With this year’s International Women’s Day, the spotlight naturally shines on women in wine. Until the late 1970’s, in the U.S. women primarily held technical laboratory roles and French women typically performed sales paperwork at wineries. Today women work professionally in every imaginable role such as winery owners, wholesale and retail wine distributors, restaurant sommeliers, wine media and wine marketing. But some of the most intriguing stories come from women at the “ground” level, growing grapes and producing wine.
Consider Sylvie Esmonin in Burgundy, France. She enjoyed advantages as a member of a multi-generational grape growing family. But success in her own right required tenacious commitment to pioneering paths in male dominated times. Esmonin is no revolutionary, yet she quietly personifies the International Women’s Day theme of #BeBoldForChange.
Sylvie and her sister grew up in Gevrey-Chambertin at the domaine headed by her father, Michel Esmonin. The family vineyards include the famed Gevrey-Chambertin, Clos Saint-Jacques premier cru located literally outside the back door. The gently sloping vineyard has limestone rich soils, perfect sun exposure and a sheltered location. Its a terroir capable of yielding some of Burgundy’s best fruit. Yet, like many of his generation, Michel initially sold grapes in bulk to négociants.
It was never a foregone plan for Sylvie to work full time at the family domaine. She trained initially as an engineer in agronomy and industrial food production. But after early unhappy corporate internships, she refocused on chemistry and viticulture studies.
In the mid-1980’s she worked as an independent consulting oenologist before accepting her father’s invitation to handle the domaine’s administrative duties and sales. She agreed to return only if the domaine committed to the riskier path of producing, bottling and selling its own wines. She also led efforts to depart from systematically spraying the vines with chemical fertilizers, pesticides and fungicides.
Over the next decade the domaine’s wines earned a sterling international reputation which led to success just as Burgundy sales expanded globally. Eventually Sylvie took the domaine’s helm in 1998 with Michel Esmonin remaining active in the vineyards. Today as a hard-working, hands-on vigneronne, the affable Sylvie greets visitors in unpretentious work clothes and boots, aided by her energetic dog, Justy.
Clearly Sylvie believes wine should have personality and give great pleasure. Her red Burgundies have intoxicating floral and red fruit aromas, ripe, pure fruit with ample concentration, fresh acidity and elegant, bold tannins. Achieving such charming, gorgeous balance requires confident savoir-faire both in the vineyards and the cellar. Part of the trick lies in fermenting whole grape clusters with stems for most of Sylvie’s red wines. Its a technique hinging on attentive, meticulous manual work with vigorous vines in healthy, living soils. A little cooperation from Mother Nature also helps!
During a visit to the domaine to taste the 2015 and 2014 wines, a bottle served blind at the end of the visit proves the point perfectly. The wine had ripe red fruit aromas, moderate concentration and a pleasant fruity finish with resolved tannins.
Surprisingly it was the 2004 Domaine Sylvie Esmonin, Gevrey-Chambertin, Clos Saint-Jacques 1er cru. The 2004 vintage is, of course, notoriously difficult, with many hard, unripe wines with unpleasant “greenness.” Not this wine. Why? Sylvie took a risk by harvesting very late in 2004 to coax the maximum ripeness from Mother Nature. Esmonin also sorted with a table de tri prior to fermentation. Her team’s hard work paid off as shown in a marvelous wine tasted 12 years later.
Currently in the American market, available wines include the juicy 2013 Domaine Sylvie Esmonin, Bourgogne Rouge “Cuvée Sylvie” (around $35), the lovely 2013 Domaine Sylvie Esmonin, Gevrey-Chambertin (around $55) and the cellar worthy 2013 Domaine Sylvie Esmonin, Gevrey-Chambertine, Clos Saint-Jacques 1er Cru (around $135).
In coming months look for the following wines in the U.S. The notes are based on tasting at the cellars in Gevrey-Chambertin in October, 2016:
2014 Sylvie Esmonin, Gevrey-Chambertin “Vieilles Vignes”: Spicy dark fruit aromas, concentrated, juicy red and dark fruit, very fresh, firm tannins. Very agreeable but will require minimum of five years cellar aging.
2014 Sylvie Esmonin, Gevrey-Chambertin, Clos Saint-Jacques 1er cru: Very fresh red fruit aromas with a touch of exotic black liquorices. Full, concentrated ripe fruit. Terrific freshness. Fine, firm tannins, Beautifully balanced. Should age gracefully for 10 to 15 years easily.
2015 Sylvie Esmonin, Bourgogne Rouge “Cuvée Sylvie”: Ripe red fruit and floral notes. Perfectly balanced and ripe. Light concentration but fresh and delicious. Made from 100% destemmed fruit. Will drink well now and over the next five years or so.
2015 Sylvie Esmonin, Côte de Nuits–Villages: Made from vines in nearby Brochon. Black fruit and spice aromas. Dark red fruit on the palate. Good freshness and firm. persistent tannins. Made partially with whole bunches. Needs a few years of cellar aging to resolve completely.
2015 Sylvie Esmonin, Gevrey-Chambertin: Clean, pure red fruit aromas with direct appeal. Appealing, pure ripe red fruit on the palate with moderate concentration. Lovely freshness and energy with smooth, elegant tannins. Long finish.Terrific wine that will age nicely.
2015 Sylvie Esmonin, Gevrey-Chambertin, Clos Saint-Jacques 1er cru: A big, rich wine packed with enticing dark raspberry fruit and spice aromas. Rich, concentrated flavors balanced with terrific energy and fine tannins. Terrific refinement. A wine of purity and pleasure meant for long aging.