First up in our series of inspiring brand origin stories is that of Veuve Cliquot.
Known now as an exceptional champagne, a treat at celebrations and a mark of indulgence, the Veuve Cliquot was a woman who defied convention and took the world by storm. We are still in thrall to her legacy today.
Veuve is French for ‘widow’, in this case, Barbe-Nicole Cliquot (née Ponsardin) whose husband died in 1805.
Against a backdrop of upheaval, bloodshed, war and revolution, this formidable woman overcame an inauspicious start in life – widowed in her twenties, left with a 3-year-old daughter and an ailing vineyard – to become an exceptional businesswoman. At the helm of one of 19th century France’s greatest business success stories, Veuve Cliquot became the innovator of champagne in the form we know and love it today.
Not only were the politics of the time against her, so was society, unused to seeing a woman free of the yoke of marriage and even less willing to see her exerting considerable power in her own right. When her husband died, the widow campaigned her father-in-law relentlessly to be allowed to run the vineyard. He eventually relented in the face of her determination, no doubt expecting that she would soon tire of it and he could reassign it more appropriately.
Instead, Madame Cliquot and her champagne rose to become the darlings of European courts; she was the ‘Grand Dame of Champagne’ and a branding pioneer. Although the bottles were initially unlabelled, she introduced the distinctive star on the cork as a marketing ploy referring to a hotly-anticipated comet, the indicator of an exceptional vintage, and the initials VCP. The star and the name stuck and have been used ever since.
More revolutionary still was the widow’s ingenious creation of the riddling rack, a way to gather all the lees (or sediment) of the champagne just behind the cork, so that it could be removed without spoiling the drink and without excessive wastage. This was achieved by placing the bottle’s neck down through angled holes in a board (or, ahem, a kitchen table on its side) and rotating them daily. The yeast and sediment could then be carefully syphoned off, leaving the remaining liquid free of unpleasant taints to the flavour, colour or clarity. Madame Cliquot fiercely protected her innovations, taking those who attempted to counterfeit her work to court.
Not only was the Veuve Cliquot’s champagne of unprecedented quality and clarity, it reached markets that were seemingly impossible to tap into. At the time, France was at war with Russia, and there was a trade embargo on French imports into Russia.
The war was going badly for France and the Veuve Cliquot recognised that there was a huge potential for her champagne in the Russian court when the war was won. After all, nothing says celebration like champagne. Skirting the embargo, she shipped 10,550 bottles of champagne on a Dutch ship to the Baltic port of Königsberg, a key Russian trading station. When hostilities ceased the bottles were jubilantly received and Madame Cliquot sent over 12,000 more bottles a week later to meet with demand. Veuve Cliquot quickly became the tipple of choice at the Russian court.
In the years immediately after Madame Cliquot took over the vineyard, it was selling a meagre 17,000 bottles a year. Over the next 40 years, she and her faithful vignerons nurtured and innovated and brought that figure up to 400,000 bottles per annum when she retired in 1850, leaving the management in the capable hands of her protégé Mathieu-Edouard Werlé.
Veuve Cliquot continues to thrive today and offers Business Women Awards in recognition of its indomitable matriarch.