When Charlène Muller, a native of the Champagne region in France, was put in charge of the Domaines Vinsmoselle Grevenmacher cellar at the age of 23, it caused a stir in a male-dominated cooperative. However, her strong character and undeniable skills have enabled her to gain recognition for what she truly is – an excellent oenologist.
With wine-growers for parents and grandparents, a future in the wine industry seemed mapped out for Charlène Muller. However, little did she know that her career would unfold on the banks of the Moselle. Although her surname may suggest otherwise, she is not in fact a native of the Grand Duchy, hailing instead from that other wine-growing area of global renown – the Champagne region of France. So, how did she end up managing the Grevenmacher cooperative cellar at the age of 23 (she is now 34)? Now that is a story worth telling!
Charlène Muller is from Monthelon, which is 5 km from Épernay, the village in which her parents operate as independent wine-growers or récoltants-manipulants to use the local term. Guy Muller is a well-respected champagne producer – “the Blanc de Blanc is not bad at all”, smiles the young woman. However, it is not always easy to carve out a niche in a family business, even if the different generations all get along well.
Although Charlène Muller spent hours as a child playing among the vines and later working in the vineyard, this was not her favourite aspect of wine-making. “What fascinated me was the cellar,” she reminisces. I watched spellbound as my father or the consultant oenologists who came to our property worked with test tubes, density meters and saccharimeters. I could spend hours in the cellar with them, whereas I found the vineyard boring.”
The years passed by, and, at her parents’ instigation, she decided to continue her studies at a grammar school rather than a wine college, with a view to broadening her horizons. Having passed her scientific baccalaureate a year in advance, she was subsequently awarded an Advanced Technician Certificate (BTS) in wine-growing and oenology (2003) in Avize in the heart of the Champagne wine-growing region, before going on to graduate with a national diploma of oenology from the University of Reims (2005).
I was put in charge with immediate effect, assuming all the responsibilities that this entails
Aged 20 and already highly qualified, the only thing that remained was to find a job. Although her parents hoped she would soon start work on the estate, they were not opposed to their daughter first gaining some experience in a large company. So, Charlène Muller kept her eyes and ears wide open for an opportunity that would stimulate her.
She soon discovered that the Domaines Vinsmoselle in Luxembourg was taking on young graduates as interns to provide a surplus of staff during the harvest. Along with three other colleagues, she went to work at the Wellenstein cellar, home to the cooperative’s laboratories. Things went so well that Vinsmoselle decided to recruit her immediately after her internship as assistant cellar manager at Wellenstein under Mathias Lambert with whom she formed a solid friendship – so solid that he is now godfather to her second son.
In the meantime, the cooperative had plans for her. The time had come to consider a replacement for its cellar manager in Grevenmacher, who was due to retire. Bernd Karl, who had recently been appointed as technical director, believed he had a good candidate in this new recruit who had quickly proven herself and marked out her territory. In 2007, two years after starting at the cooperative, she moved 30 km north to take up another post as assistant cellar manager. “That year was a major turning point and by 2008, aged 23, I was running things on my own. Constant Infalt, director of Vinsmoselle at the time, took Bernd’s advice, boldly putting his faith in me and appointing me as cellar manager. I am very grateful to them both for that.”
Although a landmark decision for Vinsmoselle, a historic cooperative with solid foundations in tradition, this was no gift for the new head of one of the groups’ most important cellars. “I was put in charge with immediate effect, assuming all the responsibilities that this entails. Although I could approach my colleagues with any questions, I had to manage on my own, with full freedom to set up my own system.”
The Art&Vin Riesling I made that year was awarded a gold medal at the competition for the world’s best Rieslings in Strasbourg. That accolade meant a lot to me as it was my first vintage
There is huge pressure and constant stress. “As cellar manager at harvest time, you have to be able to make decisions in 30 seconds. And it has to be the right call. During my first harvests, I found it difficult to get away from my vats. In the first few days, I worked 14 to 15 hours a day, checking on progress with the various fermentations. I had to slow down a little though as I was literally asleep on my feet!”
Fate stepped in with a helping hand to make 2008 a very good year, much to the delight of Charlène Muller. “The Art&Vin Riesling I made that year was awarded a gold medal at the competition for the world’s best Rieslings in Strasbourg. That accolade meant a lot to me as it was my first vintage, so it was very emotional.” It also helped justify her new position to anyone who might be tempted to criticise her nomination based on her age or sex.
When looking back on her experience, Charlène Muller nevertheless avoids flying the banner of feminism. “It’s not something I really want to focus on as that’s not how I perceive things,” she stresses. However, if my career has helped change some people’s outlooks, that’s great!” There is little doubt that this is the case. Everyone at Vinsmoselle appreciates her skills and uncompromising, decisive personality.
HEADING: “Everything except bubbly!”
TEXT: It is difficult to watch Charlène Muller at work in the Grevenmacher cellar without perceiving it as somehow paradoxical. This native of the Champagne region focuses solely on making still wines rather than sparkling wines, whereas bubbly has made the region in which she grew up the toast of the entire world! “I make white wines, red wines, rosé wines and sometimes even ice wines. I make everything except for bubbly … but I don’t mind that! (laughs)”
However, as cellar manager, she is involved in creating blends, both for still wines and crémants. “Each meeting, of which there are around twenty per year, a good third of which are for crémants, lasts as long as it takes for us to be completely satisfied with the outcome. If we are on form, it can take an hour, but sometimes it takes three hours or more. Whatever the case, we never leave the table without being completely satisfied.”
These tasting sessions are all attended by Bernd Karl, the Domaines Vinsmoselle technical director and the cooperative’s cellar managers (Wellenstein, Wormeldange, Grevenmacher). The aim is to: “Fine tune quantities of wines from various parcels to create the brand flavour and produce consistent wines year in year out,” says Charlène Muller. “Personally, it took me two or three years to grasp the spirit of Luxembourgian wine and keep within the framework of the Vinsmoselle identity.”
HEADING: An endorsement from her chairman
TEXT: When Charlène Muller arrived in Luxembourg, Vinsmoselle chairman Josy Gloden had not yet joined the cooperative board. However, as a key figure in the Young Wine-growers, he remembers it well. “After her internship when she was appointed assistant cellar manager of the Wellenstein cellar, it caused a bit of a stir because she was French and Mathias (editor’s note: cellar manager, Mathias Lambert) doesn’t speak very good French! (laughs) But they both hit it off very well from the outset and worked fantastically well together.”
The wine-grower from Bech-Kleinmacher goes on to praise Charlène Muller’s human qualities: “It became quickly apparent that she settled in very quickly, did not isolate herself from others, and went out quite a lot with young people from the village.” This is an essential character trait on the banks of the Moselle!
Naturally, Josy Gloden also values skills that have enabled her to gain recognition in a very male-dominated environment, which is no mean feat: “OK, so she was young and a woman. But if you explain to guys how to do something and they see it works, no problem – they respect you.”