Grower stories

Three winemakers to watch

First among equals: Inspiring stories from three groundbreaking women winemakers

The horreo, traditional Galician granite grain store, the largest in the region
The horreo, traditional Galician granite grain store, the largest in the region

We shine a light on three winemakers who have come to wine from very different backgrounds to discover more about their stories and what it is that drives them to excellence. Vicky Mareque of Pazo Señorans on taking albariño to even greater heights; Laura Vacca Brunelli on coaxing flavour out of sangiovese vine by vine in Montalcino, and Rita Marques on her latest aptly named project, Invincible in the Douro. The increasing ranks of fantastic female wine professionals shouldn’t have to wait for International Women’s Day or such like to have their stories told, we believe!

Vicky Mareque, on taking albariño to even greater heights

Vicky is the second generation in charge at Pazo Señorans in the Rías Baixas on Spain’s northwest coast. She has taken over the running of the business from her mother Marisol Bueno who set up the wine estate with her husband, Javier Mareque.

Vicky Mareque

Despite the fact that their first vintage was only in 1989, the Mareque Bueno family have been important players in getting this now world-famous wine the recognition it deserves. Marisol was instrumental in creating the Rías Baixas denominación and has been its president for 25 years. No surprise then that our buyer Pierre Mansour chose to work with the winery that spearheaded the Rías Baixas name for our Exhibition Albariño.

As her mother continues this groundbreaking work for the region, Vicky has taken up the reins managing the family wine estate. After studying business administration and completing an MBA, Vicky worked as a buyer for a large grocery retailer before joining the team at Pazo Señorans 15 years ago. She says her wine training has largely been with the team at Señorans, though she has studied viticulture and vinification too. She was in the middle of taking her WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust) exams when Covid hit.

Though Vicky is one of four siblings, she is the only one to go into the wine side. Her brothers and sister have followed their father into healthcare; two are dentists and one a maxilo-facial surgeon. For Vicky though, there was never any question about following in her mother’s footsteps and if you’ve ever met Vicky at one of our tastings, you’ll know what a great ambassador of her family’s wines and the Rías Baixas region she is.

Though the family’s first vintage was in 1989, the estate has a much longer history. The manorial house or ‘pazo’ dates back to the 16th century with one of the largest ancient horreo (granite grain storage chambers typical of Galicia) in its grounds. Some vineyards are more than 50 years old and the family have always picked and vinified their vineyard plots separately, so key when it comes to realising their philosophy of making wine that reflects where it comes from and is the best quality it can be.

An important point of difference here too is that the family (and winemaker Ana Quintela who has been there since the beginning) want to prove that albariño is a grape that can age. This they have more than achieved with their single-vineyard Pazo Señorans Selección de Añada which is kept on its lees for more than 30 months and in bottle for a further year before release. The wine was originally made for the family’s own consumption but now has a world-wide reputation. Vicky says they are keen to experiment more with such ‘firsts’ for their region, to show what the albariño grape is capable of, as well as with their range of spirits, distilled on the estate in wood-fired copper stills.

Asked how Covid has affected them, Vicky says that (apart from stopping her complete her WSET exams!) it was crazily busy: ‘It was a very intense time as vines don´t understand about Covid, the jobs had to get done, we never stopped working.’

Vines are traditionally grown on high trellises in this cool, damp part of northwest Spain
Vines are traditionally grown on high trellises in this cool, damp part of northwest Spain

More than anything, Vicky is missing seeing people, ‘I enjoy sharing our love for Pazo Señorans and I’m missing travelling and welcoming people to the winery.’ From what Vicky told me, there’s a special welcome on the doormat at Pazo Señorans for Wine Society members, when we are able to travel freely once again.

While having three women leading the way at this estate may seem unusual in what is traditionally viewed as a male-dominated industry,Vicky says that women are actually quite prominent players in the Rías Baixas region now. Perhaps that is also down to the influence of her mother who clearly has been a trailblazer as head of the denominación. Vicky is clearly enormously proud of her mother but, you get the impression, equally capable of taking the family’s albariño wines to even greater heights.

Laura Vacca Brunelli on coaxing flavour from her vines in Montalcino and intuitive winemaking

Laura came to Tuscany as a student and fell in love with Gianni Brunelli, setting up their famous Siena restaurant (Osteria della Logge) together before embarking on making wine. Sadly, Gianni died in 2008, leaving Laura to continue renovating their ancient farmhouse, building a new winery and carrying on the winemaking with flair and passion.

Laura with Sebastian Payne MW, former buyer for Italy
Laura with Sebastian Payne MW, former buyer for Italy

We’ve written about the extraordinary story behind the Gianni Brunelli estate before (find out more here), but what has been less documented is the natural, almost intuitive brilliance Laura brings to making her wines.

As with all great wines, it starts in the vineyards. Laura is fortunate to live among hers which are splendidly sited overlooking the surrounding Tuscan hills and benefiting from several different aspects too. It’s this variety of microclimates that gives nuance to the wines and Laura knows each patch intimately, as she explains:

‘Our vineyards all have different characteristics in terms of soils, exposition, altitude and microclimate. The estate has two areas of production, Podernovone and Le Chiuse. Podernovone comprises four different vineyards: Olmo, which is southwest facing; Oliva, which is south facing; Quercia, facing west and Gelso, which faces northeast. Le Chiuse has two vineyards with expositions to the north and northwest.’

‘For me the work in the vineyards is the essence of my concept on how to make wine. I am in the vineyards as much as possible, as well as the surrounding olive groves, gardens and woods. I know my vines very well. I observe them continuously and I try to understand what they need.’

The view from Vigna Oliva
The view from Vigna Oliva

Laura eschews the use of chemicals but has decided not to pursue organic certification:

‘We use organic fertilizers, plant by plant, and only when we see they need it. We also conduct soil analyses regularly. Respect is my philosophy for life and the fundamental base of all of our work, for people and the environment. We have a duty to protect and maintain everything for the next generation. We do not use chemicals; we use solar energy and my house which is on the estate was restored using eco-friendly materials. I am organic but not certified by choice because I do not wish to enter into the rigmarole of Italian bureaucracy!’

With typical humility, Laura is keen to point out that, although she is extremely hands on throughout every stage of the process, she has a longstanding team that helps her: Adriano who supervises everything and looks after the cellars and vineyards, helped by six full-time staff. They call in further help when extra work is in the vineyard and, of course, at harvest.

Very sociable and warm hearted, Laura also seems to have a network of friends that she and Gianni built up over the years who muck in too. They pulled together to support Laura when she needed help to complete the restoration of the farmhouse and build the new winery after Gianni died. When I visited some years ago with then buyer Sebastian Payne MW, friends and Laura’s elderly mother who had travelled over from Sardinia were busy in the kitchen preparing fresh pasta for our dinner.

Current buyer for Italy Sarah Knowles MW and Sebastian both comment on the blending sessions carried out in Laura’s brand new but simply and sympathetically built cellars. Because Laura has followed the grapes through every stage of production she seems to have an instinctive way of knowing which wines will go into her Rosso wine and which will make it into the grander Brunello wines. She believes in the long ageing of wine in traditional Slavonian oak barrels, using different sizes (10hl, 21hl, 25hl and 30hl) and different ages chosen to suit each parcel of wine. In respect of oak ageing, Laura calls herself ‘a traditionalist’ and says that she doesn’t really like to dwell too much on how the oak affects the wine, saying while it is important, it is just one of many elements.

Laura has always been hands on treating each vine as an individual
Laura has always been hands on treating each vine as an individual

When quizzed on where her intuition comes from, Laura says that while she does have a background in biology, it is her, ‘love of nature and respect for the cycles of production’ which is key. She also points out that she has always been hands on, helping her husband Gianni and then fully immersing herself in carrying on his passionate work after he passed away.

Like Vicky, during the pandemic Laura has also keenly felt ‘the lack of human relationships’ and found the past year really tough. A keen yoga practioner, Laura says that this has helped her maintain ‘lucidity and presence’. If you have ever tried her wines, you’d say that lucidity and presence seem magically to be found in these too.

Rita Marques on her new project making ‘Invincible’ wines in the Douro

I met Rita some years back with buyer Jo Locke MW. One of Portugal’s new generation of young winemakers, she made an impression on us with her ambition and dynamic outlook. Though she comes from a family of grape growers, she is the first winemaker. Never one to stay still she has entered into a new side project with South African Marc Kent.

Rita Marques

As if working vintages on the other side of the world in South Africa and bringing up a family weren’t enough, Rita has now also begun a new venture back in her native Douro with Boekenhoutskloof’s Marc Kent – Companhia de Vinhos Invencίvel, or Invincible, as it says on the labels!

As Rita says herself, she doesn’t like to get bored! Like many young winemakers of her generation, Rita has had experience making wine abroad, including in New Zealand and the Cape. Rita’s family are all engineers; while she started out on that path too, she realised that actually she wanted to make something of her family’s vineyards, ‘add value rather than leaving the grapes at the co-op door.’ She has returned to the Cape regularly to carry out the vintage there meeting Marc in 2014 and working with him ever since. They had always dreamed of setting up something together in Portugal but had to wait until the timing was right. ‘We get on really well,’says Rita ‘and our skills really complement each other. I am more of a technician and risk-averse. He is the opposite!’ Marc loves the Douro and Rita says he has totally embraced the culture and lifestyle, and she feels the same about the Cape, ‘the people are cool and the lifestyle really appealing.’ I wondered whether she felt there were any differences to the way she was treated in both countries as a female winemaker: ‘The cliché of being in a man’s world has never resonated with me; I think it is from another era,’ she says.

When it comes to the philosophy behind the Invincible wines Rita says that a lot of it is about having fun blending wines and a break from the ‘day job’. The name Invincible is just one of the company’s brands with a bit of a play on the word ‘vin’. Some of the grapes come from the family’s vineyards which tend to be older vines in higher-altitude sites with cool aspects, bringing freshness to the wines. They also buy in grapes from across the Douro Superior for these wines. Rita has always said her aim is to make Douro table wines more accessible and she’s passionate about working with old vines. She says that while they’re having fun with these wines and they are trying not to overthink the process, neverthless the aim is to develop a house style rather than be focused on expressing the characteristics of the vintage.

Marc & Rita

So far there are just two Douro wines under the Invincible label, a red and a white, rather cleverly called ‘Número Dois’ (number two) which, Rita explains, ‘leaves us open to move up and down the quality scale.’ They have also launched a Vinho Verde and are looking at other opportunities, but it’s the Douro that will remain the focus.

I wonder how Rita manages to juggle all the different projects she’s involved in. She says she has a lot of support from her family and a great team back at the Conceito winery and that Invincible is a small project with just the two of them, adding, ‘it’s stimulating to work on new and different projects.’ You get the sense that we are going to see plenty more from Rita in the future.



Joanna Goodman

Senior Editor

Joanna Goodman

Part of our Marketing Team for over 30 years, Jo has been editor of Society News for much of that time as well as contributing to our many other communications.

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