Women are increasingly influential in the wine world. Photo: Flickr/Liis Kängsepp
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Why women are becoming the key ingredient in making and marketing wine

What does the success of the Féminalise Wine Competition tell us about wine and women?

Women and wine have long been united in the realm of cliché, from Bridget Jones and her chardonnay to the Ab Fab girls and their endless bottles of champagne. But it's actually a serious business: of the UK's regular wine drinkers, 55 per cent are women, according to research by Wine Intelligence. Making wines that appeal to women is changing the way the industry thinks, from marketing campaigns to all-female tasting sessions.

"I would say there isn't specifically a female palate, but there are trends," says Lynne Whitaker, managing Director of Winebrand, a branding and market research consultancy for the wine industry. "Most women we speak to prefer white or rosé, and upfront, juicy wines." She adds that New World wines tend to do well – partly because they tend to be labelled with the grape variety, which makes choosing easier. French wines are sometimes a difficult sell because the country's classification system means they're labelled according to where they were made.

In France, one competition is designed to find out exactly what women want. On a chilly morning in Burgundy recently, nearly 700 women from across the globe queued outside the conference centre in Beaune. Female winemakers, buyers, scientists, critics and bloggers had gathered to taste 3,700 wines at the Feminalise competition. It's the ninth year the event has taken place, and while the vast majority of wines tasted are French, winemakers worldwide can submit their efforts. Each wine is tasted by three different women, seated apart from each other, and competition is intense for the gold, silver, bronze and pearl medals.

"I wanted to create the competition 20 years ago and it was too complicated, but now there are many more women in the industry, working as oenologists, in commercial roles, as winemakers," says the founder Didier Martin. He took the plunge, financed the entire event himself, and it has since grown from 170 tasters to over 600. Over that time, there's been an enormous evolution in the wines entered in the competition  a change he puts down, in part, to women's tasting expertise.

Traditionally, wines were made to be cellared for years before drinking, but with shifts in society, people now want to buy wine in a supermarket and drink it straight away, Martin explains. Women tend to be more picky about excess tannins or acidity, and will lean towards rounded, smoother wines more suited to drinking straight away  even in big, intense, styles. "Look at wines like Madiran, Pommard, these are 'tough wines', but actually women love them."

A Feminalise medal can obviously help with marketing wines, and Martin, who says he's absolutely not a feminist ("just a man who loves women"), started the competition for business reasons. When working in sales for a major wine producer, he noticed that, eight times out of ten, if a couple came in and the woman liked the wine, the man would buy it.

"I actually don't think there's a big difference in tasting skills between men and women," he says. "But there are still a lot of macho attitudes." He recalls a particularly cringeworthy campaign for white wine  on the grounds it stains less than red wine, and laundry is important for ladies.

Marketing wine to women is a delicate art. Wine companies are, "always very conscious of the need to appeal to women without alienating men", Whitaker says, and novelty brands and fancy bottles can actually make buyers suspicious of what's inside. "Women like something that looks like it came from a vineyard."

On top of that, the way women drink wine is different. The success of Helen McGinn's "Knackered Mothers' Wine Club" in both book and blog form is partly down to her great recommendations  she used to be wine buyer for a major UK supermarket  but also the lively and engaging way she writes about the role wine plays in women's lives. 

Consumer research shows "there's a wine moment at the end of the day", meaning women will pick wines that are good to drink on their own, rather than thinking about food pairings, Whitaker says. Then there's the question of alcohol levels, with some women being "turned off" by heavy wines. Sparkling wines also do extremely well. "Prosecco is going mad," as a market, she says, "and there's an element of self-treating".

Increasing numbers of women are making wine as well. In Burgundy, the Femmes et Vins de Bourgogne association represents around 30 estates in the region. In a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal, top female winemakers from Napa Valley asked: "When can we stop talking about female winemakers?" There are women making superb wines worldwide, as the wine critic Jancis Robinson points out. Producers and marketers are finally aware of this, and everyone is benefiting.

"When I started the competition, some people said it would never work  well, now it's 'not working' with 700 women," says Martin. "What we want is for men to buy the wine that women have given medals to, because they know it's good."

Frances Robinson has been covering the EU since 2006. Previously a staffer at the Wall Street Journal, she returned to the UK after a decade abroad to talk and write about the UK-EU relationship. 

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Bertie Carvel's diary: What would the French think about infidelity to Doctor Foster?

The joy of debuting a new series, Rupert Murdoch's squeamishness and a sting in the tail.

According to the adage, the first thing an actor does when he gets a job is to go on holiday. And so, having finished our sold-out run of James Graham’s Ink at the Almeida and with the show (in which I play a young Rupert Murdoch) about to transfer into the West End, I’m packing my bags.

But before I can skip town, I’ve one more professional engagement: the press launch of series two of the BBC drama Doctor Foster, which we finished filming at Christmas. I’ve now seen the final cut of all five episodes, and I’m excited to share it with an audience. There’s no substitute for seeing other people’s reactions at first hand, especially with a show that got people talking so much first time around, and it’s electric to sit in a cinema full of expectant journalists and commentators and feel the room respond. Nothing beats this: to put so much into making a thing and then experience an audience’s unmediated, reflexive reaction. When it goes well, you feel that you’ve shared something, that you’ve all recognised something together about how things are. It’s a unifying feeling. A sort of bond.

Cheating spouses

Handling the interviews has been tricky, when there’s so little one can say without giving the plot away. (The first series began with Suranne Jones’s character Gemma, a GP, suspecting her husband Simon of having an affair.) What’s more, lots of the questions invite moral judgements that I’ve tried my best to avoid; I always think it’s really important not to judge the characters I play from outside, but simply to work out how they feel about themselves, to zero in on their point of view. There’s a sort of moral bloodlust around this show: it’s extraordinary. People seem to want to hear that I’ve been pilloried in the street, or expect me to put distance between myself and my character, to hang him out to dry as a pariah.

While I’m not in the business of defending Simon Foster any more than I’m in the business of attacking him, I am intrigued by this queer mixture of sensationalism and prurience that seems to surface again and again.

Shock horror

Oddly enough, it’s something that comes up in Ink: many people have been surprised to find that, in a story about the re-launch of the Sun newspaper in 1969 as a buccaneering tabloid, it’s the proprietor who considers dropping anchor when the spirit of free enterprise threatens to set his moral compass spinning.

I’ve never given it much thought before, but I suppose that sensationalism relies on a fairly rigid worldview for its oxygen – the SHOCKERS! that scream at us in tabloid headlines are deviations from a conventional idea of the norm. But what’s behind the appetite for this sort of story? Do we tell tales of transgression to reinforce our collective boundaries or to challenge them?

For me there’s a close kinship between good journalism and good drama. I’m reminded of the words of John Galsworthy, who wrote Strife, the play I directed last summer, and who felt that the writer should aim “to set before the public no cut-and-dried codes, but the phenomena of life and character, selected and combined, but not distorted, by the dramatist’s outlook, set down without fear, favour, or prejudice, leaving the public to draw such poor moral as nature may afford”.

So when it comes to promoting the thing we’ve made, I’m faced with a real conundrum: on the one hand I want it to reach a wide audience, and I’m flattered that there’s an appetite to hear about my contribution to the process of making it; but on the other hand I think the really interesting thing about the work is contained in the work itself. I’m always struck, in art galleries, by how much more time people spend reading the notes next to the paintings than looking at the paintings themselves. I’m sure that’s the wrong way around.

Insouciant remake

En route to the airport the next morning I read that Doctor Foster is to be adapted into a new French version. It’s a cliché verging on racism, but I can’t help wondering whether the French will have a different attitude to a story about marital infidelity, and whether the tone of the press coverage will differ. I wonder, too, whether, in the home of Roland Barthes, there is as much space given to artists to talk about what they’ve made – in his 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author”, Barthes wrote that “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination”.

No stone unturned

Touring the villages of Gigondas, Sablet and Séguret later that evening, I’m struck by the provision of espaces culturels in seemingly every commune, however small. The French certainly give space to the work itself. But I also notice a sign warning of a chat lunatique, so decide to beat a hasty retreat. Arriving at the house where I’m staying, I’ve been told that the key will be under a flowerpot. Lifting each tub in turn, and finally a large flat stone by the door, I find a small scorpion, but no key. I’m writing this at a table less than a yard away so let’s hope there won’t be a sting in this tale.

Ink opens at the Duke of York Theatre, London, on 9 September. More details: almeida.co.uk

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear