María Isabel Mijares: Spain’s First Lady of Wine
The medieval granary in Castilla-La Mancha’s Campo de Criptana, Don Quixote’s legendary windmill country southeast of Madrid, was packed all the way up to its sixteenth-century roof beams as María Isabel Mijares accepted Wine Up’s “Person of the Year” award. Joaquín Parra, director of the digital Wine Up guide, was choked with emotion as he made the presentation to a woman he described as “a pioneer in a world that has traditionally been guilty of a certain machista bias” just 48 hours before International Women’s Day.
“I am proud to receive this honor,” began Mijares, “and you won’t hear me say that I’m not, or that these things don’t mean much to me, because they do. False modesty and legitimate pride don’t get along with each other very well, so I always say, and mean it, that I get great satisfaction and pride from every one of the distinctions and honors that have been awarded to me.” (There are over 150 on Ms. Mijares’s résumé.)
“I am proud to be just one more worker in the great world of wine and want to always remind everyone that good wines come from grapes that have been produced through the hard work and passion of many fine people. It is especially satisfying to receive this honor here in the Valdepeñas winegrowing region, which is very dear to me.”
“By the way,” confessed the freshly crowned Person of the Year, “I am not much of a feminist; I believe that men are a delicious and necessary evil.”
María Isabel Mijares, a legend in Spain’s wine world, completed her studies in chemistry at the University of Madrid in the 1950s before receiving a French government scholarship in 1967 to study in Bordeaux with the famous Émile Peynaud (1912-2004), known as “the father of modern oenology.” (“At the time I had a choice between going into perfume and wine; I think I made the right choice.”)
Peynaud’s “sensorial analysis” and Ms. Mijares’s training in chemistry proved to be a potent combination: “Chemistry has been a great help to me in understanding the phenomena that take place between the birth and death of a wine. My analysis has been more exact and this has allowed me to understand wines in greater depth.”
I first met Maria Isabel Mijares some twenty years ago when her agro-alimentary consultancy Equipo TEAM organized a press trip around the Iberian Peninsula for journalists from all over the world. Australians, Japanese, Britons, Canadians and one lone Connecticut Yankee had the good fortune to travel from Chinchón to Ciudad Real to Sevilla and Gijón in northwest Spain by air, land and sea to become familiarized with Spain’s National Paradores and their renewed dedication to top gastronomy and autochthonous food products.
Equipo TEAM, which initially sounded to me like some redundant Spanglish branding effort, was much smarter than I understood: TEAM is the acronym for Técnicas Enológicas y Alimentarias Mijares.
Queried about the future of wine, Mijares, like all wine growers and oenologists, goes directly to the issue of climate change as a determining factor in the oenology of the twenty-first century.
“This is the most controversial question there is: As a result of global warming, wines are beginning to have more sugar and a higher level of alcohol. The consumer wants less alcohol; the consumer wants to be able to have a second and third glass of wine without getting roaring drunk or developing a splitting headache. Lowering the alcoholic level in wine is not always easy using traditional methods, unless you resort to partial de-alcoholization, which is a very controversial subject.”
“What the consumer wants is the whole product, the whole experience. A wine is not better because it is more powerful; what a wine needs to have is balance in its composition, balance between the alcohol, the acidity, the body, the personality, el paso de boca, or length…that’s what counts.”