War and Booze: The Story of Veuve Clicquot, Napoleon, and the First Modern Champagne

By Major Matt Cavanaugh

I came across this fascinating story over the past week and couldn’t resist running it down and sharing it with readers (in the same way I did several months back with landpower’s role in the Rosetta Stone discovery).  Much, much, much, more important, however: my wife is a huge Veuve Clicquot fan and so the truth is this really is just for her.  What follows is the story of Madame Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin from Linda Rottenberg’s book, Crazy is a Compliment: The Power of Zigging When Everyone Else Zags (pages 70-71):

“In 1813, during the Napoleonic Wars, Russia had just invaded France. When Russian troops occupied Riems, soldiers were given free rein to loot and pillage local vineyards, including one run by Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin, the young widow of Francois Clicquot.

But Veuve Clicquot, as she was widely known (verve in French is for “widow”), was a cunning adversary, who also happened to have a sharp business mind. Born to prominent parents, Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin had married the heir to the House of Clicquot. He died six years later, leaving the twenty-seven-year-old novice in charge of the family business, including banking, wool, and sparkling wine. At the time champagne was a small-time enterprise. Veuve Clicquot revolutionized the industry by storing the bottles upsides down in special racks, turning them, then freezing off the excess yeast. The new technique resulted in a shaper taste, less sweet, with smaller bubbles. Her 1811 vintage is said to have been the first truly modern champagne. 

Yet no sooner had she perfected it than swarms of Russian soldiers were at her cellar door. Her more experienced rivals chose to go underground. They shuttered their businesses and protected their vineyards against marauding soldiers. At first, Widow Clicquot considered this approach. ‘Everything is going badly,’ she wrote a friend. ‘I have been occupied for so many days with walling up my cellars, but I know full well that this will not prevent them from being robbed and pillaged. If so, I am ruined.’

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