If you think women in the world of the wine world is something new and/or unusual, where have you been in recent years? You might be forgiven for thinking that in such a traditional bastion of wine as Bordeaux, women in the vineyards and cellars might be more unusual that in other regions – think again. Historically, there have always been influential women on the Bordeaux wine scene, as well as many others working behind the scenes.
Some of Bordeaux’s leading vineyards are still going strong today thanks to the historical role of women. Jean de Bellon was the first owner of Chateau Haut Brion in the 16th century and it’s not only Champagne that has famous widows. As a young widow, Françoise Josephine de Sauvage d’Yquem was thrown into prison twice during the French revolution but she continued to make Château d’Yquem prosper. The Comtesse de Bournazel successfully took over the reigns of the family Chateau de Malle in Sauternes on the death of her husband, before handing it over to her son. Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande is named after another Comtesse responsible for its success.
Properties may be handed down from fathers to daughters who continue to grow the family estates. Famously Baroness Philippine Rothschild continued and expanded her father’s work at Mouton Rothschild, Corinne Mentzelopoulos owns and runs Chateau Margaux with her daughter. More recently, Siaska Rothschild took over running Château Lafite from her father Baron Eric, and Stephanie de Bouard-Rivoal is now in charge of Chateau Angelus alongside her cousin Thierry Grenié,with Emmanuelle Fulchi their cellar master. There is nothing new about feminine power in Bordeaux wine.
Not so long ago it was unusual to see a woman working in the cellars – with an older generation of male wine makers talking about women ‘turning’ the wine – and that is still in living memory. Women are now making the wines as well as owning, running and marketing them. A few that come to mind, and not only in the top growths, are Marjolaine de Cornack at Chateau Marquis d’Alesme, Maylis De Laborderie at Chateau La Lagune, (both working with female owners), Paz Espejo at Château Lanessan and Caroline Artaud at Château Forcas Hostens. Some women are carrying on from the parents in a family vineyard, such as Estelle Roumage at Chateau Lestrille, Armelle Falcy Cruse at Château du Taillan, and I could go on.
I organized my first Women in Wine Tour in Bordeaux back in 2007, so again nothing new here, but these women, and many more, came back on my radar thanks to the recent visit here in Bordeaux of the American association Women for Wine sense (WWS). Created in 1990 by two leading Californian women in wine, Michaela Rodeno and Julie Johnson, WWS aims to increase knowledge about wine through education as a counterweight to the anti-alcohol lobby. Their premise is a better understanding of wine leads to more responsible consumption. The success of this organisation has been phenomenal; they now have a network of 10 chapters and growing throughout the US and a charitable arm that sponsors wine education for women in the industry.
I have run several Bordeaux seminars for WWS members in the US over the last year but this was their first trip to Bordeaux. With Decanter Tours it seemed only natural to concentrate on vineyards with a feminine signature, choosing properties for them to visit that were owned by, managed by or where women made the wine. I’m aware it’s sexist – but it was great fun!
We were spoilt for choice with just three days we only scratched the surface. Following their tour, I wanted to use this post to profile some of the leading women in Bordeaux but as I started looking at the long list I realised that it would take a book rather than a blog post to do them justice, so I’ll just concentrate on the women that offered us such a warm welcome and amazing hospitality during our tour.
Margaux has traditionally been considered the most feminine of all the Medoc appellations, thanks to its signature sumptuousness and velvety tannins, so it seemed like the perfect place to start. Chateau Margaux is known as the most feminine of all the 1st growths by its style as well as being owned and run by Corinne and Alexandra Mentzelopoulos. The harvest had just started when we were there, with a man at the helm; Philippe Bascules splits his wine making between Bordeaux and Napa – and was very excited about explaining the complementarity of making wines both sides of the Atlantic – he is a very busy man!
Further north, Lilian and Melanie Barton Sartorius, another mother and daughter team, are working together. As Lilian takes on more and more responsibility at the family vineyards, Leoville and Langoa Barton, her daughter Melanie, the eighth generation of the Bartons in Bordeaux and the first qualified oenologist of the family, has taken over the wine making at their new vineyard Mauvesin Barton in Moulis, purchased in 2011.
We also met the latest member of the family, Oona, the Parson Russell terrier puppy, who completely stole the limelight!
Pascale Peyronie welcomed us to her family property Chateau Fonbadet in Pauillac. After working alongside her father for 20 years, she has stepped into his shoes to run the vineyard. Her vines are on some of the best and priciest gravel terroir in Pauillac, smack in the middle of the famous names of Chateau Mouton Rothschild, Chateau Latour, Chateau Lynch Bages, Chateau Pichon Baron and Longueville Comtesse. You can imagine that she has received some interesting offers for her vines, but she continues to produce Chateau Fonbadet as an independent Cru Bourgeois rather than succumbing to the temptation of an easier life, although she did exchange three ha of vines with Mouton Rothschild to re-organise the vineyard. When she showed us around, her 92-year-old father was still on hand to meet the ladies and help serve the wine.
Is it a characteristic for women to work more closely together? We had several examples of collaboration between neighbouring women in wine which make me think that perhaps it is.
Four properties in Margaux owned and/or managed by women have grouped together to welcome visitors into their chateaux. Well aware that chateau visits can be repetitive (vines, cellars, barrels, tasting, repeat), Lise Latrille of Château Prieuré Lichine, Nathalie Schyler of Chateau Kirwan, Marie Laure Lurton of La Tour Bessanand Anne-Francoise Quié of Chateau Rauzan Gassies have grouped together to create a ‘Une Journée Gourmande à Margaux’. These dynamic women explained this project to us over lunch in the beautiful kitchens of Chateau Prieuré Lichine.
Their idea was to create a tour where each visit concentrates on a different part of the wine process. The tour starts at Château Prieuré-Lichine, with a history of the Medoc while sipping on their white wine (yes there are some rare white wines in the Medoc even though they don’t carry the name). Then at Chateau Rauzan Gassies they explore the importance of terroir, tasting the wines from the three vineyards owned by the Quié family. Lunch at Chateau Kirwanis the opportunity to taste the wines from all four vineyards paired with regional dishes before a visit to Château La Tour Bessan to try your hand at blending, tasting your results alongside local chocolates – there’s a reason this is called a ‘Gourmande’ tour.
Women do seem to be very open to developing wine tourism. I was recently asked to cover leading women winners of best of Wine Tourism awards reinforcing this impression. Chatting with Florence Cathiard at Château Smith Haut Lafite, one of the pioneers of wine tourism in the region, it was interesting to compare the European and the American approach to wine tourism. The chateau with its open door policy, new land art exhibition alongside the more traditional visits, as well as the phenomenal success her daughters have had, both with The Sources de Caudalie resort and the Caudalie cosmetics is a case study for successful wine tourism.
We had another experience of collaboration with the women of sweet Bordeaux. A picnic lunch in the park of Chateau de Cerons, with Caroline Peyromat and her neighbour Nicola Alison from Chateau du Seuil, was the ideal way to discover the characteristics of the tiny Cerons appellation but also to share their red and white wines from the Graves appellation.
Then on to Sauternes and Barsac for a progressive dinner, the idea was to show just how food friendly the sweet wines of Bordeaux really are. After a visit and tasting at Chateau Yquem with cellar Master Sandrine Garbay, and a look at the new in-chateau boutique, we headed down the hill to the terrace of Château Sigalas Rabaud. Here, with tapas, we tasted the range of wines made by owner wine maker Laure de Lambert including her 100% dry Sémilion (La Semillante) and a Sweet Bordeaux made with no Sulphur le 5 – quite a technical challenge.
Then on to Barsac, to first growth Château Climens, for the main course served with three vintages from the property, after discovering where owner wine maker Berenice Lurton dries and prepares the herbs she uses in her biodynamic preparations.
And of course dessert served at neighbour Château Coutet by Aline Baily, and we all slept soundly on the coach all the way home!
We found this same spirit of cooperation in Pomerol. The neighbours came over to lunch organised by Monique Bailly at the new Ronan by Client winery of Château Client. Hosted by Nathalie Bez, we were joined by Maireille Cazaux Director and wine maker at Chateau La Conseillante and Diana Berrouet Garcia Wine maker at Chateau Petit Village.Tasting their wines side by side, although they are so close, showed just how important the notion of terroir can be even in as small an appellation as Pomerol.
Cellar master Emmanuel Fulchi hosted us at Chateau Angelus, taking us into the vineyard to get to grips with the terroir in their two properties, Chateau Angelus and Chateau Bellevue. Walking amongst the almost ripe grapes, we could understand the subtle differences of terroir up and down the south facing foothills of the limestone slopes of Saint Emilion.
The tasting was a master class in right bank Merlot. Bellevue is 100% Merlot and Angelus a blend of Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Recently returned from a Merlot seminar in the US, Emmanuel shared her surprise at the reputation Merlot suffers from in the States. The tasting firmly dispelled any questions hanging over the great potential of Merlot on the right bank.
The Women for Wine Sense visit was both an opportunity to shine a light on the women in Bordeaux but also to dispel a few Bordeaux myths. They are planning to return, so it’s back to the drawing board to see which other Bordeaux Women in Wine we can visit on their next trip – we will be spoilt for choice.