Madame Clicquot and her House of Veuve
“Gastronomy is when food tastes as it should,” this was a one of the pearls of wisdom given to us by Edouard de Nazelle, a resident of the Reims region, decent of Madame Clicquot's business partner Eduard Werle, and seemingly all around expert of the finer things in life. We met de Nazelle for a Michelin starred meal at Le Foch, steps from the Reims train station after a 45 minute fast train from Paris. He insisted on the introduction before we head to the Clicquot cellars on the south side of town, where we would be introduced to the process of making these high quality sparkling wines and taste the top echelons the champagne available.
For anyone in the same position as me, an outsider, there is a certain mystique to the town of Reims, France where Clicquot is situated. It's part of the Champagne region of France, the only place in the world officially allowed to produce Champagne by name. The whole area rivals the geography of a midsize American city and Reims is the largest city within the region, housing many of the Champagne brands including Pommery, Ruinart and Veuve Clicquot. The drink itself has along time been associated with wealth, been used for toasting on New Years Eve, and made popular by movies like Casablanca, where bubbly doesn't cease to flow at Rick's Café Américain. Here's looking at you kid.
The origins of champagne for a long time circulated around the myth of Dom Pérignon, who while struggling to stamp out bubbles in his chardonnay, created the double fermentation process with a dash of brandy used to make sparkles. This however has later been confirmed to me a made up marketing ploy that dates back to the 1889 Paris World's Fair.
Infact, marketing has played a large role with Champagne as we know it. Beyond the exclusivity of its regional stamp, marketing maven Madame Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin, also know as La Grande Dame (now also the name of Clicquot's Grande Cru sparkling wine), made Clicquot into the international brand it is today. Our historical tour shed light on the deep history of entrepreneurialism and feminism behind the brand. Madame Clicquot married François Clicquot in 1798 during the first years of the Napoleonic Wars and during the first decades of the company created in 1772. After François's early death in 1805, Madame Clicquot was handed the company at age 27.
Under the Code Napoléon, a woman’s role at home was emphasised and only widows were granted the opportunity to run their late husbands business. The term Veuve, which means widow if French, was added to the Clicquot label. Although not ideal, this unique opportunity gave Madame Clicquot (and others like her) the opportunity to have a hand in their fate and fortunes.
With help from historical documents, we can see the Madame Clicquot had a hand in every part of the business, from the production of the wine to shipping and exports. With a knack for entrepreneurialism, Madame Clicquot secretly managed a shipment of champagne passed the naval barricade right before the Napoleonic Wars finally came to an end in 1814. Despite the risk, Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin was the only brand available to toast the end of the war in Russia, and would become the standard for excellence.
The calling card for the brand is the cellars themselves. Excavated centuries ago by the Romans, the chalky walls provide an excellent combination of moistures and cool to age the wine. In its time, the cellar has opted as a refuge during WWII, still dawning the makeshift painted red crosses on its walls. Crates of bottles line the cavern showing the the process of remuage, a process involving the gradual turning and inversion of the bottle bring the sediment of the first fermentation into the neck of the bottle so it can be removed, a process created by Madame Clicquot herself. This is now done by machine, but in the same spirit and with attention to the natural process of creating Champagne.
Hotel du Marc was the last stop on our tour, a private chateau now used for entertaining guests of the iconic brand. The manor, originally home to Eduard Werle, has been carefully converted into an ode to Clicquot. Tastefully decorated in the colours of the brand, with art to illuminate to special identity of the wine, it is a playhouse for guests travelling through stocked with bubbly, historical art and literature pertaining to Clicquot. The grand entrance dawns a staircase fading white to deep purple to offer tribute to the grapes that make up the Champagne, Brut Champagne is made of 55 per cent Pinot Noir, 30 per cent Chardonnay, and 15 per cent Pinot Meunier grapes for its unique flavour.
To complete the experience we finish where we began, a gastronomical paring with a variety of Veuve Clicquot Champagnes including a rose and an ice wine. Communications Manager Adelaide d'Orleans, more notably a Princess of Spain although she never mentioned this exuding the true class that comes with the brand, shows the same entrepreneurialism of Madame Clicquot herself, taking great pride in the modern icon the brand has become today.
On our way out of town we went to the root of it all with a taxi ride through the fields where to grapes are grown. Once you are off the highway you are instantly transported to the days of yore, small villages along the vineyards of residents who tend the vines, still hand picking the grapes. Although Clicquot does not own all the vineyards which supply the grapes, it is a small close knit community of growths that for generations kept their products within the Champagne region to maintain the true identity of a Champagne bottle. In the slopes of the hilly region of Verzenay, the words of de Nazelle resonate as you can taste the years of excellence gleaned from the perfect vineyards, processed with excellence and attention until it's distinct crisp natural flavour is poured into every flute.