Fighting for women's equality, promoting fair trade and making some of Argentina's most stunning wines – it's all in a day's work for wine legend Susana Balbo. We meet her to talk about becoming the first woman in Argentina to receive a degree in oenology, her extraordinary environmental and social work and why the soaring peaks of Mendoza make the world's best malbec.
You graduated with a degree in oenology in 1981 – what was it that made you get into wine in the first place?
‘I didn’t! It was all by chance. I wanted to study nuclear physics but at that time (in 1976 when I was going to go to college) Argentina had a coup d’état which led to a dangerous political situation, and as a result, my parents were very reluctant to let me leave Mendoza to study, especially to study something so unconventional. However, studying oenology was something they knew about, so I was allowed to do this instead. I was lucky to have teachers who were very talented and passionate and it was here that I fell in love with the biology of winemaking.
‘I learn something new every day – winemaking is a science: we are making art against a background of science. In some winemaking countries, especially across the new world, you aren’t required to have a background in science to make wine. But to me science is what gives consistency to your grapes and consistency of quality in your wine – then the art is in the winemaking itself.’
You’ve taken huge steps to ensure your winery is doing good both environmentally and socially by signing up to the Global Compact of United Nations – is it your love of and background in science that’s driven this?
No, not really! The reasons we have signed up to the GCUN is down to things I’ve seen as a regular employee in Argentina; there were a lot of injustices towards women and children, including violence. I believe so strongly that we must fight against corruption (which is still a big problem in Argentina), fight against child labour and fight for equal human rights for women and children. We believe in fair trade and the defence of women’s equal rights, and the principle that employees must be paid fairly.
As a pioneer in your field you must get asked a lot about being a woman in wine – do you ever get tired of that and can you see a time when gender won’t be an issue at all?
When I started out gender was a huge issue. I had to work much harder than men to get taken seriously, and I was the first woman to get an oenology degree and start her own winery. But today, women have a lot more options, and increasing numbers of women are involved in all areas of vineyard management. It’s a very good thing for the industry because women are great winemakers; they have a more holistic approach and a really know how to get the best from the vines and the grapes.
You’ve become known for your single-vineyard wines that emphasise purity and elegance over ‘fruit-bomb’ styles. Does Argentina’s terroir lend itself especially well to these kinds of wines?
Yes, it’s definitely the terroir. We have a very unusual and special terroir in Argentina, because the earth here is from the ‘fourth age’, not the third, which means we have new soils and different compositions. The continental climate is another factor, as is the altitude. Consider that Mendoza has the second highest peak in the world (Aconcagua) and is against the backdrop of the Andes it gives you an idea how high it is. Every season here is defined – spring is spring and winter is winter, with extreme weather. You will have lovely sunny days and very cold ones. Every grape comes with its own identity but every region does too. You can try a malbec from ten different vineyards and they’ll taste completely different from each other.
Malbec is probably Argentina’s biggest success story, but do you think there are native Argentine grapes that could become popular worldwide?
Well, there’s torrontés of course, but also non-native grapes such as cabernet sauvignon. Argentina’s cabernet sauvignon is just outstanding but for some reason people aren’t paying much attention yet! But they will with time – Argentina’s wine production is currently very focused on the domestic market. We only export 25% of production. But as that increases the popularity of our wine will start to get international recognition.
And finally, describe your ideal wine
Well that’s a very difficult question; wine is amazing because you need a different one for every different mood or occasion! There is nothing else quite like it. For example in the depths of winter, if you feel sad you may drink a rich, sweet red with some chocolate to spoil yourself. On a summer’s day you’ll drink a glass of sparkling wine – it’s all down to situation and mood. Whether it’s a family occasion, an everyday situation or a romantic one, what you like will vary with your mood in that particular moment. That’s what’s so wonderful!
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