June 3, 2024


A little wine history will be making its way to the Isis Theatre on June 17 — the day after the closing of the Food & Wine Classic — when Aspen Film’s June Indie Showcase presents the film “Widow Clicquot” at the Isis Theatre. Directed by Thomas Napper and featuring Haley Bennet and Tom Sturbridge, the film tells the incredible tale of the Grande Dame of Champagne, Barbe-Nicol Clicquot Ponsardin, the force behind what is today Veuve Clicquot.

In her award-winning book, “The Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It,” author Tilar J. Mazzeo amplified the engrossing, yet improbable tale of how a young woman in the early 1800s, challenged by the circumstances of the times, became the savior of a Champagne House that is today one of the most famous and revered brands in all the world, selling over a million and a half cases annually. The film is based on Mazzeo’s book.

In April of last year, I wrote about Mazzeo’s book, but in light of the new film, it is worth reviewing.

The Champagne with the Yellow Label that is poured (and sprayed) with such vigor in the restaurants and on the slopes here had a founding story built around one of the great female figures in the history of wine. The Veuve (meaning “widow” in French)  Clicquot was at the forefront of popularizing Champagne as she took over her deceased husband’s business in the early 1800’s.

It is said that in years past, the number one account for Veuve Clicquot in America was our very own Cloud Nine on Aspen Highlands. What was once a tradition — built on the spontaneous enthusiasm of spraying a bottle of Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label Champagne on patrons in celebration at the on-mountain restaurant — has evolved into an advanced form of debauchery where guests book their bottles, and their celebrations, months in advance. Thousands of dollars of Champagne are showered regularly in displays of excess that are always raucous and occasionally cringe-worthy.

I wonder how many of those popping the corks know the history behind the woman whose portrait is on those foil caps that they pop?

The story begins at the turn of the 19th century when a young Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin married one François Clicquot, whose family was the founder of a Champagne house in Reims, France, the de facto capital of Champagne. When François passed in 1805, Barbe-Nicole found herself a widow, or “Veuve,” at just 27 years of age with a small child to raise. The Champagne house her husband left behind was in significant financial distress, and in France, there were very few women who had the audacity to run businesses.

In fact, under the Napoleonic Codes that were in effect, there were only three ways that a woman was allowed to take control of a business: be granted permission from a father, granted permission from a husband, or be made a widow. The last was the case for the Widow Clicquot. Despite being in a position where financial and political challenges could seem overwhelming, Barbe-Nicole became the first woman to run a Champagne House, and she dedicated her life to building the business into a force in the world of wine.

The business and the art of Champagne were difficult in the early 1800s, but Madame Clicquot, a diminutive (She stood less than five feet tall) but powerful woman, was willing to break the rules. Taking a loan from her father-in-law, she focused on building new markets and, with the advent of a Franco-Russian peace treaty, set about making in-roads in the Russian aristocracy, positioning her wines as a luxury brand (before there was such a thing) and increasing demand for the wines. She also utilized the name Veuve Clicquot-Ponsardin, identifying the brand as the product of a woman, a widow no less. It is said that this provided an enhanced degree of respectability to the Champagnes. Indeed, other Champagne Houses would ultimately use the word “Veuve” on their labels, attempting to benefit from the association. It was a trying time, but her strategies for selling the wines eventually proved successful and were the building blocks for a brand that celebrated its 250th anniversary in 2022.

According to Mazzeo in the  book, “Barbe-Nicole did more than just run the boardroom of a world-renowned Champagne business; she also took a central role in crafting the sparkling wines that carried her name.” Indeed, under her tutelage in 1810, Veuve Clicquot introduced the first “Vintage Champagne.” Before then, Champagnes were made exclusively by blending wines from grapes harvested in different years. But this innovation introduced the concept of making Champagne with grapes grown in a single great year, or vintage, increasing the perceived value of the wine.

Like your bubbles pink? You can give thanks to Madame Clicquot for her efforts there as well, as she was the first to produce sparkling rosé wines by blending red wines into white wines rather than using maceration as the technique to provide color to a wine. It was her vision of adding red wines to a blend in 1818 that still informs how rosé Champagnes are made to this day.

But, perhaps her most significant contribution to the production of Champagne was her innovation of the riddling — or “remuage” — process to remove sediment and improve the beauty of sparkling wines, giving them their pure and clean appearance.

In need of a technique to remove the sediment, or yeast, that formed inside the bottles during the secondary fermentation, Madame had her winemakers cut holes into a kitchen tabletop and load the bottles in the holes with their necks pointed toward the ground. Then, as the sediment settled in the necks of the glass, they would turn the bottles, just so, ensuring that all of the residue would be deposited in the necks to be disgorged. The technique is mostly automated today but remains a substantive part of the codified rules for the “méthode champenoise” that rules how Champagne can be produced.

Beyond all of that, Madame Clicquot set a standard of how to be a success in the wine business. Her determination, creativity, and attention to quality transcends gender and is an inspiration for others who follow in her footsteps — both in Champagne and the broader wine world.

Now you know a little about knowing the story behind the woman on the cap. You can see it up close and personal on the big screen at the Isis.

Read original article HERE

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