Carol Duval-Leroy took over the reins of the house unexpectedly when her husband died in 1991. This Economic graduate from Belgium started her career in real estate and dreamed of running a high-end restaurant. But her destiny took her instead to become one of the most dynamic personalities in Champagne. She is part of several commissions of the Comité Champagne, and she was the first woman to become president of the AVC–Association Viticole Champenoise, the association of houses, growers, and cooperatives that promotes innovation in the viticulture and enology in Champagne, from 2007 to 2010. Because of her strong involvement in the development of the Champagne region, in 2008, she received the Legion of Honor, France’s highest recognition for military and civil merits, which she dedicated to her late husband, her family, and Champagne. A very energetic lady with an iron fist in a velvet glove, she explains how the identity of her house, based on a strong family spirit, a feminine soul, and the intense use of chardonnay, result in the style of their champagnes.
The history of your house can be split into two periods: from the origins in 1859 to 1991 when you took leadership, and from that moment on. How Duval-Leroy evolved through its history?
The history of our house is deeply linked to the history of the Duval-Leroy family. When Mr. Duval and Mr. Leroy created their Champagne house in 1859, one was a vine grower, the other a champagne merchant. This double identity has always been part of us. They became one family when their son and daughter married. A century and a half later, Duval-Leroy is still 100% owned by the family. This is rare in Champagne, especially for our size. We have also never moved from Vertus, in the Côte des Blancs, where the Duval family comes from. Each generation brought its touch to the house. Jean-Charles, my late husband, invested in the production line. His father, Roger, developed the sales of the house on the off-trade channels, and his father Raymond grew the vineyards that still belong to the family. I took over the firm when my husband died in 1991. Since then, I put the emphasis on exports and on-trade channels. My three sons are now working with me. Julien is the company secretary, Charles is in charge of marketing and communication, and Louis does public relations.
Duval-Leroy is one of the very few houses, if not the only house in Champagne to have a woman president and a woman chef de cave. How does such a strong feminine presence influence your champagnes?
I believe that women have a more delicate nose and palate. They are subtler and pay more attention to details. Yet it is difficult to assess whether our cuvées are feminine. For sure, they are delicate, with fine bubbles, as they are for the most part based on chardonnay, a delicate variety that brings purity and finesse to the champagnes.
I believe that women have a more delicate nose and palate. They are subtler and pay more attention to details. Yet it is difficult to assess whether our cuvées are feminine. For sure, they are delicate.
Unusual for a Champagne house, you have a large vineyard of 200 ha. What are the benefits?
We have bought little by little many hectares in Champagne, especially in premiers and grands crus. All in all, we exploit, but we do not own 200 ha of vineyard. The main benefit is the control over the quality of the grapes. We reduced the number of treatments and pesticides and we harvest and pick only good grapes.
Chardonnay, the rarest and most expensive grape in Champagne is predominant in your cuvées. Why this choice?
We are located in Vertus in the Côte des Blancs, the best place for chardonnay in Champagne. Through our history, we have bought vineyards and grapes to vine growers in this area and chardonnay has always been in our DNA. We love its taste, its delicate floral aromas, its citrusy notes, and its sharpness. With chardonnay, we can grasp the minerality of our soil. When aging, chardonnay reveals another personality; the freshness evolves toward brioche crust and buttery aromas.
We are located in Vertus in the Côte des Blancs, the best place for chardonnay in Champagne.
You use wood barrels for certain wines. How do they enrich your cuvées?
We have tried several manufacturers, new and old barrels, barrels made of acacia and oak, more or less burnt. Believe me, if you change only one aspect of the barrel and the wine will be very different. After years of tastings, we made up our mind about certain types of barrels to bring some roundness to some of our cuvée and certain aromas, like vanilla.
You are among the few houses producing rosé champagne with the saignée method, more complex than blending with red wine. Why?
It is technically much more difficult to produce rosé de saignée and this is why this technique is disappearing. But our rosé champagnes are made using the two methods combined as we include some chardonnay in the blend to add lightness and avoid the heaviness of 100% pinot.
Thanks to your work, Duval-Leroy has expanded its sales to 6 million bottles per year. What are your ambitions in terms of further development and what are the challenges ahead?
That was a peak, but our rhythm is now around 5 million bottles per year. The challenge ahead is to sell more prestige cuvées and to follow our path on export markets. Duval-Leroy is now recognized as high-quality champagne. Our cuvées are found in over 250 Michelin starred restaurants. We work closely with sommeliers and we are partners of the French Sommelier Association through the France’s “Best Young Sommelier” and the “Meilleur Ouvrier de France” contests since its creation.
Duval-Leroy is now recognized as high-quality champagne. Our cuvées are found in over 250 Michelin starred restaurants.
Our recognition is established among wine professionals and our target is brand recognition among the general public. We would like champagne consumers to try Duval-Leroy and ask for it. Our main impediment is the fact that we only produce and distribute champagne, contrary to several other major players with several brands, wines, and spirits. This has a deep impact on the distribution network and our marketing capabilities.
There are three recurrent key components in the champagne business: quality, brand, and distribution. Which is in your opinion the order of importance of these, and why?
It depends on which Champagne house you are and on which markets you approach. For us, quality establishes the brand, which in turn helps our distribution. So, this is the right order for me. But it is not the case for all the players in the champagne business.
We take particular care of the bottles we are selling because our name is on them. Quality comes first with the grapes. A great part of our supply is coming from premiers and grands crus. Then our cuvées spend much more time than the mandatory time in our cellar. Patience is rewarding for higher quality. We sell only the champagnes we like. If consumers are not receptive, we stop it. We do not receive instructions from shareholders, and we do not have the marketing budgets of large groups. Our approach is to constantly improve the quality of our wines.
We take particular care of the bottles we are selling because our name is on them.We take particular care of the bottles we are selling because our name is on them.
You export over half of your production. The main champagne markets, namely France and the UK, are suffering. What are the champagne markets of tomorrow?
Export markets in Europe will slowly decrease. The US and Japan are by far the most important markets out of Europe, and the road is long before emerging markets like Brazil, Russia, India or China could play a similar role.
You are among the very few women to run a Champagne house. You are not from Champagne, and your house is among the very best. How do you feel when you look back to all that happened since your beginnings in 1991?
Looking back, I am glad of what I have accomplished. I made the promise to my husband that I will keep our Champagne house independent, and this has been the case. Our sons joined me in business and this is also a great success. I have also pushed the Duval-Leroy brand by increasing the quality of our grape supplies and of our champagnes. I did not achieve to be a chef, but I have been able to furnish the best chefs all over the world with our champagnes.
I have always been fascinated by chefs and always wanted to be one. When I look back at what I have done since 1991, I did not achieve to be a chef, but I have been able to furnish the best chefs all over the world with our champagnes.
What is champagne to you?
Champagne is pleasure. It is part of the best moments of everyone’s life: birthdays, parties, weddings, romance, a new job, a new contract…Champagne is a magical wine.
What would be your piece of advice on how to choose and taste champagne?
Do not only drink champagne at the aperitif, because champagne is a wine and is easily paired with food.
Be curious and open. Try different brands, different grape varieties, and different vintages. Do not only drink champagne at the aperitif, because champagne is a wine and is easily paired with food.