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By 1780, champagne sales had already doubled to 288,000 bottles. It's hard to say exactly what proportion of the wine was sparkling - probably no more than a tenth. Similarly, was the wine shipped in barrels? Was it drunk directly as a still wine, or was it subjected to a second fermentation after the addition of sugar? In any case, by 1794, the Napoleonic wars had driven up the price of champagne in England to 90 shillings a case (six bottles), double that of any other wine.
Under Napoleon's new regime, the Moët family was one of the privileged few, as Jean-Rémy Moët (1758-1841) was elected mayor of Épernay in 1792. Seven years later, a certain François-Marie Clicquot secretly married Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin in a cellar. Legend has it that the priest gave the newlyweds a book on Dom Pérignon. François-Marie Clicquot's father was a local banker and merchant who owned a vineyard near the village of Bouzy, east of Épernay, as well as a small winery; on the Ponsardin side, things were even better, as the bride's father was a prosperous cloth merchant and member of the Jacobin club, whom Napoleon appointed mayor of Reims.
In 1805, Mr. Clicquot died, leaving a three-year-old daughter, a business in banking, wool and champagne, and Barbe-Nicole, his 27-year-old widow. Madame veuve Clicquot was to have a considerable influence on champagne, and on her House in particular. In a society where women were confined to the domestic sphere, as reinforced by the Napoleonic Code, widowhood was their only means of emancipation, enabling them to run their own businesses.
Under her husband's impetus, sales had risen from 8,000 bottles in 1796 to 60,000 in 1804, before his death. Unfortunately, as the war in Europe dragged on and the Royal Navy blockade became ever more rigorous, the outlook looked bleak...
Sales of Veuve Clicquot fell to 10,000 bottles a year, and long-time partner Alexandre Fourneaux abandoned ship. In 1810, Louis Bohne, the House's principal emissary, noted: "Very quiet business"; "No maritime traffic because of the English fleet. In Vienna, the nobility has no money to pay the brokers because they haven't sold wheat for three years, prices dizzy." No doubt he's referring to sparkling champagne, still very different from the one we enjoy today. Rather cloudy, it can indeed be decanted, at the risk of eliminating most of the bubbles; it is ten times sweeter than today's brut, and lacks the fine, elegant bubbles. Larger, more carbonated, they are more reminiscent of beer, to the point that Madame Clicquot calls them "toad eyes".
The widow took up the art of riddling. Her cellar master, Antoine-Aloys de Muller, cut sloping holes in an old desk and slid the bottles into them, neck down. For four months, the bottle is rotated a quarter turn every day, and lightly stirred so that sediment settles in the neck, while at the same time the bottle is slightly straightened. When the bottle is disgorged, the cork and sediment are discarded, and the liqueur de tirage is added to make up for the loss, before the bottle is recorked just as quickly. Originally, workers inserted the corks with their teeth (a boon for Champagne dentists), before using a mallet and then, from 1827, a machine.
"Spring water is not so clear", says Louis Bohne of this improved champagne. Madame Clicquot saw her rivals adopt her method. In 1811, a comet crossed the region's skies, heralding the first (and best?) vintage of all time, since it would take its name from this event.
Russians began to appreciate sparkling wine, but the Tsar banned French wine imports in 1812. Sensing an opportunity, Bohne set sail for Königsberg on the Prussian coast, selling his cargo before reaching St. Petersburg. "They're all sticking their tongues out to taste it", he writes of the famous Comet wine, "and if it's as good as it is beautiful, they'll all end up adoring me".
Other merchants are eyeing the Russian market. In 1812, Charles-Henri Heidsieck rode on a white stallion to sell his champagne to the victor (whoever that might be) before Napoleon's army into Moscow. Two years later, Russian and Prussian troops invaded France and occupied Reims. When the Cossacks swept through the vineyards and plundered the reserves, Madame Clicquot and her colleagues began frantically sealing off their cellars.
It was around this time that a cavalry officer opened a bottle with his saber, a gesture that gave rise to the expression " sabrer le champagne ". Whether the officer was a Cossack or a handsome French hussar, this episode certainly enhanced the glamour of the precious wine. During the interminable negotiations of the Congress of Vienna (September 1814 to June 1815) and the Battle of Waterloo, champagne made its appearance at countless receptions and dinners, and became inseparable from festivity, celebration and reconciliation.
While Veuve Clicquot and then Roederer were cementing their ties with Russia, which soon became their second-largest export market after Great Britain, new Houses appeared in Épernay and Reims. Henriot opened in 1808, followed by Perrier-Jouët and Laurent-Perrier; in the 1820s, it was the turn of Mumm and Bollinger; finally, ten years later, came Pommery and others. The old road from Châlons to Épernay became the prestigious Avenue de Champagne. In 1848, a book on the origins of champagne asserts that: " Sparkling wines have made the fortune of twenty merchants (and) provided an honest income for a hundred others." Champagne reaches maturity.