A Question of Women in Wine

Rhône Valley Ladies Unite


How many female winemakers and vineyard owners do you know? A few months ago, Christy Canterbury introduced some ladies of the Langhe. Female winemakers in Piedmont have changed the conservative winemaking landscape to one that is inclusive of women. France is no different. This piece examines five scintillating wines from a group called the Femmes Vignes Rhône, also known as Women Winemakers of the Rhône Valley. It's a play on the French phrase “femmes vigneronnes”. Women are fighting to change old attitudes in wine, and they are winning.
This 30-member association was created in 2004 by a wine producer Anne Hugues of Domaine de la Royère and the Rhône Valley winegrowers organization, Inter-Rhône. The group's aim is to promote the role of women within the (traditionally rather masculine) wine world. Its members attend events for wine trade professionals and the general public, in France and abroad, spreading knowledge about Rhône Valley wines with a friendly, down-to-earth approach.

The group represents the appellations of Côtes du Rhône, Côtes du Rhône Villages, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Visan, Vacqueyras, Gigondas, Beaumes de Venise, Coteaux du Tricastin, Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage, Cornas, Côtes du Ventoux, Côtes du Luberon et Costières de Nimes. Members include wine growers, oenologists, sommeliers, wine merchants, sales and marketing specialists and journalists. Here are five wines to try from the Femmes Vignes Rhône:

2013 Domaine Saladin Per El Côtes du Rhône $25

Domaine Saladin's story is a tale of two siblings; thirty-something sisters Elisabeth and Marie-Laurence Saladin run the family estate, passed down through twenty generations since 1422. They created their first vintage in 2003, when their father Louis handed over the reins. In 2006, their uncle transferred the family's ancient vines to the sisters, and thus it fell to them to keep the Saladin wine growing tradition alive.

The 18 hectares and 13 grape varietals of Domaine Saladin are situated in the Ardèche area, around the village of Saint Marcel; they have always been harvested by hand, and grown and vinified organically. Per El (“For Her” in Provençal) was created by their father for their mother Annick; she used to serve it at her restaurant. It's a complex blend of six grapes (Marsanne, Bourboulenc, Viognier, Clairette, Roussanne and Grenache Blanc) which come from the same plot, planted side by side in deep Villafranchien soil dotted with the large, rounded pebbles (galets roulés) so typical of this area. Made in stainless steel using indigenous yeasts and lees stirring, this wine has amazing depth and breadth (white peach, honeysuckle and delicate, floral aromas).  

2013 Domaine Clavel Régulus white Côtes du Rhône $11

Claire Clavel is the woman behind the distinctively modern labels of Domaine Clavel, an ancient Rhône Valley estate which has been in the same family since 1640. Fast forward three and a half centuries and we're in 1991, when Claire joined her parents who had left the local wine cooperative to built their own winery in Saint-Gervais, north-west of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Her father Denis farms their 75 hectares of vines planted over a series of limestone plateaux in the Célettes area, where the influence of the fierce Mistral wind helps keep yields low.

Meanwhile, Claire has taken full responsibility for sales and marketing, developing and diversifying distribution, revisiting Domaine Clavel's range and modernizing its image. Régulus is a range of easy-drinking, fruit-forward, value-for-money wines: it was the white – a 100% Viognier varietal – that tickled my tastebuds. With its bright, zippy profile, aromas of citrus, peach and apricot, and refreshing acidity, it makes a great aperitif, but it would be equally at home paired with exotic, spicy dishes or richer, oily fish (think smoked salmon or mackerel). Mouth-watering and accessibly priced, this is a great bottle for everyday drinking.

2012 Château Le Devoy Martine Via Secreta Lirac $20
Véronique Lombardo is a widely-traveled woman who has lived in the US and in Asia. She represents the fourth generation of winemakers in this Rhône valley business: her parents and grand-parents grew vines and made wines in Sicily, Tunisia and then France, in Lirac, where they pioneered the production of white wines in the southern Rhône valley, planting white grape varieties in the early 1980s with great success.

Véronique joined her father Marc in 2008, bringing a new perspective to the estate which they now run together, farming their terraced vines to produce rich, flavorful wines with intensity and concentration.

Their red Lirac Via Secreta is a blend of Grenache, Syrah, Cinsault and Mourvèdre, made using traditional methods and malolactic fermentation and aged in concrete tanks to produce a supple, well-balanced and mouth-filling wine with nicely integrated tannins. A nose of blackcurrant and cherry develops on the palate into notes of white pepper, liquorice and warm spice. It's a tasty, harmonious wine that can be enjoyed on its own but I'd match it with red meat in a heartbeat. Laying it down for a few years will simply enhance it further.  

2013 Domaine des Romarins Côtes du Rhône $15

Domaine des Romarins is a case study in continuity. Claire Fabre became involved in the management of the estate in 1996, forming a bridge between family members including her father-in-law Georges and her husband Francis (formerly the local mayor), with her elder son Xavier working alongside her in the vineyard since 2002. In 2013 Claire's second son Benoît decided to return to the family fold, developing export sales and allowing his mother to step down and officially retire after the 2014 vintage.

Going forward, a new generation will be putting their stamp on the wines so watch this space, but right now, their 2013 Côtes du Rhône is a text book example of a well-made, good value bottle. Subtle aromas of crushed strawberry and cherry jam give way to warm, spicy hints of liquorice and cinnamon which develop as the wine breathes, translating into a satisfying, supple, mouthful of ripe fruit on the palate. Its balance means that this lovely wine can be sipped without food, but a pairing with Mediterranean cuisine would bring out all its flavors.  

2011 Domaine de Poulvarel Les Perrottes Costières de Nîmes $30

In 2004, Elisabeth Glas and her husband Pascal (an experienced vineyard worker) embarked upon a risky venture, taking over some abandoned family vines to create their own estate. The couple invested a great deal of time, money and energy to bring the vineyard back to life, and to build a modern winery in which to vinify the fruit of their combined labors. Today, their gamble is paying off: the typicity of the Rhône valley comes through clearly in the wines of Domaine de Poulvarel.  

Seriously dark and delicious, Les Perrottes is ideal for drinking in the cooler season. Crafted from Carignan, Syrah and Grenache Noir, with half the blend barrel-aged for 15 months, this structured yet supple wine has wonderful notes of dark, cooked fruit, cocoa and spice. Its length, character and pronounced aromatic profile make it the perfect match for winter dining: time to light the log fire and start thinking about roast meat and rich sauces. A real charmer.

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