Champagne, like most businesses, including wine, has been traditionally run by the male of the species. And yet there always are exceptions. Carol Duval-Leroy is the CEO and owner of Champagne Duval-Leroy, a prestigious Champagne House located in the village of Vertus on the Côte des Blancs--the heart of the best Chardonnay vineyards in Champagne, if not the world. Champagne Duval-Leroy has been a family-owned business since 1859.
Additionally, the Chef de Caves (head winemaker) is Sandrine Logette-Jardin, a position she has held since 2005, when Sandrine--then only 37--became the first female chef de caves in the Champagne region. And so, unusually, Champagne Duval-Leroy is really run by women.
Ironically, the Champagne region, which is about as traditional a place you can find in the wine world, has had a number of outstanding women who have made their mark. My theory is that the men in Champagne seem to have a tendency to die young, leaving their widows to run things, but that theory was vehemently disputed with me by Pierre Taittinger, who apparently has no intention of dying young.
The most famous Champagne widow was La Grande Dame herself, Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin, who became a widow in 1805 at the age of 27. Her husband, Francois Clicquot, died at 31 of an unexplained fever, after only seven years of marriage. Madame Clicquot, with a three-year-old daughter and no business--let alone wine--experience, did a shocking, unheard of thing at that time; she took over her husband’s business.
A very smart, strong-willed woman, the widow (veuve, in French) Clicquot made three wise moves: she developed the previously untouched Russian market; she hired a great, inventive chef de caves, Antoine Müller, and she hired a brilliant, honest businessman, Edouard Werlé, who worked for Madame Veuve Clicquot for over 50 years, and eventually became her partner. Today, Champagne Veuve Clicquot is the world’s second-largest Champagne house (after Moët & Chandon); its prestige cuvée, "La Grande Dame," is named after Madame Clicquot. Who knows what would have become of Champagne Veuve Clicquot without its famous widow?
Five other amazing women who have deeply enhanced their Champagne houses:
Madame Louise Pommery: Just two years after Louis Pommery bought into the wine house Pommery & Greno in 1856, he died, leaving his 39-year-old wife, Louise Pommery (with two children, one a baby) his share of the firm. Pommery’s partner, Narcisse Greno, gave up his partnership in 1860 because of poor health, leaving it all to Madame Pommery. In short, Louise Pommery--every bit as amazing as Barbe-Nicole Clicquot--took a minor firm making mainly red wine and turned it into a great Champagne house: she concentrated on making sparkling Champagne; she introduced Brut (dry) Champagne to the huge English market (Champagne was mainly sweet at that time); and she built an amazing estate of five magnificent buildings in Rheims which is now the home of Champagne Pommery.
Laurent-Perrier Widows: Two widows share the spotlight for Champagne Laurent-Perrier. Mathilde Emile Laurent-Perrier took over the firm in 1887 when her husband, Eugène Laurent died, and she ran Laurent-Perrier well for 38 years. When the Veuve Laurent-Perrier died in 1925, she left no heirs, and the firm foundered for 13 years during the Great Depression, producing almost no Champagne. Another widow, Marie-Louise de Nonancourt (sister of the brothers Lanson of Champagne Lanson) decided to buy poor Champagne Laurent-Perrier for her sons (my kind of mother!). The elder brother died in World War II; the younger brother, Bernard de Nonancourt, survived, took over in 1948, and built Laurent-Perrier into the largest family-owned Champagne firm in the world (5th largest of all).
Madame Camille Olry-Roederer: When Léon Olry-Roederer died in 1932, Madame Camille Olry-Roederer inherited the Rheims firm at a difficult time. She had to guide Champagne Louis Roederer through the Depression and World War II, including the German occupation of Rheims. Under the, strong, colorful Madame Camille’s lead, Champagne Louis Roederer thrived and became stronger than ever after WW II. Her greatest accomplishment was that she was savvy enough to realize that owning vineyards was vital, and she proceeded to buy so many vineyards that today the Roederer firm owns over 70 percent of the vineyards it uses, the highest percentage of any major House. It’s a key reason that Champagne Louis Roederer is so successful today, both financially and for the quality of its Champagnes. Madame Camille also was responsible for popularizing Louis Roederer’s famous prestige cuvee, "Cristal," after WW II. She died in 1974, after leading Louis Roederer for 48 years.
Madame Lily Bollinger: The popular Jacques Bollinger also died at an unfortunate time, 1941, at the age of 47. His widow, Lily Bollinger, widely and affectionately called Madame Jacques, at the age of 42 had to steer Champagne Bollinger through the difficult war years, including bombings, and the challenging post-war years. Lily did have an advantage the widows Clicquot and Pommery lacked; her husband Jacques had schooled her well about the Bollinger business during their 18 years of marriage. And she was an excellent taster as well. Lily ran all facets of Champagne Bollinger’s business. She was a familiar sight in Champagne, bicycling through her vineyards. Lily died in 1977, at the age of 78. Bollinger is stronger than ever today, thanks to the strong-minded, determined Madame Jacques, Lily Bollinger.
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As noted at the outset, we now have another widow running a Champagne House, Madame Carol Duval-Leroy. Born in Belgium, Carol Nilens married Jean Charles Duval-Leroy in the 1980s. They had three sons. But sadly, Jean Charles died in 1991 at the age of 39. Just days before he passed away, Jean Charles had Carol Duval-Leroy promise to take care of the Champagne firm and keep it in family hands.
Madame Duval-Leroy, at the age of 35, put aside her dreams of opening a first-class restaurant and put all of her energy into her Champagne firm. She declared that Champagne Duval-Leroy was not for sale. Carol ‘s first decision was to name the prestige cuvée that her husband had just developed, but had not named yet. She decided to call the wine Femme de Champagne (woman of Champagne), as a reminder that Duval-Leroy is now being run by a woman. Although a few small, grower-producer Champagnes are currently run by women, no Champagne House the size of Champagne Duval-Leroy (annual sales over 5 million bottles) is headed by a woman.
Carol Duval-Leroy’s second decision was to create a new position in the firm, a head of quality control, and she appointed 23-year-old Sandrine Logette-Jardin to this position. In 2006, Logette-Jardin was appointed Chef de Caves, a ground-breaking move for a woman in Champagne to become head winemaker.
Madame Duval-Leroy, during her reign, has modernized production processes, developed better distribution channels for Duval-Leroy, increased the line of Champagnes available, and expanded exports. For example, previously Duval-Leroy was only a small presence in the U.S. Now a large, successful importing firm, Terlato Wines, is bringing Duval-Leroy into the U.S., and this will enable the Champagne to become a large presence throughout the country.
With its location on the Côte des Blancs, naturally a majority of its grapes from its own vineyards (of almost 500 acres) are planted with Chardonnay, but Duval-Leroy also grows Pinot Noir. 40 percent of its grapes it uses come from Grands Crus and Premier Crus vineyards, including Chardonnay grapes from all the Grand Cru vineyards on the Côte des Blancs.
Although Duval-Leroy produces about 12 Champagnes (a few only in special years), as of now Terlato is importing only some of its most important Champagnes into the U.S. Recently, I tasted these three Champagnes in New York with Champagne Duval-Leroy’s Chef de Caves, Sandrine Logette-Jardin. All three impressed, with their low dosage (6g-9g/L rs) and high acidity:
Champagne Duval-Leroy Premier Cru Brut NV: This Champagne stunned me with its excellence. Several years ago, I remember tasting Duval-Leroy’s standard brut when it was being imported into the U.S. But this Premier Cru NV, made from 80 percent Premier and 20 percent Grand Crus, is in a class by itself. With a cepage of 70 percent Chardonnay and 30 percent Pinot Noir, the Duval-Leroy Premier Cru could easily be mistaken for a Prestige Cuvée when tasted blind because of its finesse and class. Its bold flavors and striking acidity seduced me; I drained my glass of it and in fact decided to write this column based on this superb, delicious bubbly. This Champagne and Duval-Leroy’s Prestige Cuvée, Femme, are considered the flagship Champagnes of this house, and I can understand that totally. Suggested list price is $70, but if you shop around, you can find it in the $50 to $60 range, for me, a great value. 97
Champagne Duval-Leroy “Femme de Champagne” 2000: Femme, Duval-Leroy’s prestige cuvee, is made only in exceptional years. The 2000 release is the fourth vintage, following the 1990, 1995, and 1996. It is comprised primarily of Chardonnay (95 percent), along with 5 percent Pinot Noir. Many exceptional Grand Cru vineyards are used in the blend. Femme ages 10 to 12 years in the winery before it is released. I enjoyed my last bottle of 1990 Femme (its first vintage) just recently, and at the age of 25, it was perfect, with no signs of decline. The 2000 Femme is silky, with lots of finesse, and will benefit with some more aging. It might never reach the heights of the ’90, ’95, or especially ’96 Femmes, all better vintages than 2000. But it’s a Champagne with lots of class. $164, average price. 94
Champagne Duval-Leroy Rosé “Prestige” Premier Cru NV: Duval-Leroy’s Rosé Premier Cru is made mainly from Pinot Noir (90 percent) with 10 percent Chardonnay. It follows the same formula of Duval-Leroy’s Brut Premier Cru--80 percent Premier and 20 percent Grand Cru grapes, and is a lovely rosé. I put in my notes, “drink in 2018,” indicating that I thought it would actually improve with a few years of aging. It is dry, with cherry aromas; it’s a not-flashy rosé, with a quiet presence, not nearly so dramatic as the Brut Premier Cru. I would attribute this to the excellent Chardonnay Côte des Blancs grapes (70 percent) in the first wine. But the many rosé Champagne lovers, of which I am one, will be very happy with this Champagne. Average price, $66. 92
Another Champagne Duval-Leroy is its Blanc de Blancs, made with Grand Cru grapes. I did not have the opportunity to try the current release 2006, but I have enjoyed Duval-Leroy's vintage Blanc to Blancs previously.