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Mothers of Albarino

If you’ve had a glass of Albariño recently, chances are the winemaker was a woman.


Women winemakers in significant numbers around the world are, fortunately, no new thing, but I just returned from another visit to Rias Baixas in Galicia, Spain, where Albariño is the undisputed queen of wines and where seven of the nine wineries I visited have women head winemakers.  Everyone I talked with, both the women themselves and their male colleagues in various parts of the wine business, told me that the majority of the winemakers in the region are women – and always have been.


Now that is unusual.


For example, if you’ve recently ordered a glass of Albariño at a bar or bought a bottle to serve at a dinner party, it might have been made by one of these talented women – Paula Fandiño (Mar de Frades), Katia Álvarez (Martin Códax and Burgáns), Angela Martin (Castro Martin), Cristina Mantilla (Pazo San Mauro), Carmen Meis (Palacio de Fefiñanes with her mentor, Cristina Mantilla), Luisa Freire (Santiago Ruiz) and Ana Quintela (Pazo de Señoráns).  Additionally, everyone estimated that more than half of the almost 7,000 regional grape growers are women as well.


And this is not an insignificant region.  In the 25 years since Rias Baixas became a DO in 1988, its production has grown to about 40 million liters today (triple that of 2007), and its flavors of green fruits and apples, its medium body and crisp but not sharp finish have made Albariño a favorite of wine bars in major American cities, along with Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio.


Why so many women winemakers in Rias Baixas?  Winemaking is after all a part of farming and food production, and traditionally women ran the small farms (average vineyard plot in this part of Galicia is about a half-acre) and raised the families while the men were out to sea, often for weeks, as fishermen or held down other “day jobs.”  Additionally, a century ago the area was so economically poor that many men migrated to the Americas to look for jobs, hoping to return wealthier or to eventually have their families join them in the New World.  “Galicia has always been a matriarchal society,” one male commercial director told me.


The tenor of the visit, however, was no different than those I have taken to male-dominated wine regions.  Some of the women want to remain winemakers, period, while others working for larger wine and spirits companies are intent on working their way up the executive chain.  Their philosophies and special projects were also fascinating.  Quintela’s Señoráns wines have a taut, minerally ageability that would be right at home with German Riesling producers or the winemakers of northeast Italy and Bordeaux’ Pessac-Léognan. Pazo San Mauro’s Quintela is making fascinating blends and experimenting with varieties as well as branching off into red winemaking elsewhere.  At Martin Codax, Álvarez is making a stunning dry Albarino that has been infected by botrytis and another that is split between tanks and barrels in mid-fermentation.  And I could go on with other examples.


I have never bought the idea that women winemakers are stylistically or temperamentally different than men winemakers.  I have sipped powerful reds made by women, and exquisite, delicate whites made by men.  I have worked for insensitive and sensitive male and female bosses.  To me, it’s always been about cultural and economic issues.  As with other industries, women winemakers were often barred from entry-level jobs, both in corporations and in family wineries, where they were generally passed over by their brothers and male cousins.  In most areas, that barrier fell a decade or three ago.  But, as with other businesses, the real issues today are whether women winemakers – in Rias Baixas and elsewhere – are receiving equal pay and benefits, equal advancement opportunities and equal respect in the workplace.  I can’t resolve those issues, except to speak out for equality.


But let’s celebrate the fact that the wine “mothers” of Albariño are a diverse group of women who are making some of the best and most-successful white wines in the world.  I tasted a lot of excellent wines and had a lot of fascinating conversations during my visit, and I hope to return to have more of both.

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