The world’s most influential women in wine
🇫🇷 France: Lalou Bize-Leroy
The grande dame of Burgundy, 85-year-old Lalou Bize-Leroy has been at the helm of Domaine Leroy for 30 years, having bought Domaine Charles Nöellat in Vosne Romanée and renamed it Domaine Leroy in 1988.
Formerly the co- manager of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, along with current owner Aubert de Villaine, she helped build the jewel in the crown, DRC, into one of the most sought after and expensive wines in the world due to its consistently spectacular performance at auction.
Ousted from the estate in 1992 after a series of disagreements with de Villaine, Leroy turned her attention to the biodynamically farmed Domaine Leroy, which has become one of the leading estates in Burgundy – her Richebourg sells for over £2,000 a bottle.
Tenacious, uncompromising, and unafraid of getting her hands dirty, Leroy refers to herself as a “cellar rat”. The estate is made up of 22 hectares across 26 appellations, along with the four-hectare Domaine d’Auvenay.
🇮🇹 Italy: Albiera Antinori
Last July Albiera Antinori made history when she took over from her father, the Marchese Piero Antinori, and became the first female president of the family-run company in its 632-year history.
A 26th generation member of the Antinori family, Albiera is making a concerted effort to get the Antinori name known in Asia, particularly with top wines Tignanello and Solaia. She helps to oversee 1,800 hectares of vines in Italy, along with Antica estate in Napa Valley, Col Solare in Washington, Albis in Chile and vineyard projects in Hungary and Romania.
Albiera’s sisters Allegra and Alessia are also both involved in the family business. “We are a generation of three sisters, so it’s been a generation of women for a few years. Women do have this tendency of seeing things moving along with results over a longer period of time,” Antinori says.
“But in our case, patience is in our DNA. The wine world is a business where the results you expect to see are not in a few years, but in a generation.
“It is important that these decisions are made with the eyes of a generation before and maybe perhaps with the eyes of a future generation also. There has to be respect for the generation after as well as respect for the ones before,” she adds.
🇪🇸 Spain: María Vargas
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.
“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,” she adds.
🇺🇸 USA: Celia Welch
As a child growing up in Oregon, Celia Welch would sit under a giant oak in her back garden picking grapes from their stems for her winemaker father. During high school she dreamed of working as a perfume maker in France, but, after graduating from UC Davis with a degree in fermentation science, she fled to New Zealand and Australia’s Barossa Valley instead to gain valuable winemaking experience before returning to the Napa Valley to work at Silverado Vineyards. Moving to Robert Pepi winery in the early 90s, she went on to consult for a number of top Napa names during the 90s, including Staglin Family Vineyard.
Today Welch is responsible for California ‘cult’ wine Scarecrow. Launched in 2006, Scrarecrow’s debut 2003 vintage, made from old-vine Cabernet grown on a 10-hectare plot in Rutherford, was given 98 points by Robert Parker – a feat only bettered by Screaming Eagle. A year on, the 2004 vintage sold out in 16 hours. With just 400-800 cases produced annually, depending on the vintage, the wine has a celebrity following and commands healthy hammer prices at auction.
In 2004 Welch launched her own label, Corra, named after the Celtic goddess of prophecy, where she makes high-end Cabernet from grapes grown in Rutherford, Oakville and Pritchard Hill. Keen for her wines to bear the hallmarks of the land from which they came rather than the hand that made them, to retain the vineyard’s personality Welch picks earlier than many in Napa.
The wine she’s most proud of so far is the aforementioned Scarecrow 2003. “Even in barrel shortly after fermentation the wine was a knockout. I was tremendously proud that it presented itself with such beauty and complexity on release,” she says. “It’s such a thrill to take an existing vineyard and realise the quality that was there all along.”
🇨🇳 China: Judy Chan
Born in Hong Kong, Judy Chan took over Shanxi-based Grace Vineyard from her father in 2002 at the tender age of 24, having left a post at Goldman Sachs in Hong Kong. Since then she has turned Grace into both a globally recognised brand and a flagship for Chinese fine wine.
The 200-hectare estate produces around two million bottles a year, from flagship red blend Deep Blue to top wine Chairman’s Reserve, which is sold in luxury bars and hotels in China’s leading cities. Chan, who has become something of a celebrity entrepreneur in China, plans to develop wineries in other regions, each with their own branding.
In 2012 she received the Asian Wine Personality of the Year award from db for her work in drawing global attention to the quality of Chinese wine. Chan has taken an experimental approach at Grace, planting the likes of Riesling, Pinot Noir and Shiraz, and using screwcaps on some wines.
🇦🇷 Argentina: Susana Balbo
Known by many as the “Evita of wine”, Susana Balbo is the most famous female winemaker in Argentina. After 20 years of producing wine for other people as a consultant, in 1999 Balbo founded Dominio del Plata in Luján de Cuyo. Her vines are planted with Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Torrontés, from which she makes a beguiling barrel-fermented expression.
Selling the wines under her own name, Balbo also has a line of fruit forward second wines, Crios de Susana, which are designed to be drunk young. She lives in Mendoza with her family.
In 2015 she stood as a candidate for the centre-right party Propuesta Republicana (PRO) in Argentina’s national election with a pledge to tackle the “lies” that have cast the country’s wine industry into “huge crisis”. She has held the post of President of Wines of Argentina three times.
🇦🇺 Australia: Sarah Crowe
Having barely walked through the cellar door of Yarra Yering, Sarah Crowe was named James Halliday’s Winemaker of the Year for 2017 for her debut 2014 vintage at the prestigious Victoria estate – the first woman to receive the accolade.
“She has made red wines of the highest imaginable quality from her first vintage,” Halliday says. Crowe joined Yarra Yering in 2013 after 12 years in the Hunter Valley, predominantly at Brokenwood. Her dream is for her wines to sell out before release.
“I like to think that I have a gentle hand,” Crowe says. “I want to make wines that are true to the integrity of the fruit I have to work with, and that means being very intimate with the wines and responding to what they need me to do.” So far, she’s most proud of her 2014 Yarra Yering Dry Red Wine No1.
“I took my time in putting the blend together because I wanted people to recognise it as a wine from Yarra Yering,” she says. As for making it to the top of a male-dominated industry, Crowe reveals: “I have felt like I needed to prove that I am physically up to the job.”
🇳🇿 New Zealand: Natalie Christensen
Classically trained double bass player Natalie Christensen is senior winemaker at Yealands Estate in Marlborough. With a first class psychology degree, a bachelor of music, and a diploma in oenology, she cut her winemaking teeth during harvests in Bordeaux and Oregon.
After a stint at Saint Clair Family Estate in Marlborough, where she worked her way up to becoming assistant winemaker, Christensen swapped New Zealand for Spain, where she worked for Jorge Ordoñez on his Albariño project in Rías Baixas, while also making sweet wines in Malaga.
The ex-volunteer fire fighter joined Yealands in 2014 as the estate’s vintage winemaker. In her current role as senior winemaker, among the drops she crafts for the estate are a Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Riesling.
Half of one of the most exiting winemaking duos on South Africa, Andrea developed her passion for wine at the family dinner table in San Francisco. After studying viticulture and oenology at UC Davis, and completing a handful of harvests in the Napa Valley, she started out in Stellenbosch, then moved to Châteauneuf. During her time in France she met her partner in wine, Chris Mullineux, at a festival in Champagne.
The pair moved back to South Africa and settled at Roundstone Farm in the Swartland. They launched Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines in 2007 with the aim making wines that are honest reflections of their terroir. The estate bottles its wines based on soil type – granite, schist, iron and quartz.
In 2014 Andrea joined the Cape Winemakers Guild and in 2016 she was named International Winemaker of the Year by Wine Enthusiast. And if that wasn’t enough she also makes wines in California under the Fog Monster brand.
🇨🇱 Chile: María Luz Marín
Known for her effortless charm, sharp wit and steely determination, María Luz Marín is the first female estate owner in Chile. In the year 2000 she founded Casa Marín just 8km from the Pacific Ocean in Lo Abarca, a small town in Chie’s San Antonio Valley, sinking her own money into the project after all potential investors failed to bite, having deemed the venture too risky.
Prior to Casa Marín, María Luz worked making bulk wine for supermarkets around the world, renting space in wineries, buying wine from producers and creating blends according to the specifications of her clients. Her 38-hectare estate has become known for producing some of the classiest and most expensive whites in Chile.
Faced with unpredictable growing seasons due to her proximity to the ocean, she makes a hero of Sauvignon Blanc, but also makes Sauvignon Gris, Gewürztraminer, Resling, Pinot Noir, Syrah and Grenache, and is due to release Chile’s first traditional method sparkling Riesling later this year.
Casa Marín’s vineyard was originally a eucalyptus field, which imparted aromas of eucalyptus in its wines for the first two vintages. Marine deposits within the estate’s vineyards lend the wines an appealing salinity.
🇬🇧 UK: Emma Rice
And last but not least, we had to include a winemaker from our green and pleasant land now that England is making sparklers to rival those from Champagne. At the helm of one of England’s leading fizz producers is Plumpton graduate Emma Rice, winemaker and director of Hattingley Valley in Hampshire, which was founded a decade ago by lawyer Simon Robinson.
After working harvests in the Napa Valley and Tasmania, Rice joined the estate in 2009 and helped to build the winery. Working with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and Meunier from across southern England, in her spare time Rice runs Custom Crush, a wine analysis lab and winemaking consultancy for English wine producers.
“English sparkling wine is no longer the domain of hobbyists and amateurs who are planting a few grapes in their back garden. It’s led by people who are doing it on a serious scale with good professional advice and knowledge and the right equipment,” she says. Hattingley Valley is one of the largest contract sparkling wine makers in England.