It will come as no surprise to those of us ladies who love our wine, but wine is increasingly being consumed and dominated by women. According to the latest numbers, women account for 57% of wine purchases in the US and two-thirds of self-described high-frequency wine drinkers under 30 years old. What better than to combine an event dedicated to women and wine?

As the first official lead-up to International Women’s Day (8 March), last week’s Women of Wine (WoW) Festival in Hong Kong did just that. Held at The Murray hotel, the event kicked off the celebrations in style with industry leaders, speakers and distinguished guests representing a diverse cross section of quintessential Hong Kong: consulates, corporates, young entrepreneurs, seasoned wine traders and those involved in the arts, film, finance and fitness.

As part of the opening ceremony, jury members were also on hand to launch the Veuve Clicquot Business Woman Award in Hong Kong, the first and longest-running international award honouring the legacy of Madame Clicquot, who is widely considered the world’s first female entrepreneur. Created in 1972 to recognise the contribution that female entrepreneurs have made in the world of business, the winner of this prestigious award will be announced later this year on 18 October. Previous winners have included famed architect Zaha Hadid and The Body Shop founder Anita Roddick. 

Industry leaders on stage with MC Sarah Heller MW and Debra Meiburg, MW (courtesy Meiburg Wine Media)

The event‘s packed schedule included a dizzying array of leadership seminars, sold-out tasting workshops and, of course, wine, featuring more than 100 wines from female winemakers around the world, including Il Palagio wines (owned by Sting and Trudie Styler) and award-winning winemakers Margaret Cullen and Laura Catena

Between sipping champagne, navigating the flowing wine booths and networking around the giant Veuve Clicquot cart holding court in the middle of the ballroom, we were fortunate enough to speak two notable individuals in the wine industry: Hong Kong’s first Master of Wine and the event organiser, Debra Meiburg (DM), and Gaëlle Goossens (GG), Veuve Clicquot‘s Winemaker and Development Innovation Wine Communication Projects Manager.

Debra Meiburg at WoW Festival (courtesy Meiburg Wine Media)

What was the inspiration for the WoW Festival?

DM: Networking and celebrating International Women’s Day provide the perfect blend of reasons to have this event. We wanted to bring women together and celebrate with wine featuring female winemakers.

The idea initially stemmed from thinking about how we could better support the wine trade (meaning people who work in the industry) and importers. I had spoken at previous International Women’s Day events, mostly for banks in the financial sector and affinity events, and thought, Why don’t we bring all these women together in one place?

In helping the wine trade by introducing new consumers to importers, we aim to also build female confidence in ordering, tasting and taking charge of wine. Women are one of the largest purchasers of wine but are often marginalised – you see it when men get handed the wine list at restaurants.

What do you think attendees will take away from the event?

DM: There are workshops and seminars dedicated to opportunities and leadership trends, and we hope these are inspiring. We wanted to have a wine event where we could host a larger conversation with female and male leaders to talk about opportunities, building leadership. These are intended for females, but we want men to attend as well. As women, we know we are strong and tough, but men need to be in the room to recognise that as well.

For example, there are a few notable male speakers such as Nick Marsh, who has been championing the addition of more women on boards and has aligned with the University of Hong Kong on a women’s directorship programme. With speakers from a variety of sectors including corporate and entrepreneurs, our goal is to have discussions on empowering women in different ways and opening up the conversation on wine made by women.

Why announce the Madame Clicquot Business Woman Award at the Women of Wine Festival?

DM: The award honours the spirit of Madame Clicquot, whom I‘ve long admired. I studied her quite a bit – to the point of nearly wanting to write her biography! Most know that she had a tragic history, being left a widow at an early age when her husband died. Besides being the first female entrepreneur who was not born of royal or noble birth, she is known for her marketing savvy, supposedly sending a spy to the royal courts in Russia to report on significant events. She managed to smuggle her champagne into the country during the blockades so that it became the only champagne served in the royal court, becoming the favourite of Tsar Alexander I. 

She‘s also known for many firsts in the wine world, including changing the way champagne was made by figuring out how to get rid of the sediment to bring us the clear champagne we know today, producing vintage champagne in good years, given Reims’ notoriously bad weather, and making the blended rosé, otherwise known as sparkling rosé, that we know today.

Any tips for expanding our wine horizons in and out of Hong Kong?  

DM: Until you take a wine course, you cannot fully fall in love with wine. Having grown up in a wine region and taking courses, I thought I knew a bit about wine, but it‘s not until you are forced to taste wines from around the world and really learn about them that you can appreciate what the wine world has to offer. 

In Hong Kong, we have an unusual market in that we started with fine wines, and slowly people built confidence in trying other wines, mainly through people taking courses at WSET, other types of one-off wine classes and wine tasting events. Once you really study wine, you have to fall in love with it because you realise the history, culture, language and, of course, the pleasure and diversity. 

In Hong Kong, LQV Le Quinze Vins has a great diversity of French wines, and I love that they don‘t just stick with the classic regions. La Cabane also has a great array of wines. Sake Central just opened and serves food along with Japanese wine and sake. The key is to remember what you taste and connect with the label.

Gaëlle Goossens with Debra Meiburg on stage at WoW (courtesy Meiburg Wine Media)

Tell us about your journey in becoming a winemaker.

GG: It wasn’t my first choice to become a winemaker. After high school, I studied international relations and worked at a French ministry and realised it was too many hours behind a desk. I decided to go back to school and study science but knew that I was not 100% a scientist. Being born in the Champagne region, my grandma was a grape grower, meaning she did not make wine but took care of the vineyards. I had grown up surrounded by vineyards and wine but didn’t think it could be a real job one day.

I’m always looking for new knowledge and pushing myself further to understand new things. Being a winemaker uses science, but you’re also an artist, and I have this artistic part in me. I use science as a tool but consider myself an artist when it comes to wine. I studied for five years to make wine and then interned for another five years in wine production. I left as I wanted to discover more and learn new techniques.

What attracted you to the house of Veuve Clicquot and how does Veuve’s approach to champagne making differ from other houses?

GG: It’s having the ability to innovate, be daring and try new things. Joining Veuve Clicquot was a new challenge for me because of the history of the house, the legacy of Madame Clicquot and its strong historical background. The spirit of Veuve Clicquot is to dare, create something, push forward and think about the future – which is exactly what I like.

There is a thin line between freedom and the need to keep the consistency of the house. We innovate to improve the quality of wine and need a vision for tomorrow to understand the needs of tomorrow‘s consumers. Being an artist and winemaker, I create wine and release it years later. The challenge is in predicting what people will like in the next three years for non-vintage champagne or 10 years for vintage champagne.

Veuve Clicquot Rose Workshop with Gaelle Goossens (courtesy Meiburg Wine Media)

Do you think there are strengths that women have when it comes to winemaking?

GG: Anyone, men and women, can enrol in winemaking school. The difference is in the image of the winemaker. Most people imagine the typical stereotype of a winemaker – an old, white-haired man with a pot belly. People imagine men of a certain age, and when they see me for the first time, they challenge me much more than my male counterparts. They don‘t believe me at first, so I have to be more knowledgeable than the males in the room. 

Any tips on tasting champagne?

GG: I think that Hong Kong is shy in trying new champagne and should push to try new things like vintage or rosé champagne, especially when it comes to food. Champagne is a real wine that can be paired with food, with the same complexity, aromas and structure of still wine.

What’s the best way to drink champagne?

GG: Find your own balance in what you prefer and you will find a great champagne. Definitely use a tulip glass. Flutes are more for marketing, recognition and communication that you’re drinking champagne. People have to stop drinking wine out of flutes as it’s not the best expression of wine. With a narrow glass, you have narrow wine; with a flat glass, you get flat wine. Champagne is a real wine and needs to breathe.

What are your favourite, go-to wines?

GG: I‘m a big fan of vintage champagne. When it comes to still wine, I’m more of a red wine lover, perhaps due to the fact that I make champagne and want contrast. My go-to champagne is any vintage champagne. I currently have a crush on the Côte-Rôtie region in France in northern Rhône, just under Lyon. It‘s a very small appellation where they blend Syrah and Viognier, a mix of savoury and sweet – it‘s a must-try if you’ve never had it.

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