You might have heard of France’s Champagne Widows, the talented young women who took over their husband’s estates on their untimely deaths and transformed them into thriving global businesses. The most famous are Madame Pommery who is credited with inventing Brut Champagne in response to Queen Victoria’s requests for a drier bubbly and Veuve (or Widow) Clicquot who created the now hugely-popular rosé Champagne and kept working right up until she died aged 89.
But until very recently, female winemakers were very much the exception rather than the norm both in France and the rest of the world. These days the numbers of women studying enology at the University of Bordeaux is up to 40%, and every year more and more women rise up the ranks to become head winemakers, general managers and directors of wineries. It still isn’t easy for women to enter the industry, but you get the sense that real change is in the air and just about anything could happen!
In honour of International Women’s Day, we thought it’d be fun to share five of our favourite female French winemakers who are making their own distinctive mark on some of the best French wines and top estates.
Sandrine Garbay of Chateau d’Yquem
Like many youngsters, when Sandrine first began to study wine she wasn’t a big wine drinker. Then she was lucky enough to score an internship at the famous Château Latour in Bordeaux where at the tender age of 20 she discovered her true passion for the fruit of the vine.
Today Sandrine holds the enviable position of chief winemaker and maitre de chai (or cellarmaster) at Chateau d’Yquem and is responsible for producing the most famous sweet wines on the planet. Particularly challenging for Sandrine, as she told Decanter magazine in a 2009 interview, was when she first became chief winemaker aged just 31; “it was difficult in the cellar, because all the team knew me as their peer, and now I was above them, and our relationship changed. For me it was the same – I was the same – but for them it was not.”
Despite having to deal with a lack of management training and several changes of estate ownership and CEOs, things are looking rosy for both Sabrine and d’Yquem. Her vision for the future of these sensational wines is bold and forward-thinking. Instead of treating a bottle of d’Yquem as an iconic wine to lock away in your cellar for decades, you should drink it and enjoy it, she says.
Stéphanie de Boüard-Rivoal of Chateau Angélus
Realising she’d need to work hard to succeed as a woman in the French wine industry, Stéphanie de Boüard-Rivoal took the unusual route of studying finance. She spent six years working as a London banker before joining her family’s prestigious Bordeaux estate Chateau Angélus in 2012.
She recently bought out her father and now presides over the First Growth estate in Saint Émilion, becoming the third woman to manage the estate over its two centuries of history. It wasn’t all plain sailing, though, and Stéphanie explains that being born in to the role made it hard for people to take her seriously.
In a recent interview with Bloomberg Stéphanie explained how managing relationships and changing how the estate works with local negociants or wine merchants was particularly difficult at first. “They said, ‘We know your father.’ I would tell them: ‘So do I, and very well. Now I’m making the decisions for the company.’”
These days the eighth generation winemaker is drawing attention from all over the globe for her smart innovations like the 2012 vintage which was released in elegant black bottle with 21-carat gold lettering which proved hugely popular with collectors.
Stéphanie sums up her philosophy for running Chateau Angélus looking both forwards and back to the estate’s noble past. “The commitment for me is almost like a priestly vocation, which I take up with faith, passion and gratitude. We are only the guardians of a history that preceded us and will survive us, so our role is to sustain it in the best conditions we will be able to achieve.” I’d say there’s little doubt that the future of this legendary estate is safe in her hands!
Valerie Vialard of Chateau LaTour Martillac
Valerie Vialard deserves special mention as Bordeaux’s first female winemaker who didn’t come from a winemaking family. Her early experiences of riding her bike through the local vineyards and savouring the natural aromas of the countryside led to a passion for perfume and later to enology studies at the respected University of Bordeaux.
As something of an outsider, it wasn’t easy for Valerie to break into the industry, so she spent a couple of years working as a humble intern. In 1990 she finally achieved her dream by joining Chateau LaTour Martillac in Pessac-Léognan as their winemaker, becoming the first female winemaker in the appellation, and she’s been there ever since!
Sophie Armenier of Domaine de Marcoux
Charmiga Sophie Armenier gör förtjusande tolkningar av Châteauneuf du Papes berömda terroir. Från vingårdar som inte vet vad kemikalier är kommer viner med renhet, elegans och precision. Läs mer om Domaine de Marcoux och beställ #CAV0075 på caviste.se #svamp #vilt #långkok #chateauneufdupape #domainedemarcoux
Another winemaker who grew up playing amongst the vines, Sophie’s family has roots in Chateauneuf du Pape which can be traced back to 1344! She’s been in charge of Domaine de Marcoux along with her sister Catherine since 1996.
Back in 1990 the estate made history by becoming the first in Chateauneuf du Pape to adopt biodynamic practices and under the leadership of the two sisters their wines have shot to fame for their consistent high quality and exceptional flavour profile.
In 2003 the pair were even featured on the “Wine Personalities of the Year” list by the influential Wine Advocate publication. The legendary wine critic Robert Parker added that, “Over the last 12 years, the biodynamically farmed vineyard has risen to the top of Châteauneuf-du-Pape’s quality hierarchy. The two red wines produced have been stunning, with the regular cuvée of Châteauneuf-du-Pape one of the finest in the appellation, and the limited production Cuvée Vieilles Vignes one of the world’s truly magnificent wines.”
Lynne Levin of Levin Wines