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What it’s like to be a woman winemaker in 1818 and 2018

In conjunction with International Women’s Day, we venerate women vintners by looking at the lives of eponymous widowed champagne house owner Madame Clicquot and the Maison’s current chief winemaker Gaelle Goossens.

Gaelle Goossens took to the world of winemaking after quitting her first full-time job — a deskbound and presumably boring fix within the French civil service. Born and raised in the region of Champagne, it was only pertinent that the International Relations graduate would soon end up with a postgraduate diploma in oenology and biochemistry, in order to describe “visiting vineyards and consuming champagne” as work.

She quickly rose to become the deputy head of production at Bollinger and then joined Veuve Clicquot in 2016 as its chief winemaker and comms lady. The switch and step up was “good fortune”, says the stunning and slender 32-year-old.

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Yet, way before Gaelle Goossens came along, Veuve Clicquot encountered quite a misfortune that almost withdrew its verve that bubbles so easily today.

In 1805, tragedy struck when champagne heir François Clicquot died, leaving his 27-year-old wife Barbe-Nicole Clicquot to take over the helm of the Clicquot Maison. Thankfully, the eponymous widow (veuve in French) Clicquot was to be an early-19th century business-minded mogul. She was the ideal first female owner, and a young one at it, of a champagne house to breathe new life into the brand.

Mind you, this was done at a time before the term ‘feminism’ was even coined; where women weren’t anywhere near allowed to own bank accounts either. It was only in 1881, 15 years after Madame Clicquot passed on, did France grant women the right to open bank accounts. (Shockingly, the US didn’t follow suit until the 1960s and the UK delays for far too long until 1975)

“It wasn’t easy to be a woman in the wine industry during Madame Clicquot’s time; let alone be cellar master,” Gaelle Goossens says. “Madame Clicquot fought hard to gain the respect of the industry and had no choice but to be tough in order to run the business. She was never afraid to break from accepted norms and her spirit of innovation truly set her apart.”

Gaelle Goossens Veuve Clicquot

Sad to say though, that after over 200 years, nothing much has changed and many still find it a struggle to be a woman in the wine industry. Positions in the field, especially cellar masters, are primarily held by men. There is of course progress in bringing in a bigger female workforce into the industry but just like winemaking, it’s a patience-practicing process. And a timely change in perception is needed too.

“I think people’s stereotype of a winemaker is a middle-aged man sporting a long beard and has a pot belly,” Goossens reiterates. “The challenge is to change their mindset and show that winemakers, as with every healthy community in the world, are a diverse group of people.

“I would have to work a little harder when making first impressions, especially during the first 5-10 minutes, where I’d be questioned and have to appear more knowledgeable and technical than my male colleagues to assert myself. However, such things only serve to motivate me to work harder and do better in my career.”

Gaelle Goossens

“I would have to work a little harder when making first impressions, especially during the first 5-10 minutes, where I’d be questioned and have to appear more knowledgeable and technical than my male colleagues to assert myself.” — Gaelle Goossens, chief winemaker at Veuve Clicquot

As if to prove that she was to be taken seriously too, Madame Clicquot took a bold step to break from accepted practices and recreated the way rosé champagnes were made. In 1818, the first blended rosé of Veuve Clicquot Rosé was produced because the champagne house matron wasn’t satisfied by the traditional way of making rosé, which involved a tinge of colouration from an elderberry-based mixture.

The woman now many refer to as ‘La Grande Dame of Champagne’ had a motto: “Our wines must be flattering both on the palate and on the eye.” Thus Madame Clicquot blended some of her beloved Bouzy red wines with her still white wines (before its second fermentation in the bottle) to create the first Veuve Clicquot Rosé. The result is a burst of red fruits, copper-hued and full-bodied rosé of character. And ever since, blended pink champagne has been the most widespread method used by rosé producers.

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Today, internally, the legacy of Veuve Clicquot Rosé is inherited by the Veuve Clicquot Rosé (Non-Vintage) and Vintage Rosé 2008, as well as the La Grande Dame Rosé 2006, an exclusive blend made only in exceptional years since 1988. As the name suggests, it pays tribute to Madame Clicquot. The grape harvest of 2006 created a crisp and silky blended rosé, comprising 53 percent Pinot Noir wines and 47 percent Chardonnay wines. The remaining 15 percent derives from red wines of Clos Colin in Bouzy, which offer a superb balance.

Gaelle Goossens Veuve Clicquot

Gaelle Goossens has obviously been hard at work. She’s not only tried to capture Madame Clicquot’s vision and passion for the best rosé, but has gotten her passport filled with stamps to spread the widow’s legacy across the world. She writes via email, “After spending two days in Singapore, I flew to Hong Kong to attend the Women of Wine Festival on March 1, 2018. After that, I’m flying to Milan for another wine event for the next couple of days before returning to France. I am most likely going to spend International Women’s Day with my two-and-a-half-year-old son. I’ve been away from him for a few weeks now and can’t wait to spend time with him again!”

Now that is what it’s like, being a woman winemaker in 2018.

SEE ALSO: How to spend your International Women’s Day 2018

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