As a wine lover, I’m always on the lookout for interesting wines to taste and match with cuisine. As a wine writer, I’m always on the prowl for interesting wine stories to tell. Today, I’ve got both to share with you.
The story and the wines come from Italy and the Tuscan winery, Avignonesi. I’ve purchased and enjoyed Avignonesi’s wines for more than a quarter century. Avignonesi makes a wide range of wines, but it’s perhaps most famous for its Vino Nobile di Montepulcianos and Super Tuscan bottling, Desiderio.
I’ll have more on the wines of Avignonesi in a moment, but first, let me share a bit of its story, which I find fascinating. It’s the story and combination of a female owner, Virginie Saverys, and a female winemaker, Ashleigh Seymour, both outsiders to Tuscany.
Saverys, a lawyer by trade, was born in Ghent, Belgium, into a family that “almost exclusively drank the wines of Bordeaux.” She told me her father was going to purchase a winery in Bordeaux that Saverys and her partner would run. That purchase never happened, but when an investment opportunity in Avignonesi came up less than a decade later, she lept at the chance.
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“I saw it as a real estate investment, which was not very present in my assets, in the most beautiful part of the world. By 2009, I owned the whole winery and had to start taking charge. Quite an adventure!” Saverys said.
It’s also been quite the adventure for Seymour, a native of Melbourne, Australia, who’s been a winemaker at Avignonesi since 2010, when she was first hired to assist with that vintage.
“I always knew I wanted to study something science-based but not really end up closed in a laboratory wearing a lab coat every day. So when a friend suggested studying winemaking, the idea stuck. After school and a year backpacking around Europe, I moved to Adelaide to begin my wine education,” Seymour reflected.
From that first vintage, Seymour and Saverys developed a strong bond. In fact, Seymour told me she draws quite a bit of inspiration from Saverys. It’s clear both the winemaker and winery owner are strong, talented and independent women.
Clearly, there are plenty of women in the wine business, perhaps more on the winemaking side than in the boardroom. But I was curious to know what, if any, special challenges there might be for two women, both from foreign countries, making a go of it in one of the most famous and historic wine regions in the world.
Saverys says she doesn’t see it as a problem. “Well, honestly, even though Italian men have the reputation of being machos, in the wine business, it seems to be different. There are a great deal of women in the wine business and they are well respected. I have been easily accepted here in Montepulciano. They probably made more comments about my lack of experience until we started coming out with wines produced under my direction,” she stated.
For her part, Seymour tries to stay focused on the job of making the best, terroir-driven wines she can, hoping the rest will take care of itself.
“There is an incredible history and tradition to respect whilst at the same time striving to improve quality and the overall reputation of both the winery and the region. Of course, it’s not always easy but I try not to dwell on such things and just get on with the job at hand. Apparently women are better at tasting wine, so I suppose that evens things out a little!” she said.
I’m no expert on business, so I have no idea how Avignonesi is doing financially under Saverys’ stewardship. But, I do know a thing or two about Italian wines, and under Seymour, Avignonesi’s wines are better than I remember, and I remember them fondly.
Based in Montepulciano, it’s no surprise that Avignonesi’s Vino Nobile di Montepulciano offerings are stellar. Its standard Vino Nobile is one of the most consistently excellent in the region, and its Grandi Annate, a selection of the very best grapes from the finest vineyards, may just be the top bottling of the entire appellation.
The Desiderio, a blend of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, is a terrific example of a Super Tuscan expression. And, if you’re a fan of Vin Santo, that decadent sweet wine of Tuscany, you can do far worse than a bottle of Avignonesi.
For me, now that I know more of the story behind the wines and the winery, I like them both even more.
Dave Eckert is a partner with Flavor Trade, a Kansas City-based gourmet food incubator and co-packer. Before that, Eckert was the producer and host of “Culinary Travels With Dave Eckert,” which aired on PBS and AWE for 12 seasons.