Outstanding women in the Rioja wine business

Share this page

In Rioja, winemaking, management, sales and marketing have been until recently almost exclusively a man’s world.  However, women in Rioja have broken through the glass ceiling in a big way and currently make several of Rioja’s most iconic brands as well as manage some of the most prestigious estates.  

Here are just a few of the outstanding women in the world of Rioja wine.   


Elena Adell (Pernod Ricard Bodegas)

Adell is an agronomist engineer with a graduate degree in Viticulture and Winemaking.  Following several years working in the Department of Agriculture and Food of the government of La Rioja, she joined Bodegas AGE as Quality Control Manager. 

 When AGE became an affiliate of the Bodegas & Bebidas group in 1997, Adell was appointed head winemaker at Bodegas Campo Viejo. Since 2017 she has been the head winemaker of the Pernod Ricard group of wineries in Spain and is a member of the group’s Committee of Directors.

Elena Adell is proud of being an important part of the renaissance of white Rioja.  Her Azpilicueta white and Félix Azpilicueta white Colección Privada are excellent examples of the potential of viura, Rioja’s most important white grape variety.

Cristina Forner (Marqués de Cáceres)

Forner is a member of the fourth generation of a family whose story began in 1925 in the province of Valencia on Spain’s east coast. Her father emigrated to France in 1938, eventually settling in Bordeaux where he purchased Château Larose Trintaudon and Château Camensac Grand Crû Classé. He returned to his native Spain and founded Bodegas Marqués de Cáceres in 1970.

Cristina joined her father at the winery after receiving a degree from Bordeaux’s École Supérieure de Commerce  and gaining experience at the family’s properties in France.  She was instrumental in the winery’s drive to gain international recognition for their brand and the development of the groundbreaking image of the winery as a producer of elegant Riojas based on the Bordeaux winemaking model.

She is especially proud of the winery’s brand Gaudium, that she described in a recent interview in Spain’s Empresa Actual as “the essence of special plots of vines that reveal the full expression of a unique terroir.”

As for the role of women in the world of wine, Forner believes that “our sensitivity and creativity are an excellent complement to the male spirit that is perhaps characterized by a global vision and less emotion.  Quality wine needs emotion and passion to transmit its cultural values”.  

Cristina is currently the president of Bodegas Marqués de Cáceres.


María Larrea (CVNE)

Larrea comes from a family of grapegrowers and winemakers from Elciego in Rioja Alavesa. She joined CVNE in 1990 as assistant to one of Rioja’s star winemakers, Basilio Izquierdo, and assumed the title of chief winemaker and technical director of the CVNE group’s wineries when Izquierdo retired.

Larrea recently remarked to 5Barricas, “Women have always played an important role in the wine business and it’s not surprising that our passion is reflected in winemaking.” Today most star winemakers are men, but women are becoming more relevant in Spain.  Change has come more from society than from inside the world of wine.  We’re used to the fact that jobs are no longer a question of men or women.  Why should winemaking be any different?”

Larrea feels that one of her most important achievements was “Best Wine in the World 2013” in the Wine Spectator for CVNE Imperial gran reserva 2004.

María José and Mercedes López de Heredia (R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia)

María José (managing director) and Mercedes  (winemaker) belong to the fourth generation of the iconic López de Heredia family where the company philosophy is to strictly follow the playbook created by their great grandfather in the 1870s. This respect for tradition is reflected in how María José signs correspondence:  “biznieta” (great granddaughter).  When asked about the style of López de Heredia wines, impervious to changing winemaking trends, the sisters like to say that “our maximum innovation is not innovating” and “we’ve been modern for over 140 years”.

María José studied law at Bilbao’s prestigious University of Deusto, but she also enrolled in Deusto’s school of theology behind her father’s back, reflecting her artistic, inquisitive and intellectual nature. She likes to say that studying theology helped to energize her study of the law.

In contrast, Mercedes the winemaker is an engineer with a scientific bent.  In spite of being the radical opposite of María José, she shares her sister’s love of tradition, applying it to winemaking.  She praises the use of large wood fermentation vats, natural yeasts, little sulfur dioxide, barrel aging for at least three years and long bottle aging to stabilize her wines, unfiltered bottling and reliance on a vast underground cellar excavated at the beginning of the 20th century. There, the relative humidity is between 80% and 90%, and constant temperature year round that keeps the barrels tight, and reduces evaporation.

When asked about the role of women in the wine world, María José minces no words. She believes that being a woman is no different from being a man, whether in wine or any other business.

The greatest proof of that belief is María José’s and Mercedes’ commitment to grooming the fifth generation -  three young women -  to run the business.

When asked about her favorite wine, María José likes to quote Pablo Álvarez, the president of Vega Sicilia:  “the best wine is in the future; it hasn’t been made yet”.

 Ana Martínez Bujanda (Bodegas Valdemar)

Ana is a member of the fifth generation of the Martínez Bujanda family. In addition to sitting on the board of directors of the group, she is the director of marketing and communication and is in charge of Bodegas Valdemar’s wine tourism department. There she put in place an innovative educational experience involving teaching children about wine with a game encouraging them to follow clues to find Count Valdemar’s grapes.

As a member of the board she is involved in strategic decisions made by the family including wine styles, new business opportunities and being on the lookout for new vineyards to buy.

Ana’s role will expand with the opening of the family’s new winery in Walla Walla in southeastern Washington State in the United States.

María Vargas (Marqués de Murrieta)

María’s first vintage at Marqués de Murrieta was as a student in 1995. She never left.  Born in Haro, the wine capital of Rioja, her father was trained as a winemaker and there was always a bottle of Rioja on the dinner table, so even though winemaking was not her first choice as a university student, she ended up with a degree as an agronomist engineer followed by another in enology and a Master’s in viticulture and enology. It was almost inevitable that she would end up in the wine business.

In her 23 years at Murrieta, María has collected an impressive list of achievements.  Robert Parker awarded 100 points to her Castillo de Ygay white gran reserva 1986.  The British critic Tim Atkin named her ‘Best Winemaker in the World’ in 2017.

When asked about the role of women in the Rioja wine business, María believes that it has taken women longer to break through the glass ceiling than, for example in Galicia where there is a more matriarchal society (Murrieta produces Pazo de Barrantes in the DO Rías Baixas so she knows the area well). Among her beliefs are that women’s increasing role in the business is something natural.  Women aren’t better tasters than men.  Wine is all about sensitivity and tastes but not about the sexes.

Castillo de Ygay is the wine she is proudest of because of its reputation in Rioja and around the world as a luxury good.

Judit Valdelana (Bodegas Valdelana)

Judit is a member of the 14th generation of the Valdelana family, involved in wine in northern Spain since the 16th century, but only the first woman to be a part of the company. Born in 1989, she is Valdelana’s marketing and national sales director. After receiving a university degree in advertising and public relations and living for a year in the USA to perfect her English, she returned to Spain.  Soon afterwards Judit obtained the Level 3 qualification from the Wine and Spirit Education Trust to complement the grounding in wine she no doubt learned from her grandfather and father.