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LUDON-MEDOC, BORDEAUX, France -- In wine as in life, you have to know the rules to break the rules. And when you're a woman winemaker, stomping grapes against the big boys in Bordeaux's rigidly controlled wine industry, it's good to have some like-minded females on your side. In the Haut-Medoc, where growing grapes is like growing diamonds, four femmes du vin -- Martine Cazeneuve, Armelle Falcy-Cruse, Marie-Laure Lurton and Florence Lafrage -- are sisters doing it for themselves.
As harvest time nears, Martine Cazeneuve starts every day by eating grapes, and invites her guests to do the same. That's why I'm standing in Chateau Paloumey's 64-hectare vineyard on a brilliant morning in early October, chewing a single, succulent specimen of merlot. The hands-on tour is a gambit of Martine and her colleagues, who've branded themselves as Les Medocaines. In a day trip to Paloumey and the neighboring Chateau du Taillan, I'm getting a chance to "see wine-making from backstage," as Martine puts it.
Martine assembles our group of visitors on the edge of a vineyard fat with clusters of merlot grapes, dark globes that nearly brush the pebbley gray soil. Tall, slim and serious, with a chic scarf and horn-rimmed glasses, she holds a grape aloft.
"Bite!" she commands, demonstrating precisely. "The skin should be not too strong. It should taste sweet. Look at the seeds -- they should not be green." After 20 years of experience, Martine relies on her taste buds to set the vendange schedule. "Yesterday, I taste all parcels of merlot to find ones to harvest," she explains. Today, she arms us with shears and plastic baskets and points us down the orderly rows of vines. I quickly discover there's no easy posture for this task, which requires some ungainly moves: a deep-knee bend, a duck waddle or a stooped side step. In 10 minutes I fill my basket and dump it onto a conveyor. After a de-stemmer machine rinses and separates the grapes, our crew gathers alongside the rollers, removing crushed grapes and bits of leaves. The grapes vanish into a huge plastic hose, en route to 8,000-liter stainless steel holding tanks inside. The journey into wine begins.
Along the western bank of Garonne River a few miles from the city of Bordeaux, the Medoc has a 2,000-year history of viticulture. The British called its remarkable red wines claret, and imported it for centuries.
But these days, the U.K. imports more wine from Australia than from France. A huge drop in international exports is now called the "wine crisis," and has the French wine industry wringing its hands. It has also encroached on the power of the formidable negotiants -- the Bordeaux wine merchants who act as middlemen between the estates and retail buyers, doing everything from buying and blending to aging and bottling wines. Estates that formerly sold all of their output to the merchants are now testing their independence. It's a whole new ballgame, giving rise to wine tourism, web sites and Facebook pages for venerable chateaux.
"Americans have heard of the big names. We must show that family-owned properties can compare," says Armelle.
In the fall, the Medocaines host harvesting sessions; in the winter, wine-blending workshops; and in spring and summer, how-to classes on pairing wines with cheese in summers. "It is not a lesson," insists Martine. "Wine tasting is a part of our culture. We want people all over the world to understand it." Through hits and misses -- the latter including a stab at a grape-blossom fragrance -- the five-year-old effort has been a success, the women agree. Two thousand visitors toured the estates last year, and direct sales from their estates have nearly doubled.
We've moved from the vineyard into the Paloumey tasting room, and Martine is pouring a bottle of Chateau Paloumey Cru Bourgeois 2004, one of six estate-bottled labels. The blend, 60:40 ratio of cabernet sauvignon and merlot with a dash of cabernet franc, tastes bright and fruity. Martine calls it "elegant, with finesse," and critics agree; Britain's Decanter Magazine listed the 2009 version among its "100 best value Bordeaux" in its November issue.
Recognition for female winemakers has been hard won in Bordeaux. "To establish oneself in Bordeaux is difficult," Armelle tells me later, over lunch at her 18th-century family home, Chateau du Taillan. "It's very hard to buy a vineyard."
Martine Cazeneuve did just that, purchasing a neglected estate in 1990. The former economics teacher plunged into a highly stratified system that had changed little since 1855, when Bordeaux first created its classification system, or Grands Crus Classes. It's a system that parses wines, estates and regions in such minute detail that they can be analyzed and argued at length (an American analogy might be baseball statistics). A friendly idea -- like one the Medocaines suggested in 2005 -- was often greeted with skepticism.
"When we proposed an open house, the men could have joined us then. They didn't believe. Now, they copy!" laughs Armelle.
Armelle's family, the Cruses, have deep roots in the Medoc; their wedding-cake chateau is a historic landmark that's been home to five generations. The current generation includes five daughters. If one of them hadn't taken charge, the chateau might have been sold. Middle daughter Armelle stepped up, training in California and returning with a new perspective.
"I spent six months in Napa with Wilson Daniels, a broker there. When I came back, I told my father: to keep the chateau in the family, we have to promote ourselves, like California," she recalls. While Armelle and her husband lavished attention on their vines -- Chateau du Taillan was elevated to cru Bourgeois superieur status as of 2001 -- they issued an open invitation to visitors. The estate sells its wines and other items in a refurbished stable, and rents out its 15th-century cellars, fitted with chandeliers and marble fireplaces, for private parties. "I'm open to everything," Armelle declares.
She sends me away with a sample of Chateau du Taillan's La Dame Blanche, a light sauvignon-semillon blend designed as an aperitif. The presentation is an innovation that might be anathema to wine purists: a slim, 10-deciliter bottle with -- gasp! -- a screwtop cap. It's called a WIT, for wine in tube, and neatly sidesteps the limits on carrying liquids on aircraft. International visitors love it; local traditionalists, not so much. "In Bordeaux, [people are] shocked to see!" claims Martine. Her partner Armelle shrugs, with Gallic amusement.
"We are pee-o-neers," she says proudly.
Visit lesmedocaines.com for details on workshops and prices (from 45 to 80 euros including transportation from the tourist office, bordeaux-tourisme.com).
Christine H. O'Toole: email@example.com .