Salud! Spain’s female winemakers use their intuition to rise to the top

“I think of my wines as barefoot children that need love and care,” says winemaker Marta Casas, holding her glass up to the light. Below her, the vineyards of Penedès roll away almost to the sea, but she could be virtually anywhere in Spain.

Just as they fought their way into the male domain of haute cuisine, a growing number of Spanish women are seeking a career in winemaking, with three times as many taking courses in oenology compared with 10 years ago. This was given an added boost in 2018 when Almudena Alberca was made Spain’s first female master of wine, one of only 149 in the world.

There’s no doubt that they’re good at it, very good, in fact; the question is, are they better at it than men? “We’re more long-suffering than men in general,” says Anna Cannan, oenologist at Clos Figueras in Priorat. “I’d also say women are more meticulous, but that’s a generalisation.”

“We’re more refined, more precise and more patient,” says Bárbara Palacios, whose family name is practically synonymous with rioja. “You have to spend time among the vines, to understand what they need, what the soil is like.”

“Women are intuitive and we’re curious,” says María Larrea, who leads an all-female team of six oenologists at the famous CVNE bodega in La Rioja. “We’re also tenacious, and making wine isn’t something you do in the short term. It takes a lot of patience but in the end it’s more about personality than gender.”

“We didn’t set out to be a bodega run by women,” Larrea says. “Here in La Rioja, and in Spain in general, a lot of women are studying oenology. We didn’t look for women, we looked for people with the right CV and the right profile and it turned out that they were women.”

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Like many of Spain’s most successful female winemakers, Cannan and Palacios had the good fortune to be born into prominent winemaking families, and the family name has helped to offset the latent misogyny in a male-dominated and tradition-bound business.

Will the many young women who are studying oenology find it harder to get a foot in the door? “Overall, it’s more difficult for women to find work if they don’t have family connections,” Cannan admits. “It’s quite physical work and often small bodegas prefer men for that reason. As a result, a lot of women end up in the laboratory.”

Marta Casas and María Elena Jiménez were not born into the wine business, but married into it. Both trained as scientists but the sisters-in-law retrained to become the oenologists at the bodega Parés Baltà in Penedès.

“I believe women go deeper into things,” says Casas. “We look for their origin and we think about the consequences of our decisions. We look for feeling and we want to communicate feeling, although we also have a tendency to overthink.”

Although a Spanish woman, María Vargas of the Marqués de Murrieta bodega, is one of very few – male or female – whose wine has been awarded 100 points by wine guru Robert Parker, Cannan says that it’s still the men who get all the attention and win most of the prizes.

This is one reason why she helps organise an annual fair of Priorat’s female winemakers and supports groups such as Mujeres del Vino.
“It’s a bit like we’re saying, hey, we’re here and we’re making wine,” she says. “People don’t realise that there are so many women making wine.”

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“But when you say, let’s have a women-only wine group, there are those who say, oh no, I’m not a feminist, because they worry about what people will think. We’ve got a long way to go in Spain before women really have confidence in themselves.”

“Women are working at many levels in bodegas but what’s missing, as in the rest of Spanish business, is women in senior management roles,” says Mireia Torres, managing director at Jean Leon in Penedès. “We lag behind northern countries, for example. We’re not as good as France in this respect, but better than Italy.”

Making wine is a labour of love, a slow and precarious process requiring patience and forbearance. There are many setbacks along the way. In some respects, it’s not unlike raising children, but does that mean women are naturally better suited to the task than men?

“We are instinctive carers,” Palacios says. “You don’t just think about this year’s harvest, but the years to come. We suffer with the vines, and the wine is like a child that goes through phases and you care how it turns out. It’s an expression of yourself.”

Cannan adds as a caveat: “I don’t think you can show scientifically that women make better wine than men. After all, some mothers are more attentive than others and the same thing applies to women winemakers.”

“Wine should take us on a journey to its origins and also tell us something about the people who made it,” says Casas.

Increasingly, these days, that person is likely to be a woman.

About Barbara Marron

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