Girl power

By , 2 September 2011

Debra Meiburg MW

As featured in the last issue of Longevity: With women now buying around 80 per cent of wine in developed countries, it’s curious that both winemaking and appreciation are still largely the preserve of men.  Why should this be so?

Regarding winemaking specifically, an obvious observation to make is that historically work in the vineyard and cellar was physically demanding and took up long, unsociable hours with the result that it was a male pursuit for largely practical reasons.

With gender roles less entrenched in recent times, women are making a big impact. Right now Rianie Strydom is probably the most high profile, with her being the only female of 44 members that make up the august Cape Winemakers Guild in addition to putting new Stellenbosch winery Haskell Vineyards on the map. Then there’s Kathy Jordan who works with husband Gary at Jordan Wine Estate in Stellenbosch, Nadia Newton Johnson with husband Gordon at Newton Johnson Vineyards near Hermanus and Cathy Marshall of own-label Catherine Marshall Wines to name a few.

As to why wine appreciation remains a largely a guy thing, perhaps this is because there’s an inherent sporting element to it. There is plenty of technical data to obsess over in a similar vein to sports stats, while the competitive factor in blind tasting (wanting to make a more accurate assessment of a wine than your mates) also appeals to the male outlook. When it comes to actual drinking, there’s a trophy hunting mentality that comes into play with a bloke more inclined to boast that he’s consumed a “100-pointer”.

Of course, social convention also comes into it, with basic wine knowledge something that is expected of the sophisticated male but less so of his female counterpart. As a result, men are compelled to make more of an effort when it comes to wine.  This is arguably an advantage for the modern woman who can operate in a social setting with far less hindrance, able to drink what she likes rather than what the situation demands.

Moreover, it is well documented that women tend to make very refined, acute tasters. Do they have an outright better sense of taste than men? The ability to taste is largely determined by the sense of smell and studies have shown that women of reproductive age are far better at identifying odours than men. Since nose structures, number of olfactory receptors and other physical characteristics associated with the ability to smell are the same for both men and women, it is thought that levels of the estrogen hormone play a decisive role in the olfactory superiority of young women.

Then again, what might really be at stake is simply differing abilities to understand and make sense of the basic sensations of smell and taste. As the glamorous Debra Meiburg MW from Hong Kong who visited South Africa earlier this year to judge the Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show observed to me, “Women grow up smelling wine smells – perfumes , lotions, flowers and herbs – and such have a more suitable memory bank when it comes to identifying and articulating what they are experiencing”.


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