Macho no more: meet Argentina’s first female winemaker and trailblazing vintner

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As Argentina’s first female winemaker, I’ve faced a lot of challenges. I’ve had to break the stereotype that women cannot make wine or manage a vineyard. Even after I graduated as the country’s first female enologist in 1981, I struggled to find a job. Eventually, I was hired to run the Sucesión Michel Torino winery. It was a huge responsibility to be a 20-something woman in an industry that, at the time, was run almost exclusively by men. 

My biggest goal then was to show people that I had talent and that I really knew what I was doing. It took a while until I gained the respect of my colleagues but as soon as I got that recognition, my job was much easier. One of my first breakthroughs came with the ability to redefine the Argentine Torrontés, an aromatic white wine. Experimenting with fermentation, I helped to transform it from an unknown, and somewhat bitter, variety into a classy, elegant drink with a world-famous reputation. It took a lot of innovation and was an achievement that earned me the title, “the Queen of Torrontés”.

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I had to prove that I knew what I was doing

After that, I returned to my home region of Mendoza and worked as a consultant for a while before taking a leap of faith with my very own winery. Winemaking is my lifetime passion and it was a dream come true to create the Susana Balbo Wines label in the heart of Mendoza. We have a continental climate here, with very low rainfall, beautiful sunny skies and mild temperatures. We also have mountains on our doorstep, including Aconcagua. At 6,961 metres above sea level, it’s the highest peak in both the Americas and the Southern Hemisphere. 

The high-altitude air, combined with strong sun exposure, makes Mendoza a marvellous place to grow vineyards, and it creates wine with real character. The flavour and colour of Mendoza wine is very approachable – and it has a beautiful capacity to age. 

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People in Mendoza know how to look after each other – and the environment

The people of Mendoza have a special quality, too. Us mountain people are quite shy and reserved, but we’re also compassionate: we have a strong sense of how to look after other people – and our environment. We take care with our limited water supplies and we look after our trees. It takes 20 years to grow a sizable tree here in Mendoza, compared to around five years elsewhere, because forests are in a constant battle with the Andean desert landscape. 

The combination of cordial people, pure air, clean skies – and of course, the quality of wine – makes Mendoza a great area to visit. It’s a place to relax and find solace in a beautiful climate. 

Over the years, I’ve developed my reputation as a pioneer of Argentina’s wine industry, experimenting with toasting level and fermentation vessels (such as concrete “egg fermenters” and oval-shaped barrels) to achieve different styles of wine. We even have an area dedicated to innovation at the Susana Balbo winery. It’s called “The Chapel” and it’s a micro-vinification room, reserved for the creation of our finest wines.

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Our strength as women comes from within

Throughout it all, my relationship with the Torrontés variety has continued. I first encountered Torrontés when I was just 23: it came into my life at just the right time to unlock my potential. It’s a difficult type of wine to work with and it’s unique to Argentina: it’s a native variety and we have the perfect climate in which to develop it.

I think Torrontés and I have a real partnership: we were made to grow up together and I’m delighted that Susana Balbo Signature barrel-fermented Torrontés is regarded as one of the best, most complex, wines of its kind. 

I’m so proud to have become Argentina’s first female winemaker. Since my adventure began more than 20 years ago, I’ve paved the way for other women in the industry. Mendoza’s wine scene now counts many women in its ranks.

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The only limits that we have as women are in our minds

To other trailblazers thinking of pushing boundaries like I have, I would say: the only limits that we have as women are in our minds. I grew up in a traditional family but I did not let that, or Argentina’s macho culture, prevent me from achieving the goals that I wanted. Over millions of years, women have been conditioned to think their only role is in looking after the kids or the home. 

Yet, there’s huge freedom to be had in recognising that society, and other people’s beliefs, cannot hold us back. Only we, as individuals, can do that. And once we realise that the only barriers we face are in our minds, the sky’s the limit. We can empower ourselves. Our strength as women comes from within.

Mendoza winemaker Susana Balbo is one of the wine industry’s most renowned figures. You can visit her’s winery on Flash Pack’s adventure to Argentina.

Got a story or adventure that could inspire a solo traveller like you? Tag @flashpack on social or email [email protected] to be featured.

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