The feminisation of wine

Marie-Anne and Marie-Christine Mugneret-Gibourg

This article is also published in the Financial Times.

Do women have a different relationship with wine to men? I feel quite strongly that – as consumers at least – they do. In fact, in wine terms I would actively dislike being a man. It seems to me that wine joins cars and suiting as a heavily freighted social signifier. Society expects men to know about wine, thinks worse of them if they commit vinous faux pas. Women, on the other hand, are not expected to know anything about wine, as witness most waiters' automatic offer of the pre-serve taste to the man of the party.

Men's status is too often measured by the bottles they choose from a wine list or to serve at home. 'Is this grand or expensive enough for my boss/client/friends?' seems to be a common masculine concern over wine, whereas 'Do I feel like drinking/sharing this?' would be its much more carefree female equivalent.

This gender divide has nothing to do with tasting ability. As has been well documented, in very general terms (and this is far from a personal claim), women have superior tasting abilities to men, performing more precisely and consistently in experiments.

I had the pleasure last month of sitting in on a session at this year's Digital Wine Communications Conference (as the European wine bloggers' love-in has been renamed) entitled provocatively 'We Don't Need More Women in Wine'. The thesis of Felicity Carter, Australian-born editor-in-chief of Meininger's Wine Business International magazine, was that women are already the most powerful economic force in the world's wine market. As she pointed out, the US is (at long last) the world's biggest consumer of wine and here women constitute 59% of all regular wine purchasers and 50% of occasional wine purchasers. She also reminded us that according to research company Nielsen, roughly seven bottles in every 10 sold in Britain's omnipotent supermarkets are bought by women. The same is true in Germany, the UK's rival as major European wine importer.

My predecessor as FT wine correspondent Edmund Penning-Rowsell acknowledged this phenomenon decades ago but stoutly maintained, 'It's their husbands who tell them what to buy'. I think not. The women I know are keenly aware of their own personal tastes and are unlikely to be swayed by pathetically targeted 'female wines' as brands carrying such terrible names as Jezebel ('Finally, Some Wine the Ladies can Enjoy'), Skinnygirl and Bubbly Girl. But you can easily monitor the effect of female fashions in grape varieties by looking at the evolution of grape plantings worldwide. Farewell, Chardonnay. Welcome, Pinot Grigio.

But women's effect on wine is far from limited to the mass market. Women's success rate in the most difficult wine exams of all, the Master of Wine qualification, is now higher than that of men, and all of the last eight winners of the annual top prize in the Wine & Spirit Education Trust exams, taken by 56,000 wine students around the world, have been female.

Often-garlanded graduates of wine-focused tertiary education, women have been invading cellars and vineyards with increasing frequency all over the world. In the early 1980s Pam Dunsford of Chapel Hill in McLaren Vale was regarded as a curiosity, South Australia's lone woman winemaker and wine judge. Today Vanya Cullen, Louisa Rose and Virginia Willcock are simply three of the most highly regarded Australian wine producers of either sex, and are role models for a host of young Australians, whether winemakers, viticulturists, or sommeliers. In South Africa, arguably the most important person in the new wave of making wine from old vines is vineyard manager Rosa Kruger.

California is a particular hotspot for female winemaking expertise. Already by the 1990s almost half of all graduates in viticulture and oenology at the dominant University of California at Davis were female. And an exceptionally high proportion of the most sought-after celebrity oenologists in California were women. People skills and a low testosterone count may well be valuable attributes when dealing with the host of successful businessmen who decide to pour their hard-won fortunes into a vineyard and need to hire outsiders to help them transform it into highly rated wine. The website Women Winemakers of California lists almost 300 highly skilled individuals, many of them famous.

Women have been forging ahead in wine production even in Latin cultures such as Chile, Argentina and Spain. Italy has its own extremely active association Le Donne del Vino. And there is absolutely nothing remarkable about women in a winery nowadays, however much heft is required to move a barrel. The Champagne region has had its host of hugely successful widows, of whom Veuve Clicquot was one of the first and most prominent. When she made her first wine selections 60 years ago, Lalou Bize-Leroy may have been an exception as a woman in Burgundy. But today the female touch is highly and widely valued in a wine as fragile as burgundy. (Bordeaux's strongest women tend to run estates rather than make wine themselves.)

I don't expect everyone to agree, but I would argue that wine production almost everywhere is, perhaps coincidentally, becoming increasingly feminised, and not simply because of this increase in the number and influence of female winemakers. Towards the end of the 20th century, the notable trend in wine production was to make increasingly potent wines, preferably red, with strong, concentrated flavours and often a noticeable oak and tannin component to match the high alcohol and impenetrable colour. Scoring individual wines introduced a competitive element to wine drinking, encouraging the (generally male) sport of trying to notch up as many points in a session as possible. Common terms of approbation in tasting notes included 'full throttle', 'fruit bomb' and 'blockbuster'.

But for every action there is a reaction, and this century is seeing increasing admiration for lighter, fresher wines, wines which may not be chock full of colour and alcohol but which are more transparently capable of expressing vineyard nuances rather than winemaking practices. This sort of wine is being made by swelling ranks of producers of both sexes all over the world. Words such as 'appetising', 'fresh' and the much-discussed 'mineral' are now much more common wine descriptors. Many of the most admired wines today are very different in style from the 1990s archetypes built on late-picked grapes and heavily oaked wine.

As points handed down by a handful of arbiters become less important and consumer reviews gain traction, the wine world feels less competitive and more co-operative – more stereotypically feminine, perhaps.

Some favourite female winemakers
This very partial selection is based not simply on gender but on the quality and style of wine these women personally produce. Producers are eponymous unless stated otherwise and are listed alphabetically.

Susana Balbo, Dominio del Plata, Argentina
Ghislaine Barthod, Burgundy
Theresa Breuer, Germany
Lalou Bize-Leroy of Dom Leroy, Burgundy
Cathy Corison, Napa Valley
Vanya Cullen, Western Australia
Sylvie Esmonin, Burgundy
Elisabetta Foradori, Italy
Anne Gros, Burgundy
Anne-Claude Leflaive of Dom Leflaive, Burgundy
The López de Heredia sisters, Rioja
Bérénice Lurton, Ch Climens, Bordeaux
The Mugneret-Gibourg sisters, Burgundy (Marie-Anne, left, and Marie-Christine photographed here by Jon Wyand)
Arianna Occhipinti, Sicily
Katharina Prüm, Germany
Louisa Rose of Yalumba, South Australia
Heidi Schröck, Austria
Rianie Strydom, Haskell and Dombeya, South Africa
Cécile Tremblay, Burgundy
Delia Viader, Napa Valley
Elena Walch, Alto Adige
Virginia Willcock of Vasse Felix, Western Australia