Who was Veuve Clicquot?

La Veuve (the Widow), as she is known in Champagne circles, is not afraid to accentuate her quirky side and maintain her comfortable intimacy with the world of cigars.

By Jean Cottereau

Not all cigar lovers are eccentrics, but the joshing banter they are subject to in contemporary society puts them in a faction of their own, obliging them to cultivate a certain dissent. Not many big names in the luxury business play around with the inherent possibilities this provides. Either because they daren’t, or because it’s not ‘in their culture’. Veuve Clicquot champagne is an exception, and has been flouting convention for over two hundred years. Daring – even to the point of being provocative – is congenital. Witness its basic cuvée, the brut Yellow Label, which breaks all the rules with a defiant swagger.

‘Yellow Label’, for a start – it sounds like an infringement and a warning. What transgression is this bottle guilty of? An impropriety, no less. The color is the misdeed. For centuries, this color has been out of favor in Europe; a symbol of treachery, deceit, and adultery. Veuve Clicquot invented it herself, that egg-yolk yellow that was legally registered in 1877 and constitutes the brand’s distinguishing mark – now designated by a Pantone code that the company wants to keep under wraps. The brassy orange-yellow of La Veuve’s emblematic label jumps right out at you from a row of bottles.

The art of wrong-footing

Naming it ‘the Widow’ was also a bold move. The company’s founder was the first to display such cheeky effrontery – and many other champagne houses followed suit, seemingly judging it a badge of honor and good repute to have the state of widowhood referred to in their name. Let’s not forget that the guillotine was also known as “La Veuve”. To invoke death and mourning when your product symbolizes parties and frivolity shows a certain heedless disregard – or marketing genius! And there’s the name ‘Clicquot’ itself: a flashy name, its expressive consonance bringing to mind the gaiety and noise of a Balzac novel. Yet champagne bubbles make no sound as they gently rise to the surface – barely a sigh, the merest whisper. Wrong-footed again!

To top it all, this remarkable woman’s first name was Barbe-Nicole (Saint Barbara was said to have died a virgin and a martyr, beheaded by her father) as if to emphasize her authority and force, so beautifully captured by the painter Léon Cogniet in his spellbinding canvas that gives us one of the most striking representations of 19th-century French bourgeoisie. The Widow’s look is cold and piercing, with no illusions about the world. But what imperiousness! The brand chose the portrait of this distant woman to be the stuff of dreams.

A special relationship with cigars

The company, part of LVMH group, wields this paradox to perfection. The champagne it produces is unanimously recognized for its consistent quality, maintained by a long line of outstanding cellar masters.

There are no taboos at Veuve Clicquot, they are willing to try out all possible pairings and there is certainly some collusion between the world of cigars and this brand, which goes out of its way to not take convention too seriously. ‘Veuve Clicquot devotees form a secret society’ was once the company’s watchword,– implying that this clique was open to all, and the very definition of the connoisseur: those who make choices of their own free will and for whom the ‘unreasonable’ holds no fears.

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