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Anson: The women who shaped Bordeaux

Jane Anson looks at the central role played by women throughout the history of Bordeaux wine and identifies a few key figures.

Nothing annoys me more than the charge against Bordeaux that it is simply a dusty old boy’s club, made for and drunk by the smug lunch crowd in the world’s board rooms.

And yet still the image persists. So, in keeping with the conversation happening in many industries at the start of 2018, I’ve started to assemble a list of some of the women who have earned their own place at the table over the years.

Not just the highest profile figures like Baroness Philippine de Rothschild (Mouton), Corinne Mentzelopoulos (Ch. Margaux), May-Eliane de Lencquesaing (Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande), Florence Cathiard (Smith Haut Lafitte), all formidable women in charge of major estates who have influenced the course of Bordeaux in the 20th and 21st centuries, but also some of the lesser-known names along the way.

Feel free to add others in the comments section below this article.

Eleanor of Aquitaine, obviously

Okay, I know, almost too easy. But also rather cheering to think that without this woman, there would be no Bordeaux wine as we know it today.

Eleanor was the daughter of Guillaume X, the last Duke of Aquitaine, who married Henry Plantagenet of England on May 18, 1152, eight weeks after the annulment of her first marriage to King Louis le Jeune of France.

She was pretty much the wealthiest woman in France, and brought the lands of Aquitaine (and with them the vines of Bordeaux) as part of her dowry.

Henry and Eleanor had five sons and three daughters together, and their offspring would manage to keep Bordeaux in English hands for three centuries.

By the time the region returned to France, in 1453, the influence of the English market and its system of selling through brokers and merchants was firmly embedded.

Jeanne de Bellon

Château Haut-Brion is believed to be the first estate in the region to be sold under the name of the place where it was grown (before this, wine was sold under its regional identity such as Bordeaux, or perhaps Graves).

And women have been key throughout its history. We can place a woman called Johana Monadey as Seigneur at the time of the first record of 29 rows of vines in a place known as Aubrion back in 1436. But it was Jeanne de Bellon, daughter of the mayor of Libourne, who had the bigger role through her marriage to Jean de Pontac, the man who kick-started the estate as we know it today.

It was again through a dowry, as with Eleanor of Aquitaine – at the time of her marriage Jeanne owned plots of land around Aubrion. Once married, the couple convinced the Seigneur at the time, Jean Duhalde, to sell them the entire title and rights of Aubrion in 1533 for 2,640 francs.

Jeanne may have been only the first of Jean’s three wives (he managed 15 children between them all), but her marriage gift kick-started the rise of the world’s first wine brand.

Over half of the current vines of Haut-Brion were planted under de Pontac, parts of the current château were built by him, and by the time of his death Haut-Brion was firmly on its way to creating a new category of quality wine.

Caroline de Villeneuve

The 1855 classification is widely recognised today as the world’s preeminent wine ranking, but at the time it was barely expected to make a blip on the radar, as there had been several rankings beforehand and others were expected to follow.

Most owners didn’t even bother sending bottles up to Paris to be exhibited.

There was, however, one notable exception, in the form of Caroline de Villeneuve.

Owner of Château Cantemerle in the 19th century, she was the woman responsible for getting the estate its 1855 listing. Apparently, Villeneuve had been selling the wine direct for many years, mainly in the Netherlands, but had chosen in 1854 to hand over the commercial responsibilities to the Place de Bordeaux.

When she found out that they had left her off the Paris list just 12 months later, she was furious, and insisted on meeting with the union of brokers who were responsible for deciding which chateaux made the cut.

The meeting took place in September 1855, and by the end of it, Cantemerle was added as a fifth growth (you can see the result on the original document, with Cantemerle in different hand-writing from the rest).

Madame Marie-Louise Labat

Forever known simply as Madame Labat, this woman gave us Petrus as we know it today – and in no small part in doing so gave the entire Pomerol appellation its figurehead ad its kickstart to glory. The estate had already won a few awards in the late 19th century in Paris, but it was under the indefatigable Madame Labat that it really took its place as a legend of Bordeaux.

From her first purchases of shares in Petrus in 1923 until she bought the entre property in 1929, and then right through until the end of her life in 1961, aged 85, she ensured it was drunk by all the right people and seen in all the right places.

I have to borrow Neal Martin’s description in his brilliant Pomerol book for this bit, because you don’t want to miss Alain Raynaud’s description of her as ‘the most sophisticated lady in Bordeaux.

‘She was always very well dressed, having her hair done each week, never seen without one of her beautiful hats, and she was always in make-up… She was the personality of Pomerol and the first person to market her Pomerol wine. Every time there was a royal wedding in Europe, she would send cases of Petrus as a gift and attend the ceremony’.

There is no doubt that the contract she signed by Jean-Pierre Moueix to distribute the wines in the 1940s gave it the final boost, but Madame Labat should rightfully be seen as the patron saint of Pomerol.

Gaby Faux

Women all over Bordeaux were of course vital in keeping the vineyards running during the Second World War.

But Gaby Faux as bookkeeper at Château Lafite-Rothschild went above and beyond. Here I owe the story to Don and Petie Kladstrup in Wine and War, who recount how Madame Gaby, as she was known, lived at Lafite and for much of the war hid some of the most sacred objects from Paris’ Great Synagogue under her bed and in her bathroom to protect them from the German troops who were billeted in the château.

She also hid many of the most precious bottles, including the infamous 1797, in the cellars of neighbouring châteaux. And even more dangerously began doctoring the books, carefully transferring ownership of Lafite’s wines away from the elder generation of Rothschilds who had escaped from France, to the brothers Alain and Elie who were prisoners of war – because she knew that their property was therefore protected under the Geneva Convention and could not be touched by the Germans.

As Lafite celebrates in 150th anniversary under Rothschild ownership in 2018, let’s hope they (and anyone who has bought old Lafite at auction) raise a glass to Gaby Faux.

Madame Jeanne Descaves

Head of Maison Descaves from 1925 to 1999, Jeanne Descaves was born on March 18, 1902, in Bergerac, the only child of mill worker Jean-Henri Nadal and Marie Baysselance.

In 1921, she married Jean Descaves, and the couple bought a négociant firm where Jeanne became the first woman wine merchant in Bordeaux. She continued there until her death aged 97 on December 25th, 1999.

Her presence may not have revolutionised opportunities for women in the merchant houses of Bordeaux (there are still only a handful in the really key roles), but she certainly played a huge part in ensuring Bordeaux châteaux spread into the world’s finest restaurants, as she specialised in old vintage Bordeaux for the on-trade.

And she also opened the door for one of the women who is taking Bordeaux into the future, Ariane Khaida, now head of Duclot merchant house but who began her career in Bordeaux as director at Maison Descaves.

‘My mother was a very strong woman, a fighter, yet very simple,’ said Madame Descaves’ daughter Daniele Dussert on her mother’s death.

‘She did not like to be seen but preferred to remain in the shadows. She did not want any honours, but she deserved them.’

Diala Younes-Lavenu

Dany Rolland may be the highest profile female oenologist in Bordeaux, alongside perhaps Valérie Lavigne, author of a groundbreaking study on premature oxidation in white wines.

But just this week Diala Younges-Lavenu has become the first woman to be elected as president of the Oenologists Association of Bordeaux – a group that counts 450 members.

Originally from the Lebanon, Younes-Lavenu began her career working at Chateau Kefraya in the Bekaa Valley before moving to France in 2008, and is hoping to use her background to foster closer links with the Bordeaux oenology schools and international institutions.

Laure de Lambert Campeyrot

What’s the toughest challenge in Bordeaux today? It just might be Sauternes, once loved by Tsars and royalty and now overlooked by pretty much everyone.

Owner and technical director at Château Sigalas Rabaud, Laure de Lambert Campeyrot, is hoping to change that while also connecting with the other contemporary challenge of bringing Bordeaux to the low intervention party that is sweeping wine right now.

She’s doing this by retaining her best terroirs for a reduced production of the classic sweet wine, while expanding a dry white production with La Demoiselle de Sigalas and the 100% dry Sémillon La Sémillante.

And introducing new styles such as the zero sulphur No 5 de Sigalas Rabaud (in fact shortly to undergo a name change, because some tiny perfume company objected to the first one…).

This is just gently sweet  (around 60g/l of residual sugar compared to 120g/L for the main Sauternes) with just a touch of CO2 for a soft spritz.

With this she joins Berenice Lurton, who is also re-imaging sweet Bordeaux with her stunning, low intervention biodynamic wines over at Château Climens in neighbouring Barsac.

Two women who just might be pointing the way to the future of this too-often-forgotten corner of Bordeaux.

Read more Jane Anson columns on Decanter.com here

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