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Women winemakers undaunted by French wine’s woes

French wine producers may not have much to rejoice about but deep down in the south of France Languedoc-Roussillon’s Sud de France brand is pushing hard to make inroads at this tricky time

Catherine Wallace Chateau de Combebelle

French wine producers may not have much to rejoice about (French wine sales in the UK have dropped 6.5 per cent in the last year, according to Off Licence News), but deep down in the south of France, Languedoc-Roussillon’s Sud de France brand is pushing hard to make inroads at this tricky time

With a monthly programme of themed tastings aimed at the trade and press, the brand’s central London showroom – the Maison de la Région Languedoc-Roussillon – gives producers the chance to show their wares to buyers, importers, sommeliers and journalists.

A recent tasting focused on the fruits of a dozen female winemakers, two of whom have already confirmed orders with a major UK specialist retailer. Brit Catherine Wallace of Chateau de Combebelle is one of the Sud de France producers in question. Here, she talks to The Drinks Report about being a woman in what has traditionally been a man’s world, and weathering the UK wine trade storm.

How did you come to be making wine in the south of France?
I had over 15 years’ experience in the UK wine trade. I’d been a buyer for Majestic, Adnams and Lay & Wheeler, and I did my WSET exams up to Diploma level, but I always wanted to make my own wine, rather than just selling someone else’s. So finally, in 2005, with my partner Patrick, I took the plunge and bought the biodynamically-farmed Château Combebelle from a fellow Brit, Robert Eden. 

Tell us about Château Combebelle and your wines
My domaine is at 300 metres above sea level, perched on hillside a couple of kilometers from the small village of Villepassans. It’s the highest vineyard in Saint Chinian. There’s a goat farm in the valley below, and amazing views of vine-clad hills all around. I’ve got 17 hectares of vines - Syrah, Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon – which surround the winery.

Historically, red wine has always been made here, but in 2007 we produced our first rosé - I’ve got a bit of a thing about rosé wine. Our AOC Saint Chinian Les Cérisiers has a fabulous bright pink robe and fresh, fruity flavours of redcurrant and strawberry, and this year it was awarded a Gold medal at the Concours Général Agricole de Paris, which I’m very proud of.

The potential for really good-quality wines, not just here but across the entire Languedoc-Roussillon region, is huge – that’s what drew me to this part of France. Our wines have won 15 international awards to date; part of the reason for our success lies in the terroir, I’m sure.

Does being a woman have any bearing on winemaking?
The wine industry has been dominated by men for many years, but more women are coming to the fore and being recognised for the quality of their product; nowadays, many professional wine tasters, buyers and journalists are women, too.

When it comes to roles in the vineyard, there is no real distinction; there are plenty of females who own their own vineyard and do the majority of the labour, driving tractors, emptying tanks and so on.

However, I do feel that female winemakers are more in-tune with nature and getting the most out of the vine without the use of force; they have a more sensitive, intuitive approach to winemaking.

More often than not, our wines will come across as more approachable rather than the heavy “Robert Parker-style” wines made predominantly by men, which is a benefit in a market like the UK where consumers are interested in wines that are drinking well now, and which offer value for money.

Is it really all doom and gloom for French winemakers right now?
In terms of UK market share, France is now in third place and descending, behind Australia and the US (or California, to be more accurate), so no, the picture isn’t all that rosy right now!  

The most challenging part of being a producer – in any part of the world – is not so much creating the wine itself – if you can bake a Victoria sponge, you can make wine – but selling it. With my background I have some good contacts in the UK trade, and I understand how the market works, but that doesn’t mean I get an easy ride. I work as hard at promoting my wines as I do at producing them.  

What next for you?
I’m currently studying to become a Master of Wine, and I’d like to plan a couple of hectares of white grapes and see if I can turn my hand to white as well as red and rosé. I’m also busy marketing our newly-renovated gîte – it’s ideal for holidaymakers who want to experience life on a Languedoc wine domaine.

Is there a future for wine made by women? Is this an angle the trade could tap into?
I hope and believe female winemakers will go from strength to strength, as increasing numbers of us win recognition for our achievements. Events like the Sud de France tasting help us raise our profile as producers of well-made, well-priced, quality wines.

What counts is not really being male or female, so much as having a business brain and an entrepreneurial bent. Having said that, I’d love to see a stand at a major trade show, promoting top and up-and-coming female producers from around the world!

1 August 2009