This New Year’s, Raise a Toast to the Strong-Willed Widow Who Reinvented Champagne

Veuve Clicquot made bubbly what it is today

Tragic deaths generally aren't good for business, with the notable exception of Veuve Clicquot. It was 1805, and Francois Clicquot, the owner of a failing vineyard in Reims, France, was felled by typhoid. His wife, Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin, had hailed from a wealthy family and easily could have shuttered the business. Instead, she invested her own inheritance in it and took over. She was 27.

Photo: Nick Ferrari

Champagne was not yet widely popular in France, but the widow Clicquot shrewdly courted the palate of Tsar Nicholas I and opened up Russia as a market. She invented a device called a riddling table to remove dead yeast from the bottles, an improvement that gave the world sparkling clear Champagne and is used to this day. All the while, she added land to her vineyards, slowly and steadily building Clicquot into the leading house in Champagne. By the time of her death in 1866, Clicquot’s Champagne was an international brand. “The world is in perpetual motion, and we must invent the things of tomorrow,” she wrote. “One must go before others, be determined and exacting, and let your intelligence direct your life.”

Could a present-day brand ask for a better founding story? Hardly.

Today, Veuve Clicquot (which literally means “the widow Clicquot”) produces 10 million bottles a year and is the second most popular Champagne in the world after Moët. “Veuve Clicquot looks the part, has character and is high up there in perceptions, but what’s fascinating is the widow Clicquot’s story,” said longtime spirits business consultant Arthur Shapiro, who blogs at BoozeBusiness.com. “She took over, invented the Méthode Champenoise and changed the business. It’s a fantastic story.”

Indeed so—and nobody knows it better than parent LVMH. Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin has been dead for 166 years, but Clicquot’s marketing department has kept her on the job.

One of the distinguishing traits of the widow Clicquot’s achievements was that she conducted all of the house’s business affairs by writing letters. This legend inspired two colorful marketing campaigns this year: the Clicquot Mail Truck (a panel van that traveled the East Coast, offering samples of Champagne) and a competition to design a mailbox-shaped package for Champagne bottles. Veuve Clicquot is also in its 42nd year of handing out its Business Woman Award, given to women who “share the same qualities as Madame Clicquot.”

Strangely, many of those who pay $70 per bottle don’t know the famous lady behind the brand even though she goes home with every purchase: Her picture is on the wire cork cage and her signature still graces the label.