by Fred McMillin
for January 31, 1997

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Barbe's Secret

It was a storybook wedding in the fabled champagne town of Reims.

The bride was the mayor's daughter, Nicole Barbe Ponsardin. The groom was a local vintner's son named Francois Clicquot.

Six years later the couple's new champagne works and even newer daughter, Clementine, were all doing beautifully when Francois died suddenly from a fever. Would the grieving mother-widow at age 27 sell the business to nearby Moet, Heidsieck or Roederer? Forget it. Against impossible odds, during the next 62 years she built it into one of France's great champagne houses. Her springboard to success was what I'll call "Barbe's Secret."

The Sediment Problem The year is 1806. Dom Perignon had invented champagne over 100 years earlier, yet nobody had figured out how to eliminate the cloudy, unattractive sediment that forms in the bottle during fermentation. Then the Clicquot team hit on the answer. They inverted the bottles, allowing the solids to settle on the cork. Then they loosened the cork and the pressure blew out the sediment. With the only clear champagne, business boomed. While the rest of the industry was selling perhaps 300,000 bottles annually, in 1814 the "veuve" (French for widow) sold 30,000 bottles in Russia alone. She could have sold even more, for her agent wrote "It is cruel that I have to refuse orders for another 20,000 or 30,00 bottles."

That established Veuve Clicquot as a leading exporter. Today, the success continues; they export to over 150 countries. As to quality, the Larousse Encyclopedia of Wine says the Clicquot bubbly "ranks with the finest produced in the Champagne district." Somewhere, the widow is smiling.

Just the Facts

Name Veuve Clicquot-Ponsardin
Location Reims, France
Founding Date The original House of Clicquot was born in 1772, just five years before the birth of its future leader, who would be known as Veuve Clicquot.
Grape Source The firm's 690 acres of premium vineyards furnish about 40% of the required grapes. The remainder is purchased.
The Wines The Brut, Demi-Sec and Rose all are excellent ($40).

The flagship wine is LA GRANDE DAME at $100. Not long ago my Scott's tasting panel voted it their Wine of the Year.

USA Contacts Christine Deussen, NYC, Ph:(212)888-7575

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 and is Northern California Editor for American Wine on the Web. 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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