When people visit France’s champagne houses, they are often told the stories of famous widows throughout history who campaigned for the famous bubbly: the Veuve Clicquot or Lily Bollinger or Jeanne-Alexandrine Pommery. But in spite of such examples, women have actually long been on the edge of Champagne.
“The many lives a woman has to lead are sometimes difficult for people to accept in an industry that is still so dominated by men.”
Land in Champagne is almost impossible to buy, so champagne is a family affair with houses often passed down from father to son. The famous widows inherited their lot when there was no one – no son, no brother – to turn to. And that remained the case well into modern times.
In the early 1990s, Anne Malassagne faced a difficult decision after years of marketing for brands like L’Oreal. With the Gulf War crisis looming, Malassagne’s father told his three children that without help, he would likely be forced to sell the generation-old AR Lenoble. Malassagne took the plunge and tried to balance motherhood and work in an industry that initially didn’t welcome women too much.
“The many lives a woman has to lead are sometimes difficult for people to accept in an industry that is still so male-dominated,” she says.
That was less than twenty years ago, but in that short time the industry has evolved. Women are now – slowly but surely – becoming power plants in Champagne and representing their family domains of their choice. In many ways, they are also at the forefront of the changes that are needed and are revolutionizing the industry.
Women have driven this change primarily by making the industry more welcoming to the next generation. Delphine Brulez from Champagne Louise Brison is one of seven women in the group Les Fa’bulleuses (a piece about the French for fabulous, fabulous and bubble, bull) founded in 2014. This group of like-minded women shares everything from techniques to reconciling family life.
“We’re more than just colleagues now.”
Photo: Olivier Douard
“All subjects are fair game,” she says. “Without becoming dogmatic and feminist, we are a female association and we end up faced with questions such as finding your place, either within the family, in our microcosm of Champagne or in the world of wine as a whole.”
Charlotte De Sousa of Champagne De Sousa, another member of the group, notes that Les Fa’bulleuses have carried out group projects to amplify each other’s voices: for example, a set of seven bottles or even a joint cuvée called Isos.
“It’s a breath of fresh air,” says De Sousa. “We got so close. We are more than just colleagues now. “
Malassagne also belongs to a group of women who help each other in Champagne, La Transmission.
“We’re a group of women, but that’s not all,” says Malassagne. “The idea was to be a group that could be a voice of Champagne and represent all regions, all generations and all players in the industry, from smallholders to international brands.”
La Transmission has far-reaching goals: share, enrich, support. But also revive the image of the famous sparkling wine.
“The image of Champagne, especially among millennials, is a bit dusty and old-fashioned,” says Malassagne. “It’s presumptuous or even arrogant. It’s very inaccessible. And we say no, behind these bottles are men and women, there are amazing stories. ”
Fanny Heucq, a fourth-generation champagne maker from Champagne André Heucq and owner of Dilettantes, the premier champagne shop and bar in Paris, says that in her selection of 25 producer producers (dilettantes) she over-represented women Shipping to the US – here with code Order XMAS2020 (10 percent discount). She hopes that by sharing her stories she can help people understand the amazing accomplishments of these women.
One such woman is Elise Lejeune, who, when she was born into Champagne, faced the family’s expectation that her land would go to her brother. But Lejeune also wanted to pick up on the family tradition. Since her family could not legally disinherit her, Lejeune could claim her part of the cake – but without the support of her family.
“When she wanted to go organic, it was quite a drama,” says Heucq. “She had to do everything herself, from A to Z, because nobody in her family wanted to support her.”
In doing so, Lejeune has not only taken a path for herself and for women like her, but has also taken an essential step for the future of Champagne as we know it.
Master of sustainable champagne
Today, like many other wine regions, champagne is exposed to the undeniable effects of climate change. But Lejeune’s moves toward organic champagne are an exception rather than a rule.
“You really have to work on the strength of the plant yourself.”
For years, champagne producers have been resting on their laurels when it comes to organic certification – especially because organic is not an easy certification in the region. The cold, rainy region makes grapevines prone to powdery mildew, and since copper sulfate is the only organic resort, many champagne houses turned to non-organic alternatives instead. And unlike other regions, they could get away with it.
“It’s harder to make organic wine in Champagne than it is in the south of France … but it’s no more difficult than in the Loire Valley,” says Heucq, whose champagne started organic conversion in 2014. “And organic wine is everywhere in the Loire Valley. Why? Because we have the word champagne on our bottles. “
For Brulez, the problem is partly related to the way champagne is grown and made. In contrast to other regions, winegrowers in Champagne only make up a third of all producers. The remaining two-thirds sell their grapes to big houses and, according to Brulez, “it doesn’t matter what they produce” as long as people buy them.
Breeder-winemakers, on the other hand, are “translators of their terroir” and therefore have a vested interest in making things as clean as possible.
“You surf by the word champagne,” says Brulez. “But that ends now. Thank god.”
Women winemakers have often shown themselves to be pioneers in developing more sustainable winemaking. It was an integral part of Malassagne’s vision when she arrived at the family home in 1993 and found that unlike previous generations who were plagued by harsh winters in wartime, she could afford to produce quality over quantity. Alongside her brother, who later joined her in the family domain, Malassagne developed a philosophy that put her local terroir in the spotlight: healthy grapes that were grown on soils with biodiversity and did not require severe treatment. Because of their efforts, AR Lenoble was the second champagne house after Bollinger to achieve the highest certification level for Haute Valeur Environnementale – High Environmental Value.
Meanwhile, Brulez’s philosophy led her to pursue organic certification because she thought she was “always anchored in our practices”.
“You really have to work on the strength of the plant yourself,” she says, noting that with hard work, they were able to stay in organic even in a terribly rainy year like 2016.
“Our vines do the job,” she says.
De Sousa, whose domain has been certified for ten years, says labels like organic are “the future”. She notes that the trend towards ecological and sustainable winemaking is really taking hold in the industry – and not a moment too soon.
“More and more, and especially from younger generations,” she says. “But unfortunately there is still a lot to do.”
The future of women in Champagne
Champagne women have always come a long way.
“My great-grandmother Louise Brison saw both wars,” says Brulez.
It’s an important part of local history, she says, and yet it’s far from full history.
Today’s women winemakers are strong, revolutionary and committed. And while Heucq warns of a “reductive” logic that would focus too much on their femininity as a feature of their winemaking, perhaps it is this element of their identity that has made them the indomitable force they are today.
“Women in this industry have to be more attentive and strict and do more,” says Heucq. “Because they have to prove themselves. Because they don’t feel legitimate. “
“My first ten years were extremely complicated,” admits Malassagne, and although things may get easier with time, “there is still this guilt we place on women.”
But that is changing. Brulez says, “I’ve never had a problem with my gender. I am passionate, I am aware of my work, I am aware of what I can do and what I still have to do. I’m not perfect, but technically … I don’t think I’m any different from anyone else. “
Perhaps more than anything, modern women stand out from the widows of yesteryear because of their self-realized nature.
“The widows were widows,” says Heucq. “They took over their domains by commitment.” On the contrary: “It’s a decision. It is a wish of these women to make champagne. Highlight champagne. “
Based on bio-authority
9 Bubbly Truths I Learned About Champagne in Champagne (When I Lived in France)
The 10 best bottles of sparkling wine for the holidays
Why champagne causes headaches (and what to do about it)