NewsThe women of Champagne

The women of Champagne

Whether as a winemaker, cellar master or boss: more and more women are finding their place in the Champagne vineyards. Unlike the men, they don’t compete against each other.

Hoar frost hangs over the bare vineyards that glisten in the morning sun. It lies there like in hibernation, the undulating land blessed by nature. Like an oasis between hectic Paris and the war-torn Verdun. La Champagne. Her name is female, unlike champagne, le champagne, which is as masculine as all the shirt-sleeved winemakers who have been pressing it for centuries.

No, says Brigitte Batonnet, documentalist and walking library at the local champagne office CIVC in Epernay. In the 18th century it was women who spread the golden sparkling wine at the court of Versailles: the Countess du Barry or the Marquise of Pompadour, from whom the quote comes: “Champagne is the only wine that makes women beautiful after drinking it remains.”

Later, the legendary champagne widows brought the sparkling wine business to bloom. Above all the Veuve Clicquot. Barbe-Nicole Clicquot-Ponsardin, as her real name was called, had to take over the business at the age of 27 after the death of her husband in 1805. She did a great job, revolutionized her property and the whole industry with it. Both in terms of taste and marketing.

And Brigitte Batonnet is not finished with her description. Because even in the world wars, in which the men fought and died on the nearby battlefields, their wives ensured the survival of the champagne guild. This reflex has persisted to this day. Time and again, and more and more often, women step into the breach when there is need for a man in Champagne – pardon the woman.

The best known is Vitalie Taittinger, head of the champagne brand of the same name from Reims. The 42-year-old French woman has been running a family business for two years, which looks back on an illustrious family tree of winemakers, ministers and business people. Has been working in various positions in the company since 2007, bringing the 150 million company back on track after US investors and distant heirs had almost killed it.

Thanks to woman power? Vitalie Taittinger, who exudes as much energy as her first name, waves her hand with a laugh. “I manage our house very differently from my father, but not because I’m a woman,” she says in her tennis court-sized office, which is located directly above the famous cellars in Kreideboden. “What matters is work, talent, energy – not gender.”

“In the spirit,” she muses, because the champagne embodies something feminine. “Think of the picture of Marilyn Monroe holding a ‘Flûte’ de Champagne – for me that is the epitome of elegance, and one of the most beautiful illustrations of this drink.”

In the bottle, on the other hand, there is only one taste, a genderless one. “Do you feel the purity, the spirit of Champagne chalk, so pure that it almost crunches?” Asks the boss after serving a “Comtes de Champagne”, 2011 vintage, with a single movement of the hand. And while you are struggling for words, she adds: “When the sparkling wine starts to warm up, then the density also comes! That is the spirit of Champagne! “

It would never occur to Vitalie Taittinger to produce champagne for women, as other champagne houses have shown. Although she herself has already posed on a very stylish black and white picture of her house: On the Place Royale in Reims, she paid homage to Taittinger taste in particular and femininity in general. But that is only “a winking homage to feminine elegance,” says the perhaps only company boss who poses on the advertising posters of her own company.

Whereby the head of the company does not show any starry airs. Vitalie Taittinger does not rely on ego trips, but on cooperation within the company. “I’m only one link in the chain,” she says as she walks across the company premises, under which the Romans had already mined the limestone. That led to the famous cellar stores. “I encourage teamwork where I can, especially with my brother Clovis, who is my director, in charge of exports.” As your subordinate? “Yes, but I don’t see our roles in a hierarchical order.”

When the pandemic began, the boss wasn’t primarily thinking about sales – it collapsed across the industry anyway – but about her 230 permanent employees. “There were no layoffs or wage losses, because my concern was that everyone felt safe in this crisis,” says the mother of three. “Emotionally secure.”

However, security does not preclude daring. Anticipating that the ideal vine conditions and thus the vineyards would slowly “migrate” north due to global warming, Taittinger had acquired Rebland on the other side of the English Channel in the English county of Kent. The first income should be generated from 2024.

And because the head of a family business in the fourth generation wants to offer her children a sustainable future, she no longer uses herbicides in the 288 hectares of Taittinger vines. She cut pesticides in half. Not all of her male bosses are ready.

But they are now facing competition. More and more women are running small and large champagne houses. It all started with Carol Duval-Leroy in 1991. After the death of her husband, the Belgian took over the business at the age of 36. To date, it has increased sales tenfold. For this purpose, she has created, among other things, a “cuvée bio” – an organic edition. And by the way, a sparkling wine called “Femme de champagne”.

Today the winemaker is no longer the only champagne boss. Vitalie Taittinger followed her, then Maggie Henriquez, who heads the Krug manufacturer. Laurent-Perrier is run by the sisters Alexandra and Stéphanie de Nonancourt. At Môet & Chandon (part of the luxury goods group LVMH), the Spaniard Berta de Pablos-Barbier took over the shots in November.

Often even more important than the company chairmen, because they are more influential, the cellar masters in Champagne – increasingly cellar masters: Alice Tétienne creates the sparkling wine at Henriot, Séverine Frerson at Perrier-Jouët. The latter had been poached by Piper-Heidsieck like a football star.

Asked by journalists whether women tasted differently in the champagne cellars than men, Frerson said the approach is different but complementary: “We may go deeper, express ourselves more vividly.” Nathalie Laplaige, “chef de caves” at Joseph Perrier, answered the same question: “Women are perhaps more precise, in a better mood, with more human warmth.”

As a minority, these champagne women have already joined forces in two clubs: Fa’Bulleuses for the winemakers, La Transmission for the bosses. In addition to socializing, the goals in both cases are exchange, solidarity and mutual help. Not only industry greats like Vitalie Taittinger, but also small vintners like Laureen Baillette, who cultivates five hectares of vineyards with her mother and sister, are also part of the party.

Baillette got her boss job at the age of 24 – and, you guessed it, almost overnight, when her father blessed the temporal after a short and serious illness. The young woman briefly studied oenology before taking over the shop. During this time, the three remaining women of the mourning family received numerous takeover offers from winemakers who did not trust them to keep the business going.

Today, 16 years later, Laureen Baillette has stabilized the company; With an award-winning Premier Cru, it also celebrates qualitative success. And nobody asks me the annoying question of whether they want to sell the property.

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