First published in The Irish Times, November 2017
Róisín Curley is a pharmacist, working in the family business in Ballyhaunis, Co Mayo. At the same time, she makes her own wines in Burgundy, one of the most prestigious French wine regions of all. “It began with a simple love of wine,” says Curley, “and a need to know more, which in turn led to the WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust) wine courses.” This is the standard path taken by many Irish wine lovers, but Curley took it a lot further. She studied for a masters (and was awarded a scholarship) in viticulture and oenology in Montpellier and Geisenheim Universities in France and Germany.
This was followed by a year at Château Latour in Bordeaux, comparing standard and organic viticulture for her thesis, and then a vintage in Château Grillet in the northern Rhône.
She chose Burgundy as her winemaking home through a series of coincidences. “It was never a dream,” she says, “because I never even thought I could dream about making wine in Burgundy. I am a huge fan, my favourite red grape is Pinot Noir and I love Chardonnay. But it was never my intention from the start to do what I am doing.” She had friends and contacts in Burgundy, and was introduced to the owner of a winemaking facility, who rents out space to small winemakers.
“It snowballed from there. All the time I was pinching myself; I never even tried to do this because I didn’t think it would be possible.”
“I don’t need to be in Beaune all the time. Obviously, I have to be there for the harvest and winemaking, but I have a space that is fully staffed, a whole support system that I can call on anytime I want.
“The toughest part is sourcing the grapes… no actually, to be honest, the toughest part is the French system and the fact that you are dealing with grapes and alcohol. It is so tightly regulated and difficult. The best way to find grapes is to meet the growers and make friends with them. My St. Romain is from guys I know really well. They farm organically too. I go to the vineyards, but they pick the grapes.”
Curley’s first releases are from 2015, hailed as a great vintage in Burgundy. However, 2016 was a different story. “My Beaune vineyard was destroyed by hail and frost; I made no wine.” She did make Saint Romain however. “2017 is fine, I have equal amounts of both, and even some Nuits Saint Georges. Burgundy is in huge demand at the moment and the last three vintages have been small. It is becoming harder and much more expensive to buy grapes. The price of my St. Romain has doubled in a few years.”
Curley’s first two releases, a white St. Romain and a red Beaune Clos des Rouards, both from the 2015 vintage, are excellent, superior to many more expensive wines from better-known producers in the region. Anyone interested in trying Ballyhaunis Burgundy will need to buy quickly; Curley made a mere 300 bottles of the white and 1,500 bottles of red.
Sinéad Cabot is another female Mayo winemaker. Newry-born, she landed in Westport via a few years in Dublin, where she and her husband Liam ran a bespoke wine shop in the IFSC. They moved their import and distribution wine business and fine wine company to the west, from where they now supply restaurants, hotels and retailers with a hand-picked range of wines – including their own.
“We work with smaller independent producers, often from less well-known regions. In the recession people went back to inexpensive wines – we had to adapt and change, but we still held on to as many interesting wines as possible. The ‘green shoots’ happened when those wines started to move again.”
In 2007, the couple bought a house with 1.5 hectares of vines in Kog, one of the best wine-producing regions in Slovenia, and began making wine. They are completing their seventh vintage. They do everything themselves – from pruning to harvesting and bottling.
Cabot becomes animated when talking about making wine. “Growing grapes and making wine is an emotional investment, I am fascinated by the whole enterprise.
“You have to prune every vine differently and try to understand it. This year was very hot and we thought we would harvest early but the last few weeks were cooler with some rain, so it all slowed down. You really want to get the juice into the cellar, but if the grapes don’t taste right you don’t pick, no matter what the numbers say. We work in a very natural way, we don’t add anything, so clean healthy grapes are essential.”
She is very happy with the newly bottled 2016 vintage and 2017 is already looking good in the cellar.
The wines, which go under the name Roka (Slovenian for ‘hand’) are very good, and have featured several times in The Irish Times. It is not just home team cheering though – last year the wines received a very high score of 17/20 from Jancis Robinson, one of the most well-regarded critics in the wine world.
Maureen O’Hara hails from Killala in north Mayo and returns regularly to catch up with family and friends. “I love going back,” she says. “The whole area is buzzing with the Atlantic Way, with new cycle routes, cafés, restaurants and pubs.” But these days, O’Hara works in Dublin, running Premier Wine Training.
“When I was growing up, you were either a guard or a teacher – I was too small to join the Gardaí so I was going to be a home-economics teacher. We had a B&B at home so I used to help with cooking. At the last minute, I decided to study marketing, the buzz word at the time.”
She gained a degree in business management from Trinity. “When I came out of college I started working with Britvic Orange, calling into pubs, then I moved on to a wine company, selling quarter bottles of wine.” The company sent O’Hara on a wine course, and she was hooked.
A 14-year stint in marketing with Findlaters followed. “I loved it, wine was special at that stage. You got a real thrill seeing someone ordering your wine in a restaurant. For most people, it was a treat. It was exciting – I travelled the world and learned from some great people.”
O’Hara moved on but saw the clouds coming when the recession hit. “I could see everyone downsizing so I got out of what I was doing and, having got the necessary qualifications, set up Premier Wine Training. I had been teaching part-time for 15-20 years and really got a kick out of it. I love standing up in front of people telling them the stories and explaining what great wine is all about.”
Wine has become so commonplace some people see it as just another product, anathema to O’Hara. “Wine is all about hand-selling a unique product with a genuine story. I love being part of that.”
Maison Curley Saint Romain 2015
Medium-bodied with peaches, subtle grilled nuts and lanolin, balanced perfectly by precise, clean, refreshing citrus acidity, lingering very nicely in the mouth. Superb white Burgundy.
Maison Curley Beaune Clos des Rouards 2015
Attractive fragrant aromas, with silky smooth dark cherry fruits, with good concentration and structure. Delicious ripe, elegant wine that will keep a few years, but dangerously drinkable right now.
€48.99 from Jus de Vine, Portmarnock; 64 Wine, Glasthule; Whelehan’s Wines, Loughlinstown; Donnybrook Fair.
Roka Furmint 2016, Stajerska, Slovenia
Crisp acidity balances the light peach fruits and musky spicy ginger. Delicious, refreshing, racy wine.
Roka Blaufränkisch 2016, Stajerska, Slovenia
An explosion of juicy dark blackcurrants and morello cherries with a reviving acidity and a hint of spice.
€16.95 from Cabot and Co, Westport (www.cabotandco.com): Grapevine, Dalkey; 64 Wine Glasthule; Tartare Café & Wine Bar, Galway; No 1 Pery Square Limerick.
See premierwinetraining.com for details of Maureen O’Hara’s wine courses.