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.”