If you thought wine was a man’s world, you’d be very wrong.
The rise of the female winemaker has been inexorable – and glorious. Over the past 20 years, the role played by the ‘fairer sex’ has been marked by some truly stellar individuals. In Australia, women such as Louisa Rose of Yalumba and Virginia Willcock of Vasse Felix have blazed the trail begun by Pam Dunsford of Chapel Hill in McLaren Vale. In the 1980s Pam had been a curiosity, a lone women in an industry of men. Today Louisa and Virginia join Vanya Cullen of Cullen Wines as role models for young viticulturalists, vintners and sommeliers.
In wine criticism and education, women are at the forefront. Britain’s leading wine writer is undoubtedly Jancis Robinson MW. In the press she is joined by experts like Rose Murray Brown MW writing for The Scotsman, Victoria Moore for The Telegraph, Fiona Beckett of The Guardian. On television Susie Barrie MW spars with Olly Smith for screen time on Saturday Kitchen.
You may spot a theme in those names. Many sport an MW – Master of Wine. In the crop of 2014-15, there were more women than men among the new graduates, and there are presently 112 women Masters of Wine of a total of 338 members. That number is growing.
And who built an empire in Champagne, creating one of the most recognised, internationally respected Champagnes? That would be a woman.
It’s not just women making it, it’s women drinking it; 7 in 10 bottles of wine sold in UK supermarkets are to women. In the premium market – those who buy at least two bottles over £5 a month – the split is even; 50% are women, accounting for 47% of spend. A study for the 5th International Academy of Wine Business Research in 2010 concluded that women were purchasing and more engaged with wine than ever before, yet purchasing habits and consumption were not significantly affected by gender.
So even if my mother happens to really like Rosé, I know plenty of men who enjoy a delicate Provence Pink too.
Jancis Robinson MW has argued that the increase in a female touch is resulting in more appetising wines. Less inclined to competition, she suggests, women winemakers are interested in making the best wine they can, rather than competing for a 100-point rating from Robert Parker. Gone is the blockbuster oak-bomb, here is the fresh and mineral.
I’d like to think Jancis is right, that women are bringing a deft touch. The wines of pioneers like Laura Catena and Susana Balbo in Argentina would certainly back her up, but I don’t think gender stereotypes are the reason – describing wines as masculine or feminine is both lazy and outdated. Matias Riccitelli (of Hey Malbec! fame) would agree: “The style of Malbec depends a lot on the personality and sensitivity of the winemaker, not on their gender.”
Dr. Laura Catena may have been born to a winemaking family, but it was not her first choice of career: Medicine preceded Malbec. Argentine-born, she studied at Harvard and Stanford Medical School, becoming an emergency medicine physician in California. Joining the family business happened almost by accident.
Her father, Nicolás Catena, revolutionised winemaking in Argentina, experimenting with wine stocks at high-altitude and pioneering quality wine production. In 1995 he was invited to Wine Spectator’s annual New York Wine Experience. Unable to attend, he asked his daughter to present for him. After three days of watching people ignore Argentine producers in favour of more established countries, she knew she had to do something.
Splitting her time between her work as a doctor and the family business in Mendoza, she brought her skeptical, scientific approach to viticulture. Realising that much of the research conducted was flawed, lacking controls, and so she founded the Catena Institute of Wine. It has become a world-class research body, and has been published in prominent international scientific journals. Laura has published a leading book on the history (and future) of Argentine wine ‘Vino Argentino’.
Today, Laura is responsible for tasting and approving all the wines from the family business, as well as managing vineyard and winery investments – and three children. She stands with one foot in the emergency room, another in the vineyard, balancing family, medicine, and wine.
Argentina has more than a few luminary ladies, and one particularly bright light is Susana Balbo of Dominio del Plata in Agrelo, Mendoza. In 2012 she made the top 50 in The Drink Business influential women list – in 2015 she hit the top, as their ‘Woman of the Year’.
Growing up in Mendoza, she had hoped to study physics, but in the military dictatorship of the time, she had to pick something closer to home – and that meant winemaking. She was the only woman to graduate from her class, and in doing so she became the first female winemaker in South America.
Unable to find work in Mendoza, Susana began her career at Michel Torino in Cafayate, Salta. Her work with Torrontes helped transform the region from table-wine to high-quality, and earned her the nickname ‘Queen of Torrontes’. After nine years in the -literal – desert, she returned to Mendoza as a consultant, taking up a post in 1998 with Nicolás Catena.
In 1999 she decided to strike out on her own, and began construction of Dominio Del Plata in the heart of Mendoza. Since then she has won international acclaim for her wines, and has served two terms as president of Wines of Argentina, one as vice-president, only to be re-elected as President 2014-2016.
Not bad, when you consider 20 years ago the grand sum of women winemakers in Argentina could be counted on one hand. In many ways, Susana and Laura have paved the way for young winemakers like Laura Principiano of Bodega Zuccardi and Paula Borgo of Bodega Septima.
Over on the other side of the New World, another set of women have been making waves. Australia has proven a fertile ground for world-class wine, and leading the charge are some world-class women.
At Yalumba, chief winemaker is Louisa Rose, a physics major from Melbourne who relocated to Roseworthy Agricultural College to study winemaking. She joined the team at Yalumba in the Barossa Valley in 1993, working alongside many of the Barossa’s best, and gaining experience in every aspect of viticulture from the vineyard to the cellar door. In 2006 she was offered the role of chief winemaker.
One of Louisa’s greatest achievements at Yalumba, and arguably for Australian wine, has been her work with Viognier. Though Yalumba had planted Viognier as far back as the 1980s, when Louisa started it was still treated in the same way as Riesling and Semillon – picked early and cool fermented. A visit to the Rhône in 1995 got her hooked, and she became determined to make it shine.
Experimenting with later picking, warmer ferments and wild yeast strains along with different handling in the cellar led to the creation of her flagship Virgilius Viognier, which is now on its way to being seen as one of Australia’s leading white wines. Now, from entry-level right to the top, Yalumba produces arguably the best Viognier in the southern hemisphere.
Far away on Australia’s west coast is Margaret River, where Virginia Willcock is Chief Winemaker for the region’s founding vineyard and winery, Vasse Felix. Since appointed to the role in 2006 – the same year as Louisa took the helm at Yalumba – Virginia has been twice nominated for Australian Gourmet Traveller ‘Winemaker of the Year’.
With over 20 vintages in Margaret River under her belt, Virginia has also worked internationally as a flying winemaker in Albania, Northern Italy, Sicily, Abruzzo and New Zealand. Over time this has helped shape her philosophy centred on fine-tuning everything from the vineyard to the winery, from understanding individual rows of vines and how to treat each parcel in the winery.
These prominent women of wine aren’t just showing that sisters can do it for themselves, they’re having a positive impact on a trade with a very long and masculine history. They challenge the notion that Dad should get the wine list at the table. Bringing their personalities, passion and panache, they defy outdated gender stereotypes; far from simple equality, women make a difference to the world of wine.
So let’s raise a glass to the women of wine; drinkers, writers, winemakers, all.
We’ve picked a few drops made by the outstanding winemakers featured above. Check them out below:
The benchmark for Malbec in Argentina. Grown high in the Andes, cold nights temper the long heat of the day to develop acidity and freshness in the wine. Luscious black fruits and bramble with toasty oak and vanilla; spice and silk.
Rich, spicy and full bodied, it’s a smooth operator with the structure to stand up to a rich casserole, rare steak, or just in a glass with friends. Ripe red fruits, cherry and blackcurrant, coffee, chocolate and sweet spice.
This is Louisa’s entry-level expression of Viognier, but what an example. Lusciously perfumed with delicious stone fruit aromatics and spice. Floral, silky, and still fresh with juicy citrus cutting through. Great match for meaty fish like tuna.
Take everything you think you know about Aussie Chardonnay and chuck it out the window. Blank slate. Then try this. A deft touch of oak-age adds toasty, nutty notes, but it’s the fruit that really sings with peach, citrus and a touch of ripe apples and nectarine. Glorious stuff with a roast chicken.