by Fred McMillin
for December 3, 1999


Winery of the Week

The Greatest Female Vintner



It was the most astonishing winemaking achievement ever made by a woman. Our heroine was 27, with a baby daughter. Her, husband had just died unexpectedly, leaving her his budding winery.


It started in Reims.

Yet, within a year she solved a winemaking problem that stumped all the men for OVER 100 YEARS!... It was a time when a woman's place was only in the kitchen, and appropriataly, the kitchen is where she had her inspiration.

The Problem

When Champagne ferments in the bottle a sediment forms which is unpleasant to see and unpleasant in one's mouth. For over a century, the only solution was to let it settle to the bottom and then decant the bubbly wine into a new bottle. BUT, the decanted wine was no longer very bubbly.

The Solution

Now, the daughter of the mayor of Reims sat looking at her kitchen table. Suddenly...why not let the sediment settle to the top. Then one can hold the bottle upside down, loosen the cork, and the pressure will blow out the sediment.

Oh yes. The kitchen table. Well it was a heavy wooden affair, so she had bottle-sized holes drilled in the table so the Champagne bottles could be stored upside down. Then they could be shaken occasionally to help the sediment adhering to the side of the bottle slide down to the cork.

The Official Name

Nicole Barbe Ponsardin Clicquot's discovery was made at the start of the 19th century. It's since acquired a name, disgorgment. Here's how my first wine teacher, Professor Angelo Pellegrini at the University of Washington, describes the modern process. You'll see it hasn't changed much...the board slopes...the sediment is frozen on the cork.. .but it's still essentially Barbe's creation.

Angelo: "When Champagne is ready for the table, the bottles are placed in special racks with the necks down so that the sediment may settle on the cork. The bottles are given a violent shake every few days. In a matter of weeks the sediment has collected in a solid mass on the inner tip of the cork. The neck is then immersed in a cold liquid that freezes the sediment on the cork, which next is blown out when the cork is loosened. The skilled disgorger looses very little wine. That lost is replaced and the bottle immediately recorked."


French for widow is veuve, so I hope that New Year's Eve all the ladies enjoy a flute of clear Veuve Clicquot Champagne, and toast the lady who first made such a sparkler. (For more see 1/31/97 WineDay)


One of my fondest wine memories is of the yeasty wine aromas and sight of disgorgers at work in the dark, rustic, historic cellar at Veuve Clicquot.

Credits: Research Asst. Diane Bulzomi

About the Writer

Fred McMillin, a veteran wine writer, has taught wine history for 30 years on three continents. He currently teaches wine courses at San Francisco State and San Francisco City College. In 1995, the Academy of Wine Communications honored Fred with one of only 22 Certificates of Commendation awarded to American wine writers.


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