Spain’s top women winemakersBy Lucy Shaw
From fearless bullfighters to its World Cup-winning football team, Spain is a country that celebrates the traditionally masculine qualities of physical strength, courage, assertiveness and confidence.
For a woman, getting to the top of your game in the male-dominated wine world is hard enough – doing so in a macho country such as Spain is all the more impressive.
While a number of the women on our list, including María José López de Heredia and Mireia Torres, were born into famous wine families and have worked hard to emerge from their fathers’ shadows, others have entered the game out of a pure passion for wine, rising to the top through sheer determination and true grit.
From María Vargas at Marqués de Murrieta to Begoña Jovellar at Vega Sicilia, these leading lights are responsible for some of the top wines in the country and are helping to shape and dictate Spain’s fine wine narrative.
We thought it was time to celebrate the achievements of these 15 pioneers, and at the same time highlight five women set to become the future stars of the Spanish wine industry.
In the first of a two-part series, click through for profiles of and interviews with 10 of Spain’s leading ladies of wine.
María José Lopez de Heredia
Rioja’s María José López de Heredia presides over one of the most prestigious estates in the region renowned for its traditional reds and long-aged whites made in an oxidative style from barrel-aged Viura.
A champion of the much- maligned Viura grape, fourth-generation López de Heredia was one of the only producers to continue making traditional barrel-aged white Rioja when it fell out of fashion. The style is becoming popular again, not least thanks to López de Heredia’s perseverence.
“In Spain, we have an incredible capacity for making high quality wines with elegance and finesse that can give a lot pleasure to sophisticated consumers from all over the world,” she says.
Who made you want to work in the wine industry? My father, Pedro López de Heredia, the third generation of our family business.
What has been the biggest challenge of your career so far? Learning to live without my father. He passed away three years ago.
Has it been tough getting to the top of a male dominated industry? No. I represent the fourth generation in our family company. It is different when you have to find a way in the immense world of wine than taking on a role in your own family business. My great grandmother managed the company as far back as 1886.
What would you still like to achieve in your career? To leave R. López de Heredia heading in the same philosophical direction as our founder for the next generation and to continue the production of high quality wines that are adapted to the future.
Desert island wine: La Gitana Manzanilla Pasada Pastrana.
One of the original pioneers of modern Priorat, along with René Barbier, Alvaro Palacios and José Luiz Perez, Swiss-born
Daphne Glorian is at the helm of one of Priorat’s smallest and most prestigious estates, Clos Erasmus in Gratallops. She considers the 1998 vintage her best so far. “It was the first time I felt I was finally touching something that had remained elusive until then.
“It was like walking around a bend in the road and getting a glimpse of the landmark I had been looking for,” she says. Glorian recently shifted her focus at the estate back to Garnacha for her top wine, with the ultimate goal to get as close to 100% Garnacha as possible.
Who made you want to become a winemaker? I was lucky to start working in the mid ’80s for Kit Stevens, one of the first MWs. I didn’t know anything about wine but as he was involved with the best in the world I got hooked up very quickly.
Four years later I met René Barbier at a wine fair, we became friends and he talked me into joining the small group of people he had put together to start a new project in Priorat. I had never thought consciously of becoming a winemaker, but there was the opportunity and I jumped at it.
How would you describe your winemaking style? As little intervention as possible, within reason. Our soil and the conditions in general in the Priorat are so unique that I try to respect them and stay true to the character of the wines.
Who are your winemaking inspirations? Lalou Bize Leroy, Henry Jayer and Jaques Raynault.
What has been the biggest challenge of your career so far? To get the industry to recognise Spanish wines and especially Priorat. The early ’90s were a very hard time, having to fight every inch of the way to even get the wines into a tasting.
Has it been tough getting to the top of a male dominated industry? Strange as it may sound I never felt resistance or hostility. The reality is that in Spain there were a number of women winemakers, already established, in some cases for generations.
What is the most exciting aspect of the Spanish wine industry at the moment? The emergence of a new crop of young winemakers who often look more like explorers than farmers. They work with varieties which are little known to the public and plant vineyards in long forgotten regions.
Desert island wine: La Tâche 1990, preferably in magnum.
Cristina Forner is the third generation of the Forner family to work in wine, the second at Marqués de Cáceres, which her father founded in 1970 with Emile Peynaud, a friend from his time in Bordeaux.
Taking over the running of her family business from her father in 2007, Forner immediately made her mark. She is known for her enthusiasm, passion for perfection and drive to promote Rioja and its brands.
“Arriving in Logroño from Paris 30 years ago, it’s taken sacrifice, hard work and drive to open new markets and strengthen existing ones. Today we export to 120 countries,” says Forner, a prominent figure in Rioja Alta, who has travelled the world promoting her wines.
What made you want to work inn the wine industry? While I was living in Paris, my father asked me to work for Marqués de Cáceres. Founded in 1970, the bodega was in the phase of developing existing distributors and conquering new export markets.
I had to think seriously hard about his proposal, for moving from Paris to Logroño involved a considerable cultural change, as well as a personal challenge. Once I made my decision, I travelled the world for 14 years to spread the news of our wines’ potential, transmit our culture and passion, and to open and develop distribution channels on an international scale.
What is the proudest moment of your career so far? When I understood I had the opportunity to follow in my father’s footsteps and maintain our family business that dates back three generations. My family devoted themselves to wine in body and soul and set an example that deserved to be continued.
Has it been tough getting to the top of a male dominated industry? I’ve worked shoulder to shoulder with my father who was very hard working and a perfectionist. Humility and conviction taught me that women have the capacity to develop and grow in a male world.
What would you still like to achieve in your career? I’d like to open consumers’ eyes to the beauty of wine, a world filled with people who dedicate a lifetime to cultivating their vineyards with hopeful anticipation and enthusiasm.
Desert island wine: Our top wine, Gaudium, which means ‘joy’ in Latin.
A fifth-generation member of the Torres wine dynasty, Mireia joined the family firm in 1999 as a lab assistant and worked her way up to her current role of general manager of Jean Leon and Torres Priorat. Torres produces around 44 million bottles a year, 4.2 million of which are sold in Britain via popular brands such as Viña Sol, Esmeralda and Sangre de Toro.
The proudest moment of her career so far came after a few years of managing Jean Leon. “We finally broke even and the team gave me an Oscar statuette for ‘best boss’ – I loved that. It was really touching,” she says. Turning over £175m in annual sales, the company owns 2,440 hectares of vineyards in Spain, California and Chile.
Who made you want to work in the wine industry? After I finished my degree in chemical engineering in Barcelona, my father convinced me to go to Montpellier to study oenology. The moment I entered that world, I was hooked. I decided to pursue it professionally, convinced that it was the best possible career for me.
What has been the biggest challenge of your career so far? Balancing my personal and professional life has always been complicated. I have faced and overcome important challenges throughout my career at Torres. I was in charge of technical management during a critical moment when we were launching several new winery projects throughout Spain. Then there was the challenge of turning the Jean Leon winery around when I took over as director in 2010.
Has it been tough getting to the top of a male dominated industry? I’m a professional woman committed to what I do, and I put a lot of enthusiasm into every project. As to whether being a woman or a man makes things harder or easier, I prefer not to think about it as it doesn’t help.
Do you feel a lot of weight on your shoulders being part of such a famous Spanish wine dynasty? Of course, I won’t deny it, but at this point in my life, I’ve learned to handle it quite well.
What is the most exciting aspect of the Spanish wine industry at the moment? Spain has great diversity in terms of climate and varieties. The potential to create new high-quality wines is enormous. At Torres, we’re bringing wines to market made from ancestral Catalan varieties that have been revived after more than 20 years of research.
Desert island wine: Our new sparkling wine from Penedès – Cuvée Esplendor.
Campo Viejo’s chief winemaker, Elena Adell, was destined for a life in wine, having been born among the vines in Logroño. The granddaughter of a grape grower, she studied agricultural science then joined Campo Viejo in 1998, working her way up to the role of chief winemaker.
Her aim is to create interesting wines that showcase the vibrancy of Tempranillo. “I adore working with Tempranillo as it’s such a versatile grape. I love seeing the different ways it can express its character in a diverse range of wines,” she says.
“There’s always something new to learn in a creative career like winemaking. I’d love to never lose my curiosity about it.”
Who or what made you want to become a winemaker? Curiosity. I’m an agronomist. I love the vineyards and, in particular, that moment when all the work in the vineyard culminates in harvesting grapes. When I was little, I was curious about how grapes become wine and that feeling inspired me to study oenology. Curiosity still continues to inspire me up to this day.
How would you describe your winemaking style?
I always strive to make the wine that people will enjoy drinking, ideally in the company of family and friends. That’s why I make wines with vibrant colours, full of aromas and with a soft, long finish. Our wines are easy to drink, so I hope that our consumers will feel like enjoying another glass.
What is the single wine you’re most proud of so far and why? I’m very proud of the white wines we make. They are a challenge because we are in Rioja, which is famous for high quality reds. So making whites from Viura, which evolve beautifully over time, is something that I’m extremely proud of.
Has it been tough getting to the top of a male-dominated industry? The road hasn’t been easy. Both men and women have to work hard to be recognised in the wine industry, but sometimes it does seem like women have to work harder for that.
Desert island wine: Benjamin Romeo Contador 2010.
As winemaker at Vega Sicilia, Begoña Jovellar has one of the top jobs in the Spanish wine industry. Custodian of arguably Spain’s most revered red – Vega Sicilia Unico – Jovellar modestly goes about making some of the finest wines in the country while keeping a low profile.
Having worked as a biology professor, she went on to gain a second degree in oenology, majoring in clonal selection. “Once you enter the world of wine it traps you forever and you never escape,” she jokes, adding, “I strive to conserve the Vega Sicila style of wines that are full of energy in older age and are almost eternal.” Among her many projects at the 240-hectare is developing a white version of Unico.
Who or what made you want to become a winemaker? I majored in biology and became a biology professor. I heard of advanced studies in viticulture and oenology, which I completed. Then followed studies in clonal selection and my oenology degree.
How would you describe your winemaking style? I am part of a historical, legendary winery where raw materials and traditional winemaking are treated with maximum respect, relying on technology and end-to-end quality assurance in all of our processes, yet always preserving the essence of traditional winemaking.
What is the single wine you’re most proud of so far and why? I feel they are all my children. We try to obtain the best of each harvest though the weather conditions along the vineyard´s life cycle will always mark the vintage. Nonetheless, special Unico vintages like 1998, 2000 and 2004 come to mind.
Has it been tough getting to the top of a male dominated industry? Today there are more women in the industry than years ago, so I feel this will change in future generations. Working in a male dominated sector is a challenge but working hard and focusing on doing the best you can, is very satisfying.
Desert island wine: Vega Sicilia Unico 2000 – a great vintage from an epic year.
As chief winemaker of Marqués de Murrieta, María Vargas is at the helm of one of Rioja’s most prestigious estates, and not only makes outrageously good red Castillo Ygay; one of the few Spanish wines to have serious clout at auction, Vargas is also one of the most talented white wine makers in the region.
She makes both a beguiling barrel-fermented Viura called Capellanía and Castillo Ygay Gran Blanco Reserva Especial, which spends 252 months in oak, five-and-a-half years in concrete and a further three in bottle before release.
“It has everything that I look for in a wine: fruit complexity, elegance, length, and a mixture of power and finesse influenced by the passage of time,” she says.
Who or what made you want to become a winemaker? Since I my childhood I knew I wanted to dedicate myself professionally to something related to living things. When I became an adult I knew that oenology and viticulture would be my life and I focused my studies in those areas.
How would you describe your winemaking style? My style has been influenced by a wine that has over 100 years of history and international recognition.
At Marqués de Murrieta, the most important feature is the Ygay estate. With 300 hectares, we have an outstanding array of indigenous grape varieties and a rich diversity of different soils, exposures and altitudes – the gems being our single vineyards.
Has it been tough getting to the top of a male dominated industry? Not at all. In fact I believe it is a sector where there is an increasing female presence with increasing recognition.
What is the most exciting aspect of the Spanish wine industry at the moment? There are several very interesting projects in different areas and regions across Spain, all of which seek to highlight their own uniqueness. We are incredibly lucky to have such diversity in Spain, which is something we’re very proud of.
Desert island wine: Castillo Ygay Blanco Gran Reserva Espacial 1950.
Having worked as technical director of CVNE since 2006, María Larrea is now chief winemaker for the iconic Rioja estate and custodian of top drop Imperial Gran Reserva, the 2004 vintage of which clinched first place in Wine Spectator’s Top 100 wines of 2013.
Happier to fly under the radar and stay largely out of the public eye, Larrea cut her teeth in Bordeaux and the Languedoc, and later Navarra and La Mancha before returning to her homeland of Rioja to make wine.
“The biggest challenge of my career has been the responsibility of trying to maintain and improve the quality of the wines we produce and meet consumer expectations,” says Larrea, whose happiest time of the year is during harvest. Her great aim is “to make a wine which will astonish”.
Who or what made you want to become a winemaker? I grew up in Elciego, a small village in Rioja Alavesa surrounded by vines. My family has always been involved in wine. Since I was very small I have been interested in all the wine process from the vine to the wine transformation.
Who is your winemaking inspiration? When I started working at CVNE the winemaker was Basilio Izquierdo. Over the years I worked with him, he taught me how to produce wines and the art of oak aging. Another person who has inspired me has been Patrick Leon, the great winemaker from Fronsac.
What is the single wine you’re most proud of so far and why? Imperial. 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.
Has it been tough getting to the top of a male dominated industry? A few years ago it was a male profession, but today women are present in almost all the sectors, from viticulture to winemaking, and there are a great number of very good female winemakers in Spain. The majority of the team at CVNE are women.
Desert island wine: Château d’Yquem 2000 due to its elegance and complexity.
One of the leading ladies of Spanish sparkling wine, Paula Fandino is on a one-woman mission to put sparkling Albariño on the map. The head winemaker at Mar de Frades in Rías Baixas, known for its distinctive electric blue bottles, believes Albariño has the potential to eclipse Cava and produce Spain’s best sparkling wines.
The estate was the first in the region to champion sparkling Albariño with its Brut Nature, released in 2012. A master of both still and sparkling Albariño, Galicia born Fandino works with around 150 local growers in the Salnès Valley in Rías Baixas to select fruit from small parcels of vineyards close to the Atlantic coast. Since 2009, Fandino has been experimenting with lees stirring and oak ageing to explore the full potential of Albariño.
Who or what made you want to become a winemaker? Ever since I was a child, I’ve loved to work with my senses – particularly smell and taste. It’s also in my genes: my great-grandfather cultivated native Galician varieties like Albariño, Treixadura, Caiño and Sousón. A century ago these grape varieties weren’t valued at all, so he was quite unusual.
How would you describe your winemaking style? I’m an agronomist, which means I get to work with my first love – the vines. In the winery, my main priority is to protect the vast aromatic range of the musts after the fermentation of the different strains and grapes.
What is the single wine you’re most proud of so far and why? Probably Finca Valises, which is made from a single vineyard of old vines. Ever since the first vintage, I’ve been responsible for the cultivation of the vines there. In the wine I’ve tried to combine youth with maturity and to bring elegance and charm from more intense work on the lees.
Has it been tough getting to the top of a male dominated industry? We’re used to thinking of the wine world as being dominated by men but, particularly in Galicia, there are many women who have been leading major projects, but because they’ve been in the background, they haven’t necessarily been recognised for it.
Women are rising to prominence now, having jumped the barrier, which isn’t easy, but it all comes down to being committed to what you do.
What is the most exciting aspect of the Spanish wine industry at the moment? Spanish wines are getting great international recognition at the moment. Before, the reference point for the great wines of Europe was France – but now, the training and knowledge of sommeliers worldwide has enabled Spanish wines to become regular features on the lists of great restaurants in America, Asia and Europe.
Desert island wine: Vega Sicilia Unico 2001 – I have one bottle left at home.
Having headed up the winemaking team at Martin Codax for more than a decade, Katia Alvarez knows a thing or two about Albariño. Her twists on the grape include an extended lees aged Albariño and a late harvest expression. Having been inspired to pursue a career in wine by her parents, who made experimental bottlings at home, a degree in agricultural engineering ignited her desire to make wine full time.
Keen for her Albariños to express their origin, getting to grips with the grape has not been without its challenges. “Understanding the complexity of Albariño has been difficult. It’s a grape you have to handle with care for it to achieve its highest expression, but it’s one of the most versatile grapes I know,” she says.
Who or what made you want to become a winemaker? The wine world has been always present in my home. I was born in a family in a small village where we always had vineyards and my family produced wine for home consumption. Since I was a kid that world kept my attention and I loved it. When I grew up I decided to study agricultural engineering. We visited a winery in my second year and I felt in love. That day I decided I was going to be a winemaker.
How would you describe your winemaking style? My style is based on respect. I always seek to achieve the maximum potential from a variety while respecting its tipicity, the weather conditions and of course its own individuality from the plot it comes from. After all, wine is born in the vineyard.
What is the single wine you’re most proud of so far and why? Martín Códax Vindel is a very special wine that comes from a single vineyard where the viticulture is extreme and Albariño shows a different profile that normal – it’s riper, more mature, complex and spicy.
Has it been tough getting to the top of a male dominated industry? It is evident that the wine industry has thus far been led by men but since day one I have been always being supported by Bodegas Martín Códax, where I’ve had the opportunity to develop as a winemaker and have been given the tools to grow and create my own team.
What has been the biggest challenge of your career so far? Trying to fully understand the complexities of Albariño. It’s a variety that you have to handle with care in order to be able to show its highest expression.
Desert island wine: Martin Codax Vindel – it’s the jewel in my crown.