It takes a lot of effort to make something seem effortless, and this is particularly true when it comes to creating fine wine. It’s a hands-on, painstaking process that involves cultivating, pressing, blending and tasting. Winemakers are masters at fusing science with art, and business with agriculture. And they are, ever more commonly, women.
It should be unremarkable. In 2018, as so much in this issue proves, countless women sit at the top of their fields – fields that are often traditionally dominated by men, and winemaking is no exception. The skills and natural intuition needed to thrive as a winemaker are qualities women possess in abundance. From Madame Jeanne Ferret, a winemaking pioneer at Domaine Ferret in Pouilly-Fuissé, Burgundy, to Maria Larrea, chief winemaker at the iconic Rioja estate, CVNE, in Northern Spain, a handful of women have been identifying the most remarkable terroirs and producing some of the world’s finest wines for decades.
Now, the early pioneers have inspired a wealth of women to produce incredible wines with a combination of modern and traditional vinification techniques. ‘Winemaking is changing,’ says Carole Bryon, owner of Lady of the Grapes wine bar in Covent Garden. ‘But while there are more women making wine, it’s still important to reach a parity in the cellar.’ Bryon is keen to change the ‘old-world’ thinking of winemaking as a man’s domain with the restaurant’s female-led wine list. ‘This is a really good way to highlight the number of female winemakers out there. Not only are their wines on the list, but their names are on the list too,’ she says. ‘As people become more interested in where their food comes from, they are starting to ask more about the origins of their wine too. So when people come here, they will see there are women doing very well in wine. It’s a small step in making society understand this is how it is now.’
With more than 440 vineyards nationwide, the UK wine industry is now one of the most influential and diverse, and while the cooler climate means winemaking here can be challenging, British winemakers are emerging as some of the best in the world. The most recent notable success comes from Canadian-born Cherie Spriggs, head winemaker at Nyetimber in Sussex, who made history in July when she won Sparkling Winemaker of the Year at the International Wine Challenge. Not only is this the first time a winery outside of the French Champagne region has won the coveted industry Oscar, but Spriggs is the first woman to take home the trophy. ‘It is such an honour and a thrill,’ she says. ‘When Nyetimber was established 30 years ago, English wine was perceived as almost a joke, but we’ve been able to change perceptions and now we have a thriving industry, which is spectacular.’
Spriggs joined Nyetimber more than 11 years ago and in that time has transformed it into an award-winning brand and has made a significant contribution to the way English wine is perceived. ‘It does take time to prove what you can do and to get the quality where you want it,’ she says. ‘We are very fortunate at Nyetimber to only use fruit from vineyards that we own so we can be incredibly meticulous about the whole winemaking process, from the soil to the point where the bottle is dispatched to the customer. We can keep it simple and just allow the fruit characters and expression from the land to shine through.’
Gender is not something Spriggs thinks about very much. ‘I’m so focused on what I’m doing,’ she says. ‘But when I got the award it gave me the chance to pause and think: ‘Why aren’t there more women in this industry?’ It’s a job that suits women well. We’re good at tasting, we have a great sensibility to respond to the environment and how the fruit comes in. It’s a great career. When I was at winemaking school in Australia, our class had a 50/50 gender split, but it doesn’t necessarily translate to the workplace. In the traditional regions of France and Italy, women working in the cellar was not encouraged and so there’s a carryover of outdated thinking that needs changing.’
Kate Goodman, senior winemaker at Australia’s Penley Estate in Coonawarra, is not surprised female vintners are doing so well. ‘Women are great tasters,’ she says. ‘We are good at multitasking and have great attention to detail, two very useful qualities when it comes to running a winery.’ And Goodman knows her stuff. She joined Penley in 2016 after helping to establish Punt Road Winery in the Yarra Valley – a significant achievement considering women were prohibited from drinking alcohol in public bars in parts of Australia until 1970. Goodman is known for being very hands-on, and has raised the quality of the Penley portfolio to create a new collection that is light, elegant and supple to reflect the next generation of Coonawarra wines. Women have been a big part of Penley since the early 1800s and it is now run by sisters Ang and Bec Tolley. ‘Women approach wine in a knowledgeable and inclusive way,’ adds Goodman. ‘It makes the whole process more efficient and, without the ego, it makes wine more accessible.’
Wine is now the UK’s favourite alcoholic drink and recent research has found that it is women who take the lead when it comes to choosing wine, buying 70 per cent of all bottles in the UK. ‘The role of women in wine buying and the depth of their knowledge has been vastly underestimated,’ says Robert Beynat, former CEO of wine events brand Vinexpo. Yet more brands are starting to take notice of this female-led market, including Marks and Spencer, which has three in-house female winemakers – who work with vineyards in the UK and abroad to create a portfolio of wines for its discerning customer base – alongside its wine buyer Emma Dawson, who also recently became a Master of Wine.
It’s clear that the increasing number of knowledgeable, talented women in the vineyard has brought some much needed diversity to the industry on a global scale. We are entering a new era of women in wine and we’ll drink to that.
The best wines by female winemakers
Louisa Rose, of South Australia’s Yalumba Winery, collaborated with a trio of M&S’s female winemakers on this silky, supple white. Intense and crisp, it gives aromas of apricot, ginger and wild flowers, followed by a spice and citrus blossom palate and a fresh cumquat finish. This complements shellfish and pork perfectly.
£60 (for a case of six); marksandspencer.com
Domaine Ferret Pouilly-Fuissé 2016
Audrey Braccini continues Domaine Ferret’s tradition of female winemakers that stretches back, unbroken, to 1840. This wine is aged half in oak and half not, creating a fantastic complexity. Expect crisp minerality as well as spicy hazelnut butter, with an intense finish. Pair with shellfish, seafood risotto or goat’s cheese.
Nyetimber Classic Cuvée MV
This fine-bubbled English sparkling wine from award-winning winemaker Cherie Spriggs has complex toasted brioche and spiced citrus aromas supported by honey, almond and baked apple flavours. Gentle and elegant, with a perfect balance of intensity, delicacy and length, it is best paired with fish, particularly salmon.
Penley Estate Timbrell
Drink Kate Goodman’s dark and mysterious red now for cassis, liquorice and wild berry notes with a hint of cinnamon on the nose – or keep it in the cellar for five to seven years to allow the flavours to develop and the secondary fruits to come through. Enjoy with slow-cooked red meats or tomato-based pasta dishes.
Ageno La Stoppa
Elena Pantaleoni has been at the helm of organic estate La Stoppa for 25 years. This full-bodied orange wine is spicy and honeyed, with rose, musk, chamomile and thyme on the nose. Its clean orchard fruit, orange and rhubarb flavours will cut nicely through rich, creamy cheeses such as gorgonzola.