The Widow Cliquot by Tilar J Mazzeo

The story of a champagne empire and the woman who ruled it.

‘After the [Champagne] bottles had rested on their sides for a year in the cellars, developing their sparkle, someone had to find a way to get rid of the debris trapped inside. The easiest way was to rely on gravity. The process was known as transvasage… The cellar workers could just pour the wine from one bottle to another, leaving the debris behind. It worked in theory, but the sparkle of the wine wasn’t exactly improved by all this pouring.

The other way to dispel the debris was called dégorgement… The cellar worker had to invert the bottle and pop the cork off just long enough to let a bit of the wine and all of the debris come shooting out—but not a moment longer…

Working bottle by bottle, disgorging champagne was a time-consuming and expensive process. Even with modern advances in winemaking, it is part of the reason champagne continues to command luxury prices.

…In the cellars, she [Veuve Cliquot] tried to urge her workers to speed the process, but they told her it couldn’t be done.

“You only have fifty thousand bottles ready” she told them, “I asked for double!”. “Madame,” they replied, “You can’t ship muddy wines…You will never get it,” the workers assured her. “No one knows any other method besides the one we are using.”

“I will find one.” she promised.

…Before long, Barbe-Nicole was mulling over a new and astonishingly simple idea. Perhaps storing the bottles not on their sides, but on their necks—sur pointe—would allow the debris to settle into the neck of the bottle more efficiently and thoroughly. When she told the cellar workers about her plan, they laughed again. …”Take a look at this stupidity.”

Secretly, she had her sturdy kitchen table moved into the cellars and ordered that it be riddled with slanted holes just large enough to hold the neck of a champagne bottle at an angle…

[According to Robert Tomes in his The Champagne Country (1867)]“slipping quietly into the cellar day after day, while all the workmen were at dinner, she moved herself some hundreds of bottles in the rack” and began slowly turning and tapping the bottles each day, coaxing the sediment onto the cork. After only six weeks, Barbe-Nicole amazed—and gratified—to discover that with a quick flick of the cork, all the residue came shooting out, without any harm to the wine and all the tedious work. With this new system, she would be able to accelerate her production and keep her hard-won share of the export market.

Above all, she knew that what it meant was growth—and a devastating advantage if she could keep it out of the hands of her competitors.

There was one competitor Barbe-Nicole particularly looked forward to devastating: Jean-Rémy Moët.’