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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For the first time in my life I have a sworn enemy – and I don’t even know her name

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

Last month, I made an enemy. I do not say this lightly, and I certainly don’t say it with pride, as a more aggressive male might. Throughout my life I have avoided confrontation with a scrupulousness that an unkind observer would call out-and-out cowardice. A waiter could bring the wrong order, cold and crawling with maggots, and in response to “How is everything?” I’d still manage a grin and a “lovely, thanks”.

On the Underground, I’m so wary of being a bad citizen that I often give up my seat to people who aren’t pregnant, aren’t significantly older than me, and in some cases are far better equipped to stand than I am. If there’s one thing I am not, it’s any sort of provocateur. And yet now this: a feud.

And I don’t even know my enemy’s name.

She was on a bike when I accidentally entered her life. I was pushing a buggy and I wandered – rashly, in her view – into her path. There’s little doubt that I was to blame: walking on the road while in charge of a minor is not something encouraged by the Highway Code. In my defence, it was a quiet, suburban street; the cyclist was the only vehicle of any kind; and I was half a street’s length away from physically colliding with her. It was the misjudgment of a sleep-deprived parent rather than an act of malice.

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

I was stung by what someone on The Apprentice might refer to as her negative feedback, and walked on with a redoubled sense of the parental inadequacy that is my default state even at the best of times.

A sad little incident, but a one-off, you would think. Only a week later, though, I was walking in a different part of town, this time without the toddler and engrossed in my phone. Again, I accept my culpability in crossing the road without paying due attention; again, I have to point out that it was only a “close shave” in the sense that meteorites are sometimes reported to have “narrowly missed crashing into the Earth” by 50,000 miles. It might have merited, at worst, a reproving ting of the bell. Instead came a familiar voice. “IT’S YOU AGAIN!” she yelled, wrathfully.

This time the shock brought a retort out of me, probably the harshest thing I have ever shouted at a stranger: “WHY ARE YOU SO UNPLEASANT?”

None of this is X-rated stuff, but it adds up to what I can only call a vendetta – something I never expected to pick up on the way to Waitrose. So I am writing this, as much as anything, in the spirit of rapprochement. I really believe that our third meeting, whenever it comes, can be a much happier affair. People can change. Who knows: maybe I’ll even be walking on the pavement

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood