Based in the heart of the Côtes des Blanc at Vertus since 1859, the House of Duval-Leroy has always been a family run business and is blessed with nearly 200 hectares of beautiful vineyards, mainly Chardonnay (in the Grand Crus) as well as extensive holdings around its home village of Vertus, which is now the second-largest wine growing district in Champagne after Les Riceys. Many consider the current head of the house, successful modern market builder Carol Duval-Leroy, to be the 21st century re-incarnation of Veuve Clicquot.
Born in Belgium in 1955, where she studied economics at the University of Brussels, Carol Duval Leroy (nee Nilens) began regularly visiting champagne as a teenager, thanks to her family’s involvement in the international Rotary Club. At one of those dinners she met and fell in love with the son of a local champagne grape growing family. Shortly after she finished university, aged 25, Carol married Jean-Charles Duval-Leroy and became champenois. As a champenois wife she was expected to take care of the vintage workers who came to stay during vintage(champagne grapes are always hand-picked for optimum quality control) and generally help out in the vineyards. Formidable and strong-minded in character in the tradition of the grand dames of Champagne, Carol immediately took a very active role in the family wine business, especially during harvest time, where she would not only take care of the workers but also assist in grape purchases as well.
At that time, Duval-Leroy was best known for supplying good value Buyers Own Brand (BOB) champagne to various supermarket chains and retailers. When her husband Jean-Charles was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 1989, he arranged to meet with all of his business partners individually, to explain the situation and ask them if they would support his wife when Carol came to take over the business. They pretty much all said yes and most are still with the company today. In 1991 world markets were depressed, investment was required to modernise equipment and there were many unsuccessful vintages, so this was an extremely challenging period for the company. Annual sales stood at three million bottles and only 18 per cent was exported. By working closely with her husband’s colleagues and by single-mindedly focusing on building her own premium brand (increasing both quality and production volume and building distribution channels), within a decade, Carol was able to turn the company around, doubling sales to 6.1 million bottles, of which 60 per cent is now exported.
“It has not been easy to stay independent and avoid external capital. We need some volume to keep our 100 per cent independent status. But I wish to keep the freedom to make decisions about my ‘kid’. My philosophy is a striving for constant improvement, individual and collective,” says Carol.
Since 1991, Carol has launched many new products and, with her passion for gastronomy, has even produced a book containing more than 200 recipes to match her champagnes. She is also well-known and regarded as a huge supporter of France’s restaurant industry – sponsoring the Dessert of the Year and Young Sommelier awards amongst other initiatives to promote education and excellence in the food and wine training. The Duval-Leroy champagne range includes the aptly named Femme de Champagne (Prestige Cuvée), the medium-dry Lady Rosé (to complement desserts) and the Authentis range (which consists of organically grown single grape terroir champagnes that express the characteristics of particular villages in Champagne such as Vertus, Trépail and Cumières).
Duval-Leroy was also the first Champagne company to experiment with plastic closures to replace traditional cork (on its single vineyard Clos des Bouveries Chardonnay from Vertus, which was launched at the 2009 London International Wine & Spirit Fair).
In 2008, Carol Duval-Leroy’s contribution to the champagne industry was recognised when she was elected the first ever female president of the Association Viticole Champenoise (AVC), a key trade organisation that oversees quality control in the region. Carol confides: “Women have to prove themselves much more. There are important decisions to be made concerning yields and enlarging the Appellation. This is all complicated by the current financial crisis. I suspect it is easier to sacrifice a woman”.
Although female entrepreneurs are frequently not renowned for supporting their female colleagues, Veuve Duval-Leroy certainly does not fall into this category: “43 per cent of our employees are women. We employ the only female cellarmaster in Champagne and our financial director is also a woman”. No wonder that today, Duval-Leroy is a top 10 producer in Champagne. Here Carol talks to Champagne Jayne TV about her family’s carefully crafted champagnes (video in French – english subtitled version available soon)
Meet The Champagne Makers Ep 10 – Champagne Duval Leroy
Champagne Jayne TV talks to modern day widow and entrepreneur extraordinaire Carol Duval Leroy, whose family owns one of the best vineyard estates in Champagne.