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‘Feminine’ wines: Fresh, light and elegant
By John H. Isacs

Asked to write this week’s column on feminine wines, I first had to come to grips with the concept of feminine vs masculine and the ideal of feminism. When we were all prehistoric brutes, survival of our species necessitated prioritization of physical force and endurance.

Superior power, speed and endurance put males at the forefront of primitive societies. Dominant males would impregnate many women thereby helping to strengthen and ensure the survival of humankind. Civilization and progress has changed these realities yet somehow many of the prejudices against women continue.

Today, despite many millenniums of progress, women are still subject to discrimination.

In the wine world, as in overall society, women are rightfully making huge strides toward equality.

The business of wines

Knowledgeable wine lovers hardly need me to document the contribution of women in the winemaking industry, but the journey wasn’t easy. While there were undoubtedly women who played important roles behind the scenes since wine was first made nearly 9,000 years ago, it wasn’t until the 17th and 18th centuries that women become prominent in the industry and gained credit for their contributions.

In 1806, Francois Clicquot, owner of Clicquot Champagne, passed away, leaving his 27-year-old widow with a small wine business. What happened next is one of the great stories in wine history. Nicole-Barbe Ponsardin took charge and made the once-struggling company into one of the world’s greatest and most successful Champagne houses.

Other legendary wine industry women like Jeanne-Alexandrine Pommery in Champagne, Dona Ferreira in Portugal and Mary Penfold in Australia also helped pave the way for women in the wine business. In the wine world, Champagne therefore can be viewed as a modern-day catalyst for women’s rights.

In many wine regions of Europe up until the 1960s, women weren’t allowed in the wine cellars as it was believed their hormones would adversely affect the wines. Today not only are women allowed in the wine cellars, but many of the Old and New World’s best producers are run by women or have women winemakers.

Lalou Bize-Leroy who owns Domaine Leroy, one of Burgundy’s most respected wineries; the three generations of Lungarotti women who make Umbria’s finest wines; and Francesca Moretti who’s in charge of two of Italy’s best Franciacorta wineries, are just a few of the ladies changing the gender dynamics of the European wine industry.

In the US, superstar winemakers have helped put women in the forefront of American winemaking. They include Heidi Peterson Barret who helped make wines for several of California’s most famous cult wines including Screaming Eagle; Zelma Long who was a winemaker at Robert Mondavi and now owns Zelphi Wines; and Joy Sterling of the acclaimed Iron Horse Winery.

Some will argue that this change was long overdue and women have long had a natural advantage in making and tasting wines.

Female faculties

In Shanghai as elsewhere the tasting and selection of wines is still predominantly the domain of men.

However, change in on the horizon. As I’ve observed in prior columns, several scientific studies indicate that women in fact have superior nasal and taste sensory abilities.

Studies at the Clinical Smell and Taste Research Center of the University of Pennsylvania, the Social Issues Research Centre of the University of Cardiff in Wales, and the Yale School of Medicine’s Surgery Department all indicate that women have heightened perceptions of both smell and taste.

The ability to make or taste wine is more than just physical abilities; it also necessitates knowledge.

Here too women are making great strides.

The number of female winemakers, sommeliers and wine writers continues to grow and redress historic imbalances in wine-related industries.

I love big, macho tannic wines. Serve me a slab of fatty red meat and my desire for tannins has few limits. However, in the modern epicurean world more emphasis is placed on health and freshness. This fits perfectly with what are sometimes referred to as feminine wines. But what exactly is a feminine wine? Does the spirit or essence of wine truly have a gender?

Traditionally, the wine world likes to refer to fresh, light and elegant wines as feminine and heavier bodied, brawny and more tannic wines as masculine. For instance, the full-bodied and tannic Cabernet Sauvignon wines of the left bank of Bordeaux are viewed as masculine while the softer, rounder Merlot centric wines of the right bank are viewed as more feminine.

Feminine wines

The finesse and graceful qualities of fine Burgundy wines cause many wine aficionados to refer to them as feminine. Even the shapes of the bottles have taken on genders with the broad-shouldered Bordeaux bottle appearing more masculine and the gentle sloping Burgundy bottle being more feminine.

In the modern world these depictions seem somewhat sexist and outdated but nonetheless they continue to be used.

Right or wrong and as imperfect as it may be, the wine world still seems comfortable in assigning certain styles of wines to a gender. Let’s take a look at some of the most feminine wines.

One wine that fits almost all the stereotypes of what a feminine wine should be is Moscato d’Asti. This lightly sparkling wine from Piedmont, Italy, is sweet, fun, aromatic and has moderate alcohol content.

Another Italian charmer that is often associated with the female gender is Pinot Grigio. This wildly popular variety from northern Italy is friendly, accommodating and aromatic with an appealing fruitiness and gentle acidity.

While most left bank Bordeaux reds may be viewed as male in character, the wines of the Margaux sub-appellation are often referred to as feminine. In contrast to the powerful wines of Saint Estephe and Pauillac to the north, the wines of Margaux are usually more perfumed, elegant and softer.

Cote de Nuits red wines of Burgundy also have their gender assignments, with the concentrated and powerful Chambertin wines being viewed as masculine and the less brutish but more elegant and floral Chambolle-Musigny wines seen as feminine.

An intriguing gender-bender among wines is the Nebbiolo grape. At its apex in the great Barolo and Barbaresco wines from Piedmont, these wines can be tough, tannic and manly in their youth and softer, more elegant and feminine as they age.  

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