If you think French women don’t tend vines, make their own wines, or own any vineyards, it’s time to think again.
It’s March which means it’s time yet again for French feminism and American feminism to go head to head. In many ways, the French are far more progressive than us and in other ways, not so much. When it comes to women in wine, France is both, simultaneously.
A recent estimate from Vitisphere revealed last year that there are over 12,700 women in top leadership roles in French châteaux and domaines around the country (known in French as cheffes d’exploitation – CEO or ownership level, essentially). An additional 121,000 women are salaried at French domaines, working in roles of all kinds. There are thousands more French women in junior positions, employed as sommelières in top restaurants, and more. Each region has its own association(s) to support women in wine, and the number of women studying viticulture is growing.
Indeed these numbers may be shocking to us, since we rarely hear of them stateside. What we tend to forget in America is that two back-to-back world wars took French men away – many never to return. While some vineyards shuttered their business forever, hundreds if not thousands more transitioned to being run by women during the wars and were never transitioned back to solely men (if ever they were). There are also countless examples of widows in wine – Veuve Clicquot and Veuve Pommery to name a few – whose business and winemaking know-how inspired women around the world to start their own businesses. Women in French wine is not new by any stretch of the imagination, arguably it is as French as the appellation system, Pinot Noir, and the méthode champenoise.
Perhaps the most important point in the women in wine discussion is the cultural one. Americans are brash. We are loud, we are intense, we are often one-dimensional in our opinions and emotions. French people are not this way. We can’t forget that this is the country of Enlightenment, of great political discourse, a multi-party system, and a love for debate! Gray areas and the idea that things can be in existence in degrees is integral to French life – and in French feminism too. While some French women are proud to say they are vigneronne and propriétaire, many are not. It’s rare for a French female winemaker to be featured on a website, a label, in marketing materials, or on tech sheets. But if you visit these domaines you will find her. All across France, women are huge part of French wine and always have been. They’ve been quietly working away, making, exporting, and educating people on their wines for centuries.
Yet, patriarchal societies share many things in common, and France, like the U.S., is certainly one of them. Much of the reason to “hide” French women away from promotion in wine materials is the fear that the men in charge at large distributors and importers simply won’t buy a wine made by a woman. But a larger reason is that winemaking is often a family affair, where men and women work alongside each other as partners. (Can you say power couple goals?!) Winemaking is hard work, and all hands must be on deck.
This month, I’m highlighting just a few of my favorite French wines made by women or in domaines where women are proprietors and cheffes d’exploitation. This list is certainly not exhaustive, and it’s one that I hope to update in consequent series and blog posts throughout the year. Having met many of these women in person, I’ll say this: women in French wine are alive and well, and many of them cannot wait to welcome you to their wineries.
- Château de la Ragotière, Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Selection Vieilles Vignes ($13 – Gary’s Wine)
- Mathilde Chapoutier Selections, Côtes de Provence Sainte-Victoire ($19 – Wine.com – currently unavailable as it’s the off season for rosé)
Imagine your father is one of the most renowned winemakers and négociants in the entire Rhône Valley. Then imagine that you want to carve your own path and create a wine label that brings together your favorite wines and styles from around France. That’s how Mathilde Chapoutier brought this label to life.
When my boyfriend and I first opened this wine up, his comment was, “Is this vineyard on a slate quarry?!” The minerality on the nose and the palate is explosive. It’s not something we often expect in a rosé, which made this one especially memorable for us. In terms of terroir, he wasn’t quite accurate – the soils in this region are mostly limestone and clay sandstone – but hey, extra points for trying! We also loved the watermelon and sour cherry notes here. Pairs amazingly with homemade Shrimp Fried Rice.
- Domaine Weinbach, Alsace Clos du Capucins Pinot Gris ($30 – Central Wine Merchants)Outside of Champagne, a French domaine known around the world as one expertly run by women (and for decades nonetheless!) is Domaine Weinbach in the heart of Alsace. Women have been in charge since 1979! After the death of her husband, Colette Faller and daughters Catherine and Laurence have run the domaine – even converting it to organic and biodynamic in the 90s, well before it became in vogue to do so. Catherine now heads the vineyard with her sons Eddy and Théo (as you can see – a family affair).
The cuvées from Clos du Capucins are among my favorite. This tiny 5 hectare plot can trace its history to 890 A.D. (!!!) and produces all the traditional Alsatian grape varieties from sandy silt soils. Full of pear and yellow apple, it’s complimented by a bracing acidity I personally love in the wines from Weinbach. Certainly not a wine to be missed!
- Domaine Matrot, Monthélie ($35 – Central Wine Merchants)I had the pleasure of visiting Domaine Matrot last summer in Bourgogne and was met by Adèle Matrot, proprietor and vigneronne, personally. When I asked her about what it was like to be a female winemaker in France, and whether or not she’d talk about it openly, she scoffed. “This is a family business, and I have a son. I hope someday he would takeover from me, and at that time, would I want it to be publicized that a man was making wine now too at Domaine Matrot? As long as the wine is good, what does it matter?” This was my first real foray into French attitudes on women in the vines and the cellar – and definitely not the last. Still, no woman is the same and many other women would disagree with this way of thinking.
Regardless of our differences in opinion, there is one thing I think everyone can agree on: Adèle’s wines are magic, and the little appellation of Monthélie is probably my all time favorite in their portfolio (well, perhaps excepting the grands crus!). If you’re looking for exceptional Bourgogne Pinot Noir without spending a pretty penny – go to the wines from Matrot. I’ve never been disappointed.
- Sophie Siadou (Mary Taylor Selections), Valençay ($17 – Central Wine Merchants)
Like many of the estates on this list, Domaine Jourdain was founded by a power couple: Sophie & Francis, and has since been a family affair. This wine in particular is an expression of Sophie’s vision for winemaking, which is why it bears her name (and a very important subtitle: vigneronne en Val de Loire (meaning “female winemaker in the Loire Valley).
Valençay is a little known appellation from the Loire Valley (it shares its name with a town and a delicious ash-ripened goat cheese that pairs fantastically with the wine!), but its simple, fantastic red wines make it perfect for just about any meal you’ll have on your table. A blend of Gamay, Pinot Noir, and Côt (Malbec), it has freshness, fruit, and minerality in each sip. If you love Beaujolais and Bourgogne wines the way I do, you’ll love this one.
- Château Climens, Asphodèle, Entre-deux-Mers ($55 – Total Wine)
Château Climens is a first-growth producer in Barsac. Its beautiful sweet Sauternes have been renowned for centuries, and while they’ve been practicing sustainably for a good chunk of history, it wasn’t until the first woman took over in 1992 that the château converted to biodynamics, becoming the first in Bordeaux to do so of the first-growth houses. But her Asphodèle experiments in a new way: a dry, aromatic white wine, not a sweet one. The result is exceptional precision and grace, with layers of floral, mineral, and fruity notes, too. If there is one wine on this list that exemplifies springtime in a bottle, it’s this one. And don’t forget to leave half of the bottle in the fridge overnight – you’ll be amazed at how the aromas evolve with time and air.
This organic, biodynamic wine has quickly become a favorite in our home. With a fragrant, fruit-forward nose of green apple, lemon, and mineral notes, it’s also got a beautiful, silky mouth feel. For $25, this is a sustainable wine that can’t be beat!
Off the top of my head, I could name and taste through another dozen wines created by women, or from domaines where women have either co or full proprietorship. From Champagne to the Languedoc; from the Loire to Provence, I can guarantee you’ve probably already tried a wine produced by a woman – you probably just didn’t know it. And perhaps that is the entire point of highlighting wines that are made by women: in an ideal world, it wouldn’t matter if it was made by a man OR a woman. What’s important is respecting the trade equally, treating both wines the same, and enjoying them no matter who is behind them.
We’re not quite there yet, but I’m optimistic regardless. And tonight, I’m raising a glass of a woman-made wine to toast to that.