Anson: Meeting a female pioneer of the Médoc
Jane Anson meets Jenny Dobson, the New Zealander considered to have been one of the first female cellar masters in the Médoc and who was subsequently nicknamed the ‘queen of red wine blending’ for her consultant winemaking work in her home country.
The woman reputed to have been the first female cellar master in the Médoc, you may not be entirely surprised to learn, was not French, and neither was the owner of the château that hired her.
Instead Jenny Dobson, who joined Château Sénéjac in the early 1980s fresh from working with Steven Spurrier at the Académie du Vin in Paris, was originally from New Zealand’s South Island.
And Sénéjac at the time was owned by the American de Guigne family (okay, the family itself is French but its owner from 1976 until 1999 was Charles de Guigne, who was born in San Francisco in 1939 and died in 2017 in California). De Guigne had moved to France in 1976 to take over the family estate in Le Pian Médoc, and hired Dobson first as a cellar hand, and then when the former cellar master became ill, encouraged her to take over.
‘Women cellar masters remain rare in Bordeaux.’
‘There was no one else at the estate,’ Dobson told me a few weeks ago, as we chatted next to one of the fishing huts – this one owned by Léoville Barton – that line the Garonne river. ‘Charles was back in the States and the choice was to step up or simply find another job. So I stepped up’.
Women cellar masters remain rare in Bordeaux, but they are there if you look.
Sophie Horstmann was cellar master at Château Corbin in St-Emilion for the past few years although she has now left, while Margaux Reeder fulfils the role at Château Bastor-Lamontagne in Sauternes (as does most famously Sandrine Garbay at Yquem).
Fanny Landreau is at Château Laujac in the Médoc, Manon Deville at Château de la Rivière in Fronsac and Sophie Burguet at Château de Rouillac in Pessac-Léognan.
Most began as cellar hands and worked their way up, and most work as vineyard manager or winemaker at the same time.
‘Being a cellar master is a hugely physical job, but you just get on with it,’ says Dobson.
‘As a woman you use your body differently perhaps – sort of roll the barrels up your legs, bending your knees to support them rather than simply hoisting them up directly.
‘It’s just a different way of approaching things but get you the job done just the same, and I still work in the same way now, 30 years on. I couldn’t really tell you what other cellar masters thought of me when I started in Bordeaux,’ she adds. ‘I was working so hard that I didn’t really socialise with them. I just wanted to make good wine’.
Dobson had just spent the afternoon at Sénéjac for the first time since leaving in 1995 after 13 years in the role. She returns as a much-lauded winemaker who has been described as the ‘queen of red wine blending’ by the New Zealand Herald.
She has worked as chief winemaker at TeAwa Estate in Hawkes Bay, as well as consultant for Sacred Hill, Unison Vineyard, William Murdoch Wines and others in Hawke’s Bay, most usually in Gimblett Gravels.
Right now she is also launching her own new range of wines, and one of her first is from the white Italian wine grape Fiano, something that should be of interest to the many Bordelais who told me they remember her excellent 100% Sémillon wine at Sénéjac.
Dobson got her start studying chemistry at Otago University, but found the laboratory work uninspiring and so swapped into food science.
‘There were no university courses for wine in New Zealand in the early 1970s,’ she says. ‘There was just very little wine being made in the country at that point’.
There were no vineyards around her childhood home, but her parents drank wine, which was relatively unusual at the time and which caught her attention (‘not the alcohol but the aromas’ she is quick to point out).
Heading over to England and then France, her first job in wine was with Jacques Seysses at Domaine Dujac in Burgundy and then with Spurrier in Paris, helping to run the Académie du Vin wine school, which by that point was holding classes daily and teaching hundreds of students per week.
‘Jacques Seysses’ father was Parisian,’ says Dobson, ‘and had started a cellar for his son when he was born. We used to drink some amazing bottles while I was working there, and when I got to Paris the diversity of wines and my exposure to them continued at the Acadeémie du Vin.
‘I learnt so much from Steven’s knowledge for wine, but also his passion for sharing good bottles with those around him. But after two years at the Académie du Vin, I wanted to get back into the vineyards. I’d been in Burgundy, so when the opportunity came up to go to Bordeaux, I took it.’
Her first Bordeaux vintage, as luck would have it, was the 1982, first at Château Raoul in the Graves and then from 1983 at Sénéjac.
‘I oversaw a new cellar, and a move into more modern winemaking. The years 1988, 1989 and 1990 were just brilliant – the weather and the wines were great, and I was loving my job. There was no separation between cellar master and winemaker at Sénéjac, and I got to do everything. It was a brilliant opportunity.’
She left Bordeaux after having three children with her British négociant husband Charles, heading first to Australia before moving back to New Zealand.
‘At first we kept our things in storage in Bordeaux, just in case we wanted to move back. But in the end I felt I had reached about as far as I could go as in Bordeaux.
‘Not as a woman. The more difficult thing to overcome for me in terms of acceptance was probably being a foreigner. I would always have been on the outside to a certain extent. But what I learnt there has helped me for the rest of my career.’