Women are scoring exciting achievements in the political, scientific, sporting, and human rights realms, and why not? We make up 50 percent of the population, so it shouldn’t be surprising that a woman’s ingenuity, talent, and fortitude would produce social ripples or even full-throttle world change—although she may still have to get it done “backwards and in high heels,” as they say. With women winemakers, however, it’s more like up the slope and in rubber boots. Why is it that women winemakers still aren’t that common? Winemaking is hard work, but we know most women don’t lie around on chaise longues eating bonbons, so that’s not the issue. Still, whether through family inheritance, career change, or sheer determination to excel in a career normally practiced by men, our women winemakers are hitting their stride and making wines of which anyone would be proud. When I started in the wine business, it didn’t occur to me that a wine made by a woman would be unusual. I just tasted and drank, learning the stories of the winemakers and how the wine was made. But I pay more attention now, and here’s your chance to do the same. We offer this assortment of delicious wines, all made by women, to accompany us as we tango backwards into the twenty-first century.
It must not have been an easy ride, but Nicole did it. Gone from an unknown young woman in a decidedly man’s world (Beaujolais of yesteryear) to the sage, ever-cheerful vigneronne the locals like to call “La Patronne de la Côte” (“The Boss of the Côte”). While nobody threw any spokes in the wheel when she began, most did look on with a bit of condescending amusement, waiting for what they believed would be her inevitable failure. And while many wondered in disbelief how a woman could possibly drive a tractor, much less make a decent wine, one man never had a doubt and offered nothing but unwavering support: Nicole’s father, Raymond. It was he who took her out as a young child to work in the family vineyard, who taught her at an early age how to taste and appreciate fine Beaujolais. Although it was neither imposed on nor planned for Nicole to take over the family vines and winery, once Raymond began to age and fell ill, she decided to step in for good, some forty years ago. Small in stature, strong in presence, she forged ahead and by 1980 was alone on the domaine and running the show entirely on her own. Since then, Nicole has been one of those rare growers who basically do a single wine but do it really, really well. Her vineyards are all in a big block, right behind her house on the volcanic slope of Mont Brouilly, from which she fills five large casks each year of bright purple, heavenly scented, juicy Côte-de-Brouilly. Year in and year out, it is tremendously reliable, fun, and age-worthy. In fact, I’ll let you in on a little secret. As you know, we have some heavy hitters and big stars in our Beaujolais portfolio, with earth-shatteringly great wines. And yet, when it comes time to put in Kermit’s orders for his personal drinking cellar here in France (where he could just as easily order many of the hippest, hottest wines of the moment), more often than not he simply requests a few cases of Nicole’s Côte-de-Brouilly. Upon arriving in France recently, Kermit checked in on what he’d ordered for his cellar so far. “Have I ordered the last vintage from Chanrion yet?” he asked. “Hardly anyone outside of her little village has heard of her, but she’s as good as anyone.”
It has been quite a forty-year trip—and it’s far from over. I raise my glass to forty more!
The wines of J. Lassalle are among the first, and certainly the longest-standing, “grower Champagnes” present in the United States. While the house style is deeply rooted in the terroir of Chigny-les-Roses, a small village in the Montagne de Reims, a vigneron’s touch—or a vigneronne’s, in the case of the three generations of Lassalle women to manage the estate—can also help define a house style. Their twenty-eight-year tradition of “une femme, un esprit, un style” (one woman, one spirit, one style) holds true today more than ever: one can point to their use of malolactic fermentations and careful blending of different climats and cépages as the key to their lush, creamy, sublimely refined Champagnes. The Lassalle women craft a pale, elegant rosé Champagne, all about delicacy and lovely, plush fruit. Aged extensively sur latte before disgorgement, this soft, round rosé maintains a great balance of richness and refreshing acidity. It will provide utter satisfaction sipped as an apéritif, or all throughout a meal.
Made predominantly from the noble Mourvèdre grape, Bandol reds perfectly translate the sun-kissed landscape of Provence. At once profound and generous, they flaunt a somewhat rustic, earthy side while expressing the jovial personality of the Provençal people. At Tour du Bon, vigneronne Agnès Henry crafts dense, potent reds from clay and limestone soils tucked beneath the medieval village of Le Castellet. This part of the appellation is shielded from cooling sea breezes, so her wines show a full-throttle ripeness and almost bloody, animal character that shines alongside lamb and game dishes, rich tomato sauces, and other hearty Mediterranean cuisine featuring plenty of garlic and herbs. Delicious today, this Provençal beast will have no problem aging and evolving in bottle for twenty more years.
This méthode traditionelle bubbly is from Catherine Breton, who knows a thing or two about Chenin Blanc. She makes a wonderful all-purpose sparkler: crisp, dry, delicate, invigorating, affordable. I might add that the 2005, one of her first vintages, is still providing plenty of thrills today.
While Cornaline’s hearty blend of Grenache, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon seems built for the cellar, this wine is a charmer even today. With several years of aging already taken care of at the domaine, this rich and velvety red arrived at our shop ready to impress any wine drinker. The aromas leap from the glass with ripe dark fruits, baking spices, sage, and earth all delicately woven together in large oak foudres. You could forget the Cornaline for a decade or more, but a bottle at my house isn’t likely to see the weekend.
That Syrah is tough to sell is an old wine business cliché, and as with most clichés, there’s some truth in it. For whatever reason, this beguiling, dark-skinned grape hasn’t captivated wine drinkers the way other varieties have. I think it’s because the best Syrahs somehow seem inscrutable. Instead of leaping out of the glass, they pull you in. They have interesting and unusual aromas, and are slightly off-kilter in an intriguing way, like the waltz in 5/4 time in Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique. If you happen to be a Syrah devotee, like me, you probably appreciate these qualities in your wine—and perhaps in your music as well. Although everyone’s experience is different, I’d be willing to wager that for most Syrah lovers, the seminal Syrah experience was with a bottle from the northern Rhône. It’s an improbable combination of grape and place, with vineyards so steep and punishing to work that even the scions of famous domaines think twice about taking over from their hardworking parents. Louis Barruol traverses the slopes of Côte Rôtie—the northernmost appellation in the northern Rhône—for the most expressive parcels of Syrah. He vinifies each separately, and then Kermit tastes through every lot and assembles the final blends. Farther south, at Domaine Gramenon, the terrain is a bit less forbidding and the Syrah a bit more extroverted. Proprietor Michèle Aubèry-Laurent skews natural in her farming and winemaking, and her wines are effortlessly enjoyable. Maybe you’re not in the mood for Tchaikovsky and would prefer some mischievous Stravinsky instead. Don’t be thrown off by the appellation. This Côtes-du-Rhône is all Syrah: lots of flowers, dark berry fruit, and smoky notes for diligent sniffers to discover.
Mille Vignes has only seven and a half hectares (nineteen acres) of vines, by choice. “I could enlarge, but the wines wouldn’t be the same,” according to vigneronne Valérie Guérin. The terroir she works in this very southernmost part of France is an amalgam of clay, limestone, and schist soils; wild scrubland scented with thyme and lavender, and perhaps the most potent force of all, the fierce Tramontagne wind. Muscat de Rivesaltes, a local specialty, is a vin doux naturel produced when fermentation of very ripe Muscat grapes is halted midway by addition of a neutral spirit, a process known as mutage. Mille Vignes’ Muscat de Rivesaltes flaunts a ravishing perfume of infinite flowers and fruits, equally refreshing as an apéritif as it is satisfying with dessert.
Great values abound in the southern Rhône: with the region’s abundance of favorable terroirs, digging just a little bit can yield bargain wines of depth, substance, and authentic local character. The Lirac appellation, for example, shares the same famous galets roulés—large, rounded alluvial riverbed stones—as across the Rhône in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, easily the regions’s most prestigious appellation. These soils offer good drainage, forcing the vine roots to dig deep for moisture and nutrients, all while reflecting the sun’s heat to assist in ripening. Correspondingly, the wines of Lirac express a sun-imbued generosity in the form of potent dark aromas of dark fruit, with matching concentration on the palate that makes them ideal companions to roast meats, ratatouille, and other richly flavored Mediterranean dishes. Joncier’s Lirac, a blend of Syrah with Grenache, Mourvèdre, Cinsault, and Carignan, offers chewy tannins and penetrating flavors that recall a hot summer afternoon in beautiful southern France.
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