Women in wine

I attended a lunch on March 8th, International Women’s Day last year. And it truly inspired me to dig deeper and have a little ramble through the history books to look at women’s contribution to the wine industry. Traditionally it has been extremely male dominated, and this stems as far back as Greek and Roman times. However, things have changed for the better. Nowadays women are very much part of the narrative for quality wine making. But the journey has been tumultuous and long. And without the pertinent tenacity from some dynamic women in the wine industry, we would be bereft of some stunning and classic wines, such as those listed below. The discussion is long, varied, and fascinating. But for today, I will concentrate on some prolific women who have helped shaped the industry. 

Naturally it is essential to go back to the very beginnings of the wine industry when wine was an accidental experiment. It is well documented that women were the primary foragers for food in the palaeolithic times. Collecting all sorts of berries and grapes and leaving them aside in jars hidden in the back of caves, only to return several days later and witness all manner of frothing and bubbling going on. As wasting food in those days was not an option, the seemingly frightful concoction would have been consumed. And so, these women would have been transported to another realm of transcendence and giddiness. I like to think of it and the first inaugural ‘ladies who lunch’. Naturally the women would have repeated this event many times over and would have shared it with their village and clan members. The production of these fermented berries would have been refined, flavours enhanced, and so began the wine industry.

 As time moved on the Greeks and Romans integrated wine into to their everyday lives. It became part of not just their social gatherings, but also in religious ceremonies, used for medicinal purposes and ultimately as part of their long and lavish dining experiences. Wine bars were established, grapes were developed, sites were chosen on the merit of previous vintages, and the industry flourished. However, women were barred from such wine bars, allowing only prostitutes to enter. Superstitions compounded the segregation further. To this day, in some French wineries’ women are not allowed near the fermenting, because if they are menstruating the wine might turn wine to vinegar or referment monthly. Ironically, extensive studies have shown there is a distinction physically between women and men in terms of tasting. In olfactory sensitivity studies, at the Clinical Smell and Taste Research Centre of the University of Pennsylvania, and the other at the Social Issues Research Centre of the University of Cardiff in Wales, women consistently outperformed men in odour identification and sensitivity on the Smell Identification Test, regardless ofage, ethnicity, or cultural background. Nevertheless, this is an incredibly fascinating and varied topic. And actually, at the root of all this is the ‘proof is in the pudding’. It is important not to dwell on past documentations or superstitions, or indeed one sex better than the other at tasting. But more important to look at the input women have had and how the industry have benefitted from this.

 We could not begin this conversation without mentioning the infamous widow of the Champagne region, Madame Veuve Cliquot. She was once considered to be one of the world’s leading business women at that time. Her winery, that was left to her when she became a widow at just 27, was suffering and dwindling. Barbara Nicole Ponsardin is infamous for inventing the production method, now called ‘riddling’. This is a process whereby the ageing bottles of Champagne are turned 1 millimetre each day to slowly draw the remaining yeast cells in the liquid to the neck of the bottle. This is a gentle and natural way to remove them. Madame Cliquot had gambled all her inheritance at the time to invest in this failing business. But it all paid off as she targeted the wealthy Russians to buy her wines. An ambitious and profitable vision.

 Another phenomenal French lady is Madame Lalou Bize-Leroy, often referred to as the “Queen of Burgundy”. Born March 1932, Madame Leroy is still active in both of her vineyards. This incredible lady is behind the most expensive wines in the world. Her Domain Leroy can often trade for €40,000 plus a bottle! She was also heavily involved in the infamous Domaine Le Romanee Conti which are also some of the world’s most expensive wines, produced in the most expensive land globally. These wines are cult like and beyond the stratosphere of the mere mortal of wine drinkers. However, her accolades lie far beyond expensive Pinot Noir. She is a pioneer for bio-dynamic farming. A type of natural holistic farming that was devised by the philanthropist Rudolf Steiner. With Madame Leroy’s influence most of the quality driven producers in this distinguished of all regions, Burgundy, have now converted to a more sustainable and valued form of farming.

 Moving closer to home in Ireland we have the wonderful privilege of Roisin Curley on our shores. Roisin, a qualified pharmacist, hails from Ballyhaunis in Co. Mayo where she works in her family practice. Her love of wine, combined with her background of pharmacy has led her to the vines of Burgundy. She has overcome the gargantuan task of completing her Masters in Wine. And now as an MW is making her own wine as a micro negociant in Burgundy. She uses organically grown fruit and believes in minimal intervention, thus creates some stunning Chardonnay and Pinot Noir wines that have delighted and enthused so many of the wine industry here in Ireland. I recently met with Roisin, and I was completely blown away by her humility and general passion for what she does. A formidable and talented lady indeed.