A Widow, a Riddler, and a Rack
Original champagne was not the clear, crisp bubbly we recognize today. It was cloudy with the yeast added during the fermentation process. But as the glass used in the bottling of champagne and champagne glasses improved, the desire to see the bubbles in the glass grew. A practice of decanting champagne from bottle to bottle developed, which did improve clarity. Unfortunately, the more champagne is decanted, the flatter it becomes.
The Widow (or vueve)
Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin Clicquot (16 December 1777 – 29 July 1866), decided to take on her husband’s wine-making business when she was widowed at the age of 27, and she focused particularly on champagne. The Widow Clicquot ("widow" translates to "veuve" in French) observed that the sediment causing the cloudiness (known as the lees) would settle from the sides of the bottle into the bottom if the bottle was briskly turned. Legend has it that she cut holes in her kitchen table and inserted the bottles upside down to encourage the lees to settle in the neck of the bottle as they were turned. Clicquot’s cellar master, Antoine Muller, who created an a-frame rack to hold the bottles at a 45-degree angle, further developed this approach, now known as “riddling”.
Enter the Riddler (no not a Batman character)
Someone, now known as a riddler, would turn the bottles every 1-3 days over several weeks. Once the lees settled, the bottleneck would be frozen to create a temporary cork and the sediment was removed. This method produced clear champagne and preserved the little bubbles. The House of Moet and other major champagne producers eventually adopted this method of riddling and the act of riddling is now often done using a machine. Some houses, like Schramsberg, still hand riddle.
The Widow Clicquot contributed to the champagne industry in many other ways including branding, business development, and export. She didn’t retire until the age of 64.