The portrait of an elderly lady with slightly stern features, dressed in black with a white lace veil, which has adorned countless corks, is one that perfectly fits the cultural notion of a widow. It is easy to neglect the fact, however, that in the early 19th century, many women were widowed when still decades from their dotage.
In 1805, Madame Barbe-Nicole Clicquot was one such woman. Husband Nicolas had died of typhoid at the age of 30, leaving her, at 27, a single mother to a six-year-old daughter. Madame Clicquot channelled her grief into doing something no one would have thought an option for a young widow – or indeed for any woman of the time.
Women in France back then were minors in the eyes of the law. They were the responsibility of their fathers until married, when they became the responsibility of their husbands. Not allowed to hold bank accounts, they were cut off financially, and the idea of a rich, aristocratic woman working was unthinkable. Nevertheless, Clicquot became one of history’s most remarkable businesswomen, fighting societal prejudice and overcoming unimaginable barriers to make a global success of the family’s champagne house, which eventually took her name: Veuve (“widow”) Clicquot. Her story leads us to Reims (“rance” is a near pronunciation), the capital of the region named after the country’s most famous wine.
Two hours’ drive, or an hour by TGV train, to the east of Paris, the city is accessible as a day trip from the capital, but a few nights will allow a visitor to make the most of its cellars and vineyards, as well as the gastronomy options for pairing with the legendary bubbles.
However, it’s not all about “drinking the stars”, as 17th-century monk Dom Pérignon is said to have described his first taste of champagne. The elegant streets of Reims feature squares, fountains, parks and numerous places designed to separate visitors from their money.
Les Halles Boulingrin, the town’s market, is a particular gem. The enormous art deco space was opened in 1929, a symbol of the city’s rebirth after the first world war, during which the town was devastated. It suffered again hugely in the second world war, but today Reims is returned to its former glory. The streets surrounding the market boast some of its finest brasseries, resolutely old-school in service and menu, where heaving silver platters of fruits de mer represent incredible value for money.
If the market is the city’s culinary heart, then its soul is the cathedral that towers over Reims with breathtaking scale – one of the defining examples of high gothic art and the coronation site of 33 sovereigns over more than 800 years.
Staring up at the vast collection of statues and gargoyles, as well as some of Europe’s finest stained-glass windows, it’s easy to see how the building would have put the fear of God into 13th-century onlookers.
Despite these cultural treasures, there’s no doubting the reason most visitors come to Reims. “Champagne!” legend has it Napoleon Bonaparte declared, “In victory one deserves it, in defeat one needs it.”
Clicquot’s father was the city’s mayor and she was raised in no little luxury in the Hôtel Ponsardin, the late-18th-century facades of which are among the first stops on a walking tour offered by Veuve Clicquot (the company). Our guide explains that, despite Madame Clicquot’s privileged upbringing and excellent education, she went against every received wisdom in taking on the family business. She had to start by convincing her father-in-law, the company’s founder, not to sell but instead to both entrust the brand to her and invest more money.
Everything, it would seem, was against her. In addition to a terrible harvest, in 1805, defeat at the Battle of Trafalgar saw Napoleon impose the Continental System, an economic blockade designed to destroy the British economy. The British responded in kind, blockading French and French-allied territories, thereby making it almost impossible for Clicquot to trade with her wealthy customers in Britain and elsewhere.
Veuve Clicquot had been shipping to the United States and South America since the late 18th century, a remarkable feat given the logistical challenges of transporting such expensive and volatile cargo across rolling seas and rutted roads. But with her key markets cut off, the early years of Madame Clicquot’s leadership were fraught, with many questioning her ability to keep the business afloat. They reckoned, though, without her brilliant strategic mind, knack for innovation, and innate understanding of the power of marketing.
Clicquot knew that the end of Napoleon’s reign, which came in 1814, would be cause for celebration, and so she planned to have thousands of bottles of 1811 cuvée ready for delivery as soon as the blockade lifted. The special shipment’s final destination was St Petersburg, where it reached the court of Tsar Alexander I ahead of other wines, much to the delight of the Russian ruler, who famously declared that nothing else would pass his lips.
Back in the Reims of today, our tour continues through the Place Royale, a perfect illustration of 18th-century architecture, with arcades, balustrade roofs and the former Hôtel des Fermes, its carvings referencing commercial activities of the day. The square’s centrepiece is a statue of King Louis XV, which was restored by Madame Clicquot’s father while he was mayor.
Among the many innovations credited to the champagne house, two can be attributed directly to Madame Clicquot.
A glass of champagne poured in the 1810s would have looked and tasted very different to the drink we enjoy today. It would have been cloudy, with large, frothy bubbles, and contained up to 10 times more sugar. It was Clicquot who discovered that by storing bottles at an angle and regularly rotating them, the sediment would fall to the necks, from where it could be removed, leaving a clear champagne in the process. The French term for this is remuage, in English it is known as “riddling”.
The second innovation came with her rethinking of rosé champagne, at the time produced by adding a mixture made from berries. Instead, it needed a distinctive style, she thought, and so she experimented by mixing still white wines with red wine grapes, eventually choosing to use those from a parcel of vineyards near Bouzy, a short drive from Reims.
In 1818, exactly two centuries ago, the first blended rosé champagne was born. A niche wine, it was nevertheless a commercial success.
The tour continues past two hôtels. The origins of Musée-Hôtel Le Vergeur – located in the Place du Forum and named after the family that originally owned it – date back to the 14th century. It was bought in 1822 by Madame Clicquot and remained in the family until the turn of the 20th century.
The Hôtel du Marc is a neo-classical mansion that has been owned by the Clicquot family since 1840. Its elegant, cream-coloured facade still bears the scars of shrapnel from the second world war.
Open to the public for just two days in October, the Hôtel du Marc houses an enviable collection of contemporary art, which displays portraits of the Clicquot family, notably of Madame herself, in decidedly avant-garde ways. The original, somewhat-stern image of an elderly lady was covered in polka dots by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, making it a riot of colour and bubbles.
The tour finishes, as one would expect, in the cellars of Veuve Clicquot, about a 25-minute walk from the centre of Reims, underneath the label’s visitor centre in a network of deep, chalk caves, most of which date back to Roman times (the Romans having mined the stone for construction).
Drinking the prestigious cuvée La Grande Dame, named after the great lady herself, in the dark, atmospheric cellars is a fine way to end a journey through the life of Madame Clicquot while raising a glass to one of history’s most remarkable women.
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