This blended wine – instead of the more traditional method of skin contact – produced a flavour profile that proved to be a hit with champagne drinkers. Despite some debate on exactly when she developed this recipe, 2018 is the year Veuve Clicquot recognizes as the 200th anniversary of La Grande Dame’s invention: Blended rosé champagne.
To mark this bicentennial, celebrations have been ongoing throughout the year across cities like New York, Paris, and Copenhagen. But it was to the heart of Champagne, in the city of Reims, that Veuve Clicquot invited guests and friends from across the globe to learn about their library of wines, discover the rich history of their vineyards and to generally revel in rosé.
We begin at the Hôtel du Marc, Veuve Clicquot’s private hotel. It was a rare treat to step beyond the doors of this renovated 19th-century country house with its austere, classic lines matched with contemporary sdecor featuring art that includes the Campagna brothers, Pablo Reinoso, and even a polka-dotted portrait of Ponsardin herself by Yayoi Kusama.
I spent a morning being tutored on the wines that make up their rosés, from their non-vintage reds to the best of their vineyards, the Clos Colin in Bouzy. Juicy red berries, cherries, hints of stone and a kiss of tartness characterize these wines for me, to varying degrees. And they all have a part in making up one of the rosés: their flagship, a vintage, Cave Privée, or La Grande Dame. These are benchmark rosés for good reason.
But what is wine without food? None other than chef Joël Robuchon (who passed away this August) oversaw our seven-course lunch. A longtime partner of Veuve Clicquot, the chef spoke of how he especially wanted to rise to the challenge of creating an artichoke dish – notoriously difficult to pair – for this auspicious occasion. He served the vegetable carpaccio style, with a light kiss of lemon to balance out the shaved foie gras, a kick of mustard and toasted crisps. This was his preferred dish to pair with the beautifully complex La Grande Dame rosé 2006. We left this cocoon of wine and food, well sated.
Later, under an overcast sky, a trail of signature yellow boots created a splash of colour against the muted greys, greens and browns of a still slumbering vineyard in Bouzy. It is there, standing amongst those vines, that the Maison’s 10th and current cellar master, Dominique Demarville, spoke of the 350 hectares that are nearly free of herbicides and Veuve Clicquot’s commitment to becoming completely free of chemicals over the next few years.
That’s inspired by an ecological goal, but also Madame Clicquot’s motto: “Only one quality, the finest.” Another sign of quality is that all winemakers at Veuve Clicquot have a degree in oenology – not a strict requirement for those working in the French wine industry. Gaëlle Goossens, chief winemaker at Veuve Clicquot spoke of the five years of schooling she went through before she earned the right to start learning the art of winemaking: “There is the science, and then there is the experience.” says Goossens.
In the past, champagne was much sweeter than wine is today.
As well as terroir, the traditional method – a strict and well-defined process – is what defines champagne. The grapes are pressed, yeast is added and the juice undergoes the first fermentation. The resulting high-acid wine is blended with ones from Veuve’s various vineyards.
The second fermentation happens in the bottle with a dosage of yeast and sugar. A temporary closure is used to stop the bottles and they’re laid on their side in a cellar. AOC rules for champagne require that non-vintage champagne ages for at least 15 months, longer for vintage bottlings.
Once this stage is completed, riddling takes place on a device similar to the riddling rack Madame Clicquot invented. The bottles are turned cap-down and manipulated (by hand in the case of the most prestigious champagne) so that the yeast sediment settles into the neck of the bottle. The lees are disgorged and the lost liquid is replaced with a “dosage” of base wine and sugar. The bottles are then corked and aged before being shipped around the world. Historically, champagne was sweeter than today’s wine, as well as having higher concentrations of minerals like iron, copper and salt. Because the original sugar has been consumed during fermentation, the dosage determines a champagne's sweetness and is meant to balance its acidity.
Chef Robuchon said that he had found the dosage too high in the past; which is a very subjective point. Even with a team of winemakers, ultimately the final decision is made by the cellar master. But Goossens says: “It’s because of the balance of the wine that you have to add more or less sugar. So if you consider the balance of your wine, you don’t have to argue.”
Despite talk of variation, the sugar levels in the dosage don’t change very much from year to year. While changes are inevitable – the production method is more automated, the climate shifts, and the vineyards themselves evolve – Veuve Clicquot maintains a high quality and consistent flavour profile. That trademark style is a strong contributor to Veuve Clicquot’s dominant market position.
Champagne’s official shipment numbers released in March show that France continues to be the primary consumer of the 307 million bottles shipped in 2017. But the combined efforts of the rest of the world are starting to gain ground. Total exports have reached an equilibrium at 50 per cent of production, with the U.K. out-pacing the rest of the export pack by a good margin. But the U.S., and especially Japan, are burgeoning markets, with Canada showing a modest 12 per cent growth in 2016.
It’s not hard to love that bready aroma teasing your sense of smell and to luxuriate in the feel of fine effervescence dancing on your tongue. It is acidic with a suggestion of sweetness, and perfect for all occasions, from the mundane to celebratory, at all hours of the day, the world over.