Before there was Gloria Steinem or Ruth Bader Ginsburg or even Rosie the Riveter, there was Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin. In 1805, at just 27 years old, the young Frenchwoman turned the winemaking world upside down by taking over her deceased husband’s Champagne business. Never before had a member of the fairer sex dared to take control of a winery (or almost anything else for that matter), but Clicquot Ponsardin knew her business and she knew it well—and rather than cede it to another, she turned her family trade into the world-renowned Veuve Clicquot.
Over the next several decades, Clicquot Ponsardin transformed Veuve Clicquot (whose name is French for “widow Clicquot”) into one of the top Champagne houses in the world. In 1811, she ruthlessly ignored an international trade blockade to distribute her Champagne in Russia before her competitors. In 1816, she invented the riddling process that turns Champagne from its naturally cloudy state into the crystal-clear bubbly that we know today. In 1818, she created the first-ever blended rosé Champagne by combining a mix of fine red and white wines—a break from the tradition of the men before her who relied on the use of elderberries. And she did it all in the style of a French aristocrat, dressed in proper attire even in the vineyards, her hands protected by prim velvet gloves.
Two hundred years after Madame Clicquot’s creation of rosé as we know it today, Veuve Clicquot remains a Champagne house committed to its founder’s formidable image. Of the 11 winemakers that create today’s vintages, four are women—a high number for any winery, especially one from a country so steeped in tradition as France. Among them is Gaëlle Goossens, who serves as the Champagne house’s head of research, development, and (in the spirit of Madame Clicquot herself) innovation. Goossens sat down with Muse to discuss winemaking innovation, sustainability, and the maintaining the pioneering spirit of Champagne’s longstanding leading lady.
There’s such a long history of female-led innovation at Veuve Clicquot. How does Madame Clicquot’s tradition persist today?
Four of 11 winemakers at Veuve Clicquot are women, which is a lot for any winery, but especially in France. Here, I get to do a lot more than I did in the past [at other wineries]. I came to the company two years ago, and before I only got to make wine. Now I get to say, “We’ve been doing these things for decades, but are they the right thing? Can we improve our practice? Can we improve our qualities?” I’m always doing tests and research. That means trying a lot of wines in the tasting room.
What else has stayed the same in the last 200 years?
When Madame Clicquot took the reins of the business, she wanted to spend as much time as possible in the vineyard, so she moved to the countryside. We still use the same vineyards she did. Her house still exists in the middle of them. You can visit them. It’s incredible to be there in harvest when it’s alive.
And we still make the rosé wine the same way she did 200 years ago. We’ve never changed. The blending method she created, of combining quality red and white wines, is the best. It’s much better than anything else.
How is Veuve Clicquot still innovating the Champagne world today?
We got certified for sustainability in 2014 but we’re always trying to do more. It’s hard because you don’t want the changes to make the wine taste any different. We want to understand how we can change the practices without changing the wine.
For example, because we are sustainable, we have to grow grass in the vineyard to support new ecosystems. You might say, “What is the big deal?” But we have such a difficult climate—our soil is poor and our weather is not good—so when you have grass, it competes with the vines for sun and nutrients. Now that we have grass, there is less nitrogen for our wines, and we have to see how that affects the fermentation process. We’re working on being sustainable and having our wines taste just as good.
What are you doing to celebrate the 200th anniversary of rosé?
We are teaching people about rosé. Most people don’t know this, but there is a village in the Champagne region named Bouzy where all our red wine is produced to blend into rosé. We have some red wines that we make on several plots and then the really special ones used for Grand Crus are only made on a single plot. We brought a group there to show them the vineyards and to taste some rare rosé vintages. We also drank the red wine, which is usually not available to the public. We’re also doing activations around the U.S., and at all of our big events, like the polo classic.
When is the best time to drink rosé Champagne?
It’s perfect for dinner. If you have friends going for red meat or fish, you have to choose rosé Champagne because it has both red and white wines in it; it goes with everything. You have the freshness, the crispness for light food, but also the tannins that go well with heavy food.
Any tips to help us become rosé experts?
I’ll give you a tip about Champagne in general. If you want to tell how old a Champagne is, look at the bubbles. The more you age it, the more the bubbles will be fine and small. It’s not that the Champagne is losing anything; it’s just that the carbon dioxide has dissolved more into the wine. When you taste it, it’s more like cream or a fine, precise wine.