Cellier des Demoiselles
Winemaking led and strengthened by local women. Forward thinking since the middle-ages.
Wednesday 13 October 2021
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The women-led history of Cellier des Demoiselles stretches back to the middle ages. In the age of knights in shining armour charging into battle, banners raised, nuns ran the Château, teaching children from the nearby villages and taking care of the vines.
In 1914, a different battle took place, and once again women were relied on to keep and protect Demoiselles’ vines. Just before WWI broke out, the winery had become France’s first winemaking cooperative, and when every man was conscripted to fight in the trenches, local women took their place in the fields.
Now the Cellier des Demoiselles is mainly run by families, is still a co-op, and has a 50/50 gender split in its management team. Director Anaël Payrou is proud of his diverse team of 58 viticulturalists within the cooperative, and explains that with these families, older winemakers are bringing in newer generations all the time.
“But what doesn’t change is their commitment to the grapes and the land — and ours too,” he says. “The quality of the grapes, and of the terroir, is more important than anything else we might try to do with the wine using technology or anything else.”
The terroir of Cellier des Demoiselles is wide-ranging, thanks to the number of different winemaking families within the co-op. Wines made here come from 10 different types of clay-limestone soil, on flat plains, plateaus and from the valleys overlooked by the Black Mountains and the Pyrenees. The weather here is special too, and has a huge influence on the quality of the wine produced in the region. The Mistral winds become “La Tramontane”, blowing cold and dry from the north and over the vineyards out to the Mediterranean sea, protecting the grapes here from mildew and mould — but the Med can bring different climates, sending heavy frosts and even hail that can wipe out whole harvests in bad years.
But that’s the beauty of a cooperative: makers can support each other during tough times and profit from each other’s successes.
“The profit goes back to the growers,” explains Anaël, “not the chateau. There’s no hierarchy and there is one voice. It’s a social economy — you are working together, a team, and with that there is moral support, support for banking, even with the law. For example, one of the winemakers broke his leg a few seasons ago. Everyone helped to pull in his harvest.
“I think this democratic way of working is very modern.”
All along the Demoiselles’ appellation, lots of older grapes are grown from very old Carignan and Grenache vineyards. New hybrids and the reintroduction of indigenous varieties are bringing new life into the area too, and many winemakers in the co-op are keen to try blends of old and new, and to look to different varieties. Not many solo winemakers have the support network behind them to enable them to experiment in this way.
“We want to put together the wisdom and experience of the older viticulturalists with the new energy of younger winemakers,” Anaël says. “We want to protect the future of this region’s winemaking.”
The average vineyard for a co-op member at Demoiselles is around two hectares, and the appellation comprises of around 400 hectares in total. It’s not a huge space, but within that area a lot of different styles are produced.
Not only that, but the chateau does what it can to socially support the region too, understanding that it has a uniquely vital role in the local community, not only for employment but also as a means for local people to build their own businesses.
“We’re socially active in our village,” says Anaël. “There are only 700 people living here and our nearest city is around 20km away. We support local artisans in our boutique, selling their bread, olives, tapenade and so on, alongside our wines.”
They’re keen on protecting the environment too, adding new schemes all the time to incrementally improve their eco-consciousness every harvest, every season. Currently the whole cooperative is looking into ways to save and conserve energy, using solar panels, improving insulation, reducing waste and even recycling corks for their latest vintages.
“We believe that respecting our surroundings — and the weather — is more important than technology. It’s our way of life. We don’t need to add much more. What nature gives to us to start with is already good enough.”
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