A symbol of luxury and celebration, Champagne is one of the most beloved drinks worldwide. Today, “Champagne” (sparkling wine produced in the Champagne region of northeastern France) accounts for 10% of the world’s consumption of sparkling wines by volume and 21% by value (Comité Champagne, 2023). Currently, the Champagne region has 16,200 growers, 130 cooperatives, and 370 houses. On the back of increasing demand, the champagne market will grow from 253.5 million liters in 2023 to 311.1 million liters by 2028, with a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 4.18% from 2023-2028.
“I drink it when I'm happy and when I'm sad. Sometimes I drink it when I'm alone. When I have company, I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I'm not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise, I never touch it—unless I'm thirsty.”
– Lily Bollinger.
Like other business sectors, it is still rare to see women at the helm of champagne companies. In fact, they account for less than 10% of Champagne house owners. There has been a long-held belief that only men had the intelligence and ability to manage a Champagne house. However, if we go back in time, women have played a pivotal role in the development of this industry. Women have held powerful positions in the Champagne business since before they had the right to vote. While these female co-owners often lived in their husbands’ shadows, they developed the skills they needed to manage the champagne business and earned the credibility required to lead the champagne house after their husbands passed away. As widows, they were first in line to take over from their spouse because of their expertise (Robic & Antheaume, 2014). “Widow” status gave women similar rights to men as they could own property, operate a business, and manage their finances. Single or married women depended on their male counterparts (e.g., father, brother, husband) as they could not open bank accounts.
As we delve into the past, some of the exceptional women who pioneered and shaped the Champagne industry in the 19th and 20th centuries include:
Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin of Champagne Veuve Clicquot: At the young age of 27, Mme Clicquot was widowed in 1805 and took the helm of the Champagne house. Known as La Grande Dame of Champagne, she pioneered the riddling process, which improved the clarity of their Champagne. She established the Veuve Clicquot brand as a sparkling wine that became a symbol of excellence and innovation.
Camille Olry-Roederer of Champagne Roederer: At the age of 56, Madame Roederer became a widow in 1932. She led Louis Roederer, contributing significantly to the success and legacy of the Champagne house. Mme. Roederer played a pivotal role in developing its flagship cuvée Cristal, one of the world's most prestigious and sought-after champagnes, which is favored by royalty and celebrities.
Lily Bollinger of Champagne Bollinger: At 42, Mme Bollinger was widowed in 1941 and took over the Champagne house. She steered the house through challenging times, including during the Second World War, and it became the official royal Champagne of the British court three decades later.
Apolline Henriot of Champagne Henriot: At 36, Mme Henriot founded her own Champagne house after the death of her husband in 1808. It quickly gained recognition for producing exceptional quality Champagnes, becoming known for its elegant and refined offerings. Seven generations of Henriot men followed her reign.
Jeanne-Alexandrine Pommery of Champagne Pommery: At 38, Mme Pommery lost her husband in 1858 and took control of the property. Under her leadership, she expanded and modernized the Pommery Champagne House, created the Champagne brut nature by lowering the sugar dosage, and constructed her crayères1.
While these groundbreaking women revolutionized the fledgling Champagne industry, they were mostly relegated to the history books, as iconic houses were sold or were no longer run by family members. Equitable representation in decision-making roles has been slow in coming, only to be picked up in the 21st century when, in 2000, Monique Charpentier became the first female Chef de Caves (cellar master) at Mercier (Moët-Hennessy) – a popular champagne in France with over four million bottles sold annually. By the early 2000s, women were back on the Champagne industry's radar. To better understand the experiences of female leaders in the wine industry, we conducted in-depth interviews with exceptional women at the helm of prestigious houses, including Champagne Philippe Gonet, Champagne AR Lenoble, and Champagne Tarlant.
Much like the women two centuries ago who took control of the business in a time of uncertainty after the death of their spouses, our interviewees joined the family business due to unexpected circumstances. This was the case for Chantal Gonet. After the death of their father, their mother took over for a short period and then passed the property to her children, who took over the winery in their early 20s. Mme Gonet, with her brother, represents the seventh generation in charge of the family estate and co-owns the Champagne House Philippe Gonet, which dates back to 1830.
This was also the case for Anne Malassagne, who co-owns the Champagne house AR Lenoble. The company has its roots in 1870 with Joseph Graser and his relocation to the region of Champagne. In 1920, his son Armand-Raphael created Champagne Graser and shortly after changed the name of the house to AR Lenoble. Mme Malassagne joined the company to support her father, who, due to health conditions, passed her the keys to the house more quickly than expected in 1993.
After 12 generations of men, it was Mélanie Tarlant’s passion for the family business – not a succession – that led her to become the first woman to head up the Tarlant House. The Tarlant family started to grow vines in 1687 in the Vallée de la Marne, and Champagne Tarlant was born in 1928. For Mme Tarlant, mentalities have slowly evolved in the last couple of years: “Now we accept that women, sisters or daughters can take over the family estate. Before, if there were only daughters in the family, the succession would go to their husbands, and women would fade to the background.”
For current female leaders, automatically handing the business over to a male successor is a thing of the past. With flexible mindsets, these businesswomen prefer to allow the next generation to decide to join the family business or not, out of passion not obligation, regardless of gender.
Establishing legitimacy and credibility as a woman in a patriarchal industry was challenging, thus these female trailblazers underscore the need for more balance in the Champagne industry. Owing to a diverse and inclusive perspective, Anne Malassagne and Maggie Henriquez (who served as President and CEO of Krug) created La Transmission Femmes en Champagne in 2016. La Transmission is currently composed of nine women leaders (Evelyne Boizel, Delphine Cazals, Charline Drappier, Chantal Gonet, Maggie Henriquez, Anne Malassagne, Alice Paillard, Vitalie Taittinger, Mélanie Tarlant) with the purpose to share stories, learn from each other, show solidarity, and elevate women in the Champagne business. This initiative highlights the legacy of pioneering women who have made significant strides in the world of Champagne, inspiring future generations to continue their legacy of excellence.
1An excavated gallery used as a wine cellar for Champagne.