In focus: The women shaping Champagne today

The Champagne industry has traditionally been run by men, with a few notable exceptions. But, as Lucy Shaw discovers, there is a new wave of women who are smashing the glass ceiling and making their mark on the sector.

Margareth ‘Maggie’ Henriquez of Krug

While Champagne remains a male-dominated region, its history is punctuated with strong female figures who had huge responsibility thrust upon them following the untimely deaths of their husbands. The most famous of these willful widows is Veuve Clicquot. Born Barbe-Nicole
Ponsardin, Clicquot took over her husband François Clicquot’s Champagne business in 1805 after his sudden demise.

Running the enterprise while looking after her young daughter, Clicquot had a profound influence on the production and marketing of Champagne, and is credited with inventing the riddling process, turning her house into a respectable brand enjoyed at royal courts throughout Europe, and creating Veuve Clicquot’s distinctive yellow labels that remain to this day. Half a century later, another famous widow emerged – Jeanne-Alexandrine Louise Pommery, who took over Champagne Pommery in 1858 after the death of her husband.

Anne Malassagne of AR Lenoble

During her time at the helm of the house she oversaw the construction of the domaine and masterminded the creation of Pommery Brut Nature in 1874 in response to an English thirst for a drier style of Champagne, which was sweet at the time. More recently, Lily Bollinger’s 30-year tenure at Bollinger left a legacy that is still upheld today.

Born Emily Law de Lauriston Bourbers, Lily took over Bollinger in 1941 following the death of her husband, Jacques, and quickly got to work expanding the house’s production through the purchase of new vineyards.

Travelling the world extensively to promote the brand, in 1967 Lily was ahead of the curve when she launched prestige cuvée R.D. with the 1952 vintage. “Lily Bollinger left an extraordinary legacy that still resonates two generations on,” says Andrew Hawes, managing director of Bollinger’s UK agent, Mentzendorff.

“From her desire to be independent and not follow the crowd, to her focus on Pinot Noir and emphasis on the house using grapes from its own vineyards, her values are deeply ingrained in the family today.” While we may still be a long way off gender parity in the region’s boardrooms, change is afoot, and more women than ever are taking on senior roles at their family houses, or are being welcomed into the Champagne industry from outside the area.

According to the BBC, 60% of oenology students in Champagne are women, which bodes well for the future, though more needs to be done to make it easier for them to achieve the ultimate accolade of chef de cave, a position still only held by a tiny number of women in the region.

Hoping to inspire the next generation of female cellar masters and CEOs in Champagne is La Transmission, a 10-strong all-female initiative founded by two pioneers: Anne Malassagne, a fourth-generation co-owner of her family Champagne house, AR Lenoble; and Margareth Henriquez, who, as the president and CEO of Krug, is one of the most powerful and influential figureheads in the region.

As well as her role at Krug, Maggie (as she likes to be known) is also the president of LVMH’s Estates & Wines division. Having put the idea to Cecile Bonnefond in 2011 soon after she became president of Charles and Piper-Heidsieck, Malassagne had to put La Transmission on ice for five years after it failed to take off. Undeterred, in 2016 she went for a second bite of the apple, this time recruiting Henriquez to launch the concept.

Alice Paillard of Bruno Paillard

Malassagne’s aim was simple: to bring together a group of female decision makers from the Champagne region with shared values and a passion for collectively promoting the product to a new generation of drinkers. While the size of their respective houses wasn’t important, all members had to be modern in their approach and outward-looking in their thinking.

Though the idea failed to take flight in 2011, something clicked in 2016, and Malassagne and Henriquez soon recruited eight like-minded women to the La Transmission collective, including Évelyne Boizel of Boizel, Alice Paillard of Bruno Paillard, Melanie Tarlant of Tarlant and Floriane Eznack, who was named chef de cave of Jacquart in 2011 when she was just 31.

“Having a space that encourages open discussion where you can share your ideas with like-minded people in the industry is priceless,” says Paillard. Since its inception three years ago, La Transmission has hosted events open to wine students and international press, including an exploration into the effects of glassware on the taste of Champagne, and a tasting of back vintages to illustrate its evolution. While the group is made up of women, their events are open to both sexes.

“The great thing about La Transmission is that it’s not driven by ego – we’re all working together for the better of the group, and our brands stay in the background. We never compare figures when we get together; it’s all about sharing our experiences and collectively promoting Champagne in a more modern way to a younger audience to make it more accessible and less intimidating,” says Malassagne, who was thrust into the role of managing her family Champagne house in 1993 when she was 28.

“Back then, if women were running Champagne houses it was usually not their choice – they were forced to do it through circumstances. I was working at L’Oréal at the time and wanted to stay in Paris, but my father became ill and I was the only one in the family able to take on the role. It was really difficult initially, as I had no credibility and no idea how to make wine. The first 10 years were really tough,” she admits. While her job is a lot easier now, Malassagne has had to prove herself every step of the way. “I asked my brother to join me in the business in 1996. When we turned up to meetings together, most clients thought I was his assistant or wife, and at tastings people thought I was there just to open the bottles.

There are still some areas of the business where my brother finds it easier than me because he’s a man, particularly when it comes to dealing with our growers.” While initially dismissed as “just another group of women”, La Transmission is gaining recognition in Champagne and Malassagne has her sights set on collaborations with other women in wine initiatives around the world. “We’re not a commercial organisation; it’s all about sharing ideas and promoting female wine professionals. I want to show future generations that it’s possible to be a woman and work in Champagne if you’re passionate and hard-working.”

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