The history of Champagne holds a number of extraordinary women. Among them are Madame Clicquot, widowed at age 27 (“Veuve,” in French, means widow), who effectively built the Champagne house of Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin; Madame Louise Pommery, another young widow, who turned a modest red wine business into Champagne Pommery; and Lily Bollinger, who brought the house of Bollinger to world-wide fame after WWII, and who made the oft-quoted statement in regard to Champagne, “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.”
But they are the exceptions. Historically, powerful roles in Champagne (as in the wine business overall) have been dominated by men. So I was intrigued to meet recently with Sandrine Logette-Jardin, the chef de cave—chief winemaker, essentially—of Champagne Duval-Leroy. Sandrine is not only the first woman chef de cave at an independently owned Champagne house, she’s also an extraordinarily talented winemaker, judging from the current Duval-Leroy releases; beyond that, Duval-Leroy’s president is also a woman, Carol Duval-Leroy.
“I think a lot of the other houses now regret not having a female chef de cave," Logette-Jardin said, when I asked about her role. "But it also helps that I have a female boss—Carol is a very resilient woman, very courageous, very ambitious, and she wants to keep her independence. She’s a lion—that’s literally what people have said about her. And for me, I find that in general the other chef de caves are very happy that I’m in this role…except for a few who might be looking for a job like mine!”
Duval-Leroy’s Chardonnay-driven style is elegant and generous at once. The NV Duval-Leroy Premier Cru Brut ($70) is very vinous, with apple and citrus flavors and spice notes on the end. The coral-hued NV Duval-Leroy Rosé Brut ($80) shows strawberry and cranberry aromas; the winemaking approach that Logette-Jardin uses for it (20 hours maceration on the destemmed Pinot Noir grapes that are the bulk of the blend) gives it an intense fruitiness on the palate.
The house’s tête-de-cuvée is called Femme, which Carol Duval-Leroy launched in 1996. "People told her she was the 'modern widow of Champagne,' which she hated [her husband passed away in 1991]," Logette-Jardin says. "But she wanted to value the female aspect of the house and in some ways create a modern cognate to wines like Veuve Clicquot’s Grand Dame." Made solely from grand cru fruit, the 2000 Duval Leroy Femme de Champagne Brut ($220) is 95% Chardonnay, 25% vinified in older oak barrels; it spent 14 years in the cellar before release. A rich Champagne with golden apple, honey and peach notes, it’s still also quite zingy with bright citrus acidity—both opulent and elegant, and in perfect balance; a gorgeous wine. What would Logette-Jardin serve it with? "A risotto with mushrooms," she says. "Oui. That would be right."