VINTAGES Buyers’ Guide – May 25th

Mind the Gap; There is no Equality in Wine

By John Szabo MS

This week I make the case for inequality in wine, and gender equality in winemakers, with a nod to the May 25th VINTAGES release main theme of “Women in Wine”. While David was sipping Mantonegro in Mallorca, Sara was knocking back Porto in Portugal, and Michael was marvelling at the Sicilian countryside (and tasting all of the current releases) last week, I alone was left holding the glass, without anyone to rein in my questionable philosophical ramblings or corroborate my tastings. But give it a read in any case and let me know what you think. Or, head straight to my buyers’ guide which features the top five selections made by both women and men – parity in picks, or minding the gender gap, as it were. The rest of the Crü will be back next week to share their exciting finds.

Argentina Masterclass-in-a-box 

Mind The Gap

Four out of nine members of the 2019 Cannes Film Festival Grand Jury are women. Last year, five women out of nine awarded the festival’s top prize. An average, even split. At the 2018 National Wine Awards of Canada, 9 out of 21 judges were female, and this June we’ll have 11 out of 21, also more or less 50-50.

But that’s not to say there’s gender parity in the world of either film or wine. Far from it. Those isolated stats are misleading. Male directors still make more films and earn more money on average than their female counterparts. And out of 164 Master Sommeliers currently in the Americas’ chapter, for example, only 26 are women, or 15% (although course enrollment is now far closer to even). Both film and wine are male-dominated businesses; I guess the Cannes organizers and WineAlign just try a little harder to represent reality, and convene panels that reflect society.

The desperately tradition-bound wine industry is particularly male-dominated, especially when it comes to the people who make the stuff. It’s why initiatives like the various “Women in Wine” events held yearly to celebrate women in all aspects of the wine business are, sadly, necessary. You often have to push hard past the mid-way point in order to return to equilibrium. And it will still take a lot of pushing to even things out in the wine world.

There’s a great deal of irony in the fact that, on paper at least, women should make better winemakers. Among the attributes of a great winemaker in my view are less ego, and more humility and sensitivity, to allow the individual expression of each grape and place to win out over any imposed idea of style. A great winemaker listens to the wine and reacts intuitively, and even then only when absolutely necessary and as minimally as possible, rather than jumping straight in to problem solving when there may be no problem, thinking they have all the answers. Patience is critical. And, of course, a very good nose and palate also helps shape and guide wines to their maximal expression. These are not the attributes of the average testosterone-heavy human.

And yet despite their obvious biological deficiencies for this particular business, some men manage to make pretty good wine, too. Some might even say equally as good as those made by women.

So can you tell the difference between a wine made by a man and woman? Of course not. Even the descriptive terms “feminine” and “masculine”, now outmoded, are flimsy social constructs, which have historically been applied to wines made largely by men in any case. No, there’s little to tell between man-made and woman-made wines; they come in all conceivable shapes and sizes from both sides of the gender divide. They are equally different.

I also find some irony in the fact that that the world’s fascination with wine is driven by inequality. I’m talking here about the product itself, not the people in the business. Each grape has its own range of potential, some greater, some lesser, as does each patch of land where grapevines are grown. None of them are perfectly equal. The trees grown in different forests produce barrels with different qualities. Different climates produce different results, for better or for worse. These are only a few of the unequal origins of wines. And the inequality of wine extends beyond style to status and prestige. In fact, the wine business encourages a downright medieval concept of social status, from peasant to seigneur, reflected in price and desirability. Some wines have it by birthright, others will never have it.

But is that so bad? Imagine how dull the wine world would be if every wine cost the same, like line-priced soft drinks with different flavours. What would you aspire to? How would you celebrate, or enjoy a more casual evening when you can switch off and not feel the need to focus on every flavour detail? How would you show more love, or less love to a dinner host or gift recipient? Inequality has its advantages. And the beauty of wine is its technicolor variations in history, flavour, availability and hierarchical status. Wine thrives on inequality and difference.

So what’s the best way to achieve maximum variation and inequality in wine? A logical starting point is maximum variation on the production side, not just the places, but also the people who make it, for as broad an interpretation as possible. This means that production would also have to logically split down the gender divide, lest one gender corner the market and threaten variation. And since the world’s population is split just about 50-50 (with allowances for non-gendered individuals), this means we need an equal percentage of female and male winemakers to achieve our goals.

So, if it takes a few Women in Wine features to push us closer to our goals, and encourage the equal enrollment of women in the winemaking schools of the future, I’m all for it (even if my argument is philosophically questionable). I also look forward to the day when we can have just plain old “wine” events, and revel in each bottle’s diversity and inequality.

To celebrate the Vintages May 25th Women in Wine Theme, and to also respect my goal of maximum diversity, I’ve selected ten excellent wines that happen to be made by an almost equal number of men and women. They’re all worth trying.

Vintage’s Buyer’s Guide May 25th: Best Wines Made By Women

Vasse Felix Filius Chardonnay 2018, Margaret River, Western Australia ($24.95) John Szabo – Not only is Virginia Willcock one of the most awarded female winemakers in Australia (actually just winemakers, tout court), she’s one of my favourite people on planet wine. Sharp and vivid, just like her wines, she brings a breath of fresh air and sorely needed irreverence to the business. It helps that she has a choice spot in Margaret River as her canvas, but her interpretation of it is equally brilliant. This is another fine example at the (excellent) entry-level from Vasse Felix, over-delivering at the price.

Marie Pierre Manciat Les Petites Bruyères Pouilly Fuissé 2017, Pouilly Fuissé AC France ($34.95) John Szabo – It took six generations for a female Manciat to take the lead at this historic estate in the Mâconnais, but it was worth the wait. Marie-Pierre delivers here a single-site Fuissé of quality and class, from average 25-year-old vines, genuinely low-yielding vines in an evidently good site. Barrel influence is minimal; this is mostly about the stones and sharp citrus fruit.

Southbrook Vineyards Heather’s Home Vineyard Riesling 2017, VQA Vinemount Ridge, Niagara Peninsula ($22.95) John Szabo – This is a purely female collaboration between fastidious organic vinegrower Heather Laundry, and sensitive minimalist Ann Sperling, one of the first female winemakers on the Ontario scene. The result is a crisp and crunchy, just off-dry riesling, vivid and lively, with excellent length and depth.

Vasse Felix Filius Chardonnay 2018 Marie Pierre Manciat Les Petites Bruyères Pouilly Fuissé 2017 Southbrook Vineyards Heather's Home Vineyard Riesling 2017

Cvne Imperial Reserva 2014, DOCa Rioja, Spain ($39.95) John Szabo – It’s surprising how many female winemakers are in charge in one of the most traditional wine regions in one of the most traditional, macho, male-dominated countries. Iconic Rioja properties like Marqués de Cáceres, Marqués de Murrieta and López de Heredia are all run by women, as is the Compañia Vitivinicola del Norte de España, or CVNE for short, where María Larrea has been technical director since 2006. A majority of the team is also composed of women. Imperial is the wine Larrea is most proud of, saying: “It’s part of more than 100 years of history of CVNE and has been a source of great joy. We produce this wine with grapes from our best vineyards and, in my opinion, it’s a wine that always maintains the expectations of great quality.” It’s a classic in the traditional style.

Vasse Felix Filius Cabernet Sauvignon 2016, Margaret River, Western Australia ($24.95) John Szabo – See above for notes on winemaker Virginia Willcock. As for the wine, this is classic, cool climate style cabernet, complete with an attractive herbal side, like Bordeaux used to have in the 1970s and 1980s. I love this style, vibrant, lively balanced, fruity-fleshy-fresh.

Hedges The Bourgeoisie 2016, Columbia Valley, Washington, USA ($24.95) John Szabo – A terrific cabernet-merlot, syrah blend from the ultra-reliable biodynamically-run Hedges winery, easily one of the top in the Pacific Northwest. It’s all about the smoky, savoury, herbal flavours, also the fleshy, genuinely concentrated mid-palate.

Cvne Imperial Reserva 2014 Vasse Felix Filius Cabernet Sauvignon 2016Hedges The Bourgeoisie 2016

Vintage’s Buyer’s Guide May 25th: Best Wines Made By Men

Hidden Bench Fumé Blanc 2017, Rosomel Vineyard, VQA Beamsville Bench, Niagara Escarpment ($29.95) John Szabo – Jay Johnston has big female shoes to fill at Hidden Bench, having taken over from South African Marlize Beyers in August of 2017 (she’s back in South Africa with family). He’s mostly, but not entirely responsible for this wine, which is in any case another great vintage for this now-classic Niagara white, from mostly old vine sauvignon grown in the superlative Rosomel vineyard.

Trimbach Riesling 2016, AC Alsace, France ($25.95) John Szabo – No-nonsense, 12th generation vigneron Jean Trimbach rarely wavers, and this exceptional 2016 riesling is perhaps the best since the outstanding 2010. It’s explosive, stony, and bone dry in the house style. A classic minerally wine, and sharp value.

Creekside Iconoclast Syrah 2016, VQA St. David’s Bench, Niagara-on-the-Lake ($24.95) John Szabo – Winemaker Rob Power has really got this variety figured out better than anyone in Ontario for my money. This is textbook stuff, properly peppery in the cool climate syrah style, I love the fresh red and black fruit, the grippy tannins and the very good length.

Michele Chiarlo Palas Barbaresco 2014, DOCG, Piedmont, Italy ($29.95) John Szabo – Fans of classic nebbiolo should get on board for this proper, old school-style, perfumed and textbook wine, complete with firm tannins, zesty-succulent acids, and very good length, all for under $30. A rarity.

Hidden Bench Fumé Blanc 2017 Trimbach Riesling 2016 Creekside Iconoclast Syrah 2016 Michele Chiarlo Palas Barbaresco 2014

That’s all for this report. See you around the next bottle.

John Szabo, MS

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