To all of you Champagne*-sipping, independent ladies out there, this one’s for you: Veuve Clicquot became the darling of Champagne largely because of founder François Clicquot’s innovative, determined widow – or veuve – Madame Clicquot.
Unless it’s made in Champagne, France (a historic province 100 miles east of Paris), the bubbly you’re sipping must legally be called sparkling wine.
With three dear friends in town, it was an ideal weekend to catch a train from Paris to Reims, the Champagne capitol of the world, and tour the Veuve Clicquot caves.
My first discovery: I drink Champagne way too quickly to appreciate the craftsmanship that creates those millions of tiny bubbles (And I know I’m not the only one). These are some of my other favorite discoveries in the caves: Veuve’s history, Champagne making, and a little bottle-poppin’ know-how.
François Clicquot died in 1805, widowing his 27-year-old bride, Madame Clicquot. Francois’s father was wary of turning the business over to a young woman, but Madame convinced him otherwise. She soon became known as the “Grand Dame of Champagne.”
In 1811, a comet streaked across the dark Champagne sky, signaling to superstitious winemakers that that year would bring an extraordinary harvest. Madame Clicquot used these ordained grapes to make Fins de la Comète, the Champagne that branded Veuve Clicquot as some of the finest bubbly in the world. Before labels had been created, the comet (stamped onto the cork) was the only symbol to identify the Veuve Clicquot brand. Today’s Champagne is still marked with the comet.
The finest Champagne starts with the juiciest grapes. At Veuve Clicquot, each grape is picked by hand. Their varietals include Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. When the harvest is complete, the grapes are pressed; but, from an 8,800 pound batch of grapes, only the first 2,000 liters of expelled juice receive the honor of filling a Veuve bottle.
The juice is bottled with a bit of yeast and an intermediary metal cap. The yeast transforms the sugar to bubbles and provides the Champagne’s aroma. When the yeast dies, it leaves sediment, which must be removed to avoid murky or overly sweet Champagne. They remove the sediment with a machine that freezes it into a small ice cube in just seven minutes (the disgorgement process), leaving clean, clear, sparkling Champagne. Before its final corking, a little liquor d’osage (wine mixed with a bit of sugar) is added to dress the wine as demi-sec or brut; then it rests in a cellar for 4-5 months.
Riddling is No Joke
We can thank Madame Clicquot for advances in the disgorgement process: She invented the “riddling table,” which made disgorgement more efficient and economical, and Champagne even more heavenly. She believed that strategically positioning the bottles on a table would force the sediment into the neck, making it easier to extract; so she asked her assistant to drill holes in her kitchen table, and voila! The table kept bottles in a tilted, upside-down position, allowing yeast and sediment to collect in the bottle’s neck. Professional riddlers turned each bottle of Champagne one-quarter turn, twice a day. Depending on their proficiency, a riddler could turn between 30,000-50,000 bottles per day.
Though some Champagne-makers now use machines for this process, Veuve Clicquot still uses riddlers for their prestigious Champagnes.
Ideal Resting Conditions
Where is the best place to rest a bottle of champagne? Your wine cellar? Guess again. A team of Swedish divers discovered the answer 164 feet beneath the Baltic Sea. A few years ago, while excavating a sunken ship, they found a buried bubbly treasure: sealed bottles of Veuve Clicquot, dating from 1830-1840. Champagne experts tasted the bottles and, 175 years later, the bubbly was still tongue-tickling delicious. The sea had created an ideal environment: high humidity, consistent 40- degree temperatures, pressure to keep the corks snug, a horizontal resting position, and darkness. To test the hypothesis, Veuve Clicquot has lowered several cases of Champagne into the sea, and in forty years they will return to check the quality.
If you think Lil Wayne got it right poppin’ bottles in his Pop Bottles hit, I’m here to culture you. In France, it’s impolite to pop a bottle of Champagne because it might startle your guests, and, god forbid, they might spill a few precious sips.
Below is a quick guide to the proper way to open a bottle of Champagne. And certainly don’t waste a drop, spraying it over your party people.
Step 1: Invest in real Champagne (not sparkling wine - waking up sans a throbbing headache is worth the extra $20).
Step 2: To remove the foil, pull on the plastic tab.
Step 3: Untwist the wire cage. (All Champagne makers have agreed to use exactly six turns on every wire cage.)
Step 4: At a 45 degree angle, stabilize the cork with your left hand, and firmly grip the bottom of the bottle with your right.
Step 5: Gripping the cork tightly, slowly twist the bottle toward you. You’ll feel the cork slide right into your hand.
Step 6: To serve, place your right thumb in the depression at the bottom of the bottle (called the punt), and stabilize the neck with your left hand. To control the bubbles and overflow, pour a little into each glass, returning a second time to top them off.
Step 7: Cheer your partygoers by raising your glass and making eye contact with each. Santé!
Truthfully, I prefer the pop and corks flying from their bottles. I’ve even had a big “Woo!” pop out of my mouth as naturally as the cork. But the French don’t even blink. After all, it’s just another Tuesday afternoon.
*For those who love editing nuances as much as I do: Because Champagne can only come from Champagne, the word “Champagne,” whether referring to the place or the drink always gets a capital “C.” Similarly, you’d also capitalize Burgundy if you were dreaming of a bold red from Burgundy, France (but if it were a burgundy made in California, it would get a little “b.”)