His creations are the toast of vineyards the world over.
YVES Cuilleron is today known as a superstar of Rhone wines. He is admired by wine cognoscenti and critics for being a modernist who still produces wines that have a traditional taste. Cuilleron practises viticulture raisonnable, an integrated, eco-friendly approach – not conventional, not organic, not biodynamic, but a combination of processes to simply “produce the best possible grapes”.
He has been described as the most brilliant winemaker of northern Rhone (by The Wine Advocate’s Robert Parker Jr, no less) and, by the Wine Spectator as “the leader of Condrieu’s new generation of winemakers”.
Taste the wine he makes in Condrieu, in the Rhone wine district in southern France, and you will find it oozing with the flavours of just what you imagine the finest Viognier grape would taste like. Sip his Cote Rotie and you begin to understand how a powerful wine can also be graceful and elegant at the same time.
Recently, I got an exquisite taste of Rhone at the Chez Papa French Bistro in Johor. Cuilleron, affable and enthusiastic as he talked about the wines of Domaine Cuilleron, had this to say about his life with wines:
How did wine become your bread and butter?
I might not have entered the wine industry if not for my uncle who wanted to sell the family vineyard. So at the age of 23 years, and not having worked a day in a vineyard nor made wines, I decided I would take over the business.To make sure I wasn’t going in blind, I quickly enrolled in a wine school in Burgundy. After graduating, I made my first wines in 1987.
Your first vintage must have turned out well …
Looking back, my first vintage was a difficult one with less than ideal weather but, luckily, the grapes ripened well and the wines were sound. What followed were four great vintages with warm and dry growing seasons. I thought I had it made as a wine producer.
Then came the cold and rainy conditions of 1992-1994. Only then did I realise that I had much to learn about grape growing and wine making.
It does seem a long time ago when I started with a small vineyard of 4ha. Today, 28 years later, I am making more than 300,000 bottles of wine from 50ha of vines, of which 25ha are leased from owners.
What can we look forward to in your wines?
We began with only two appellation wines, St Joseph and Condrieu, and then added Cote Rotie, St Peray and Cornas along the way, thus offering wines from Rhone’s five cru regions. Domaine Cuilleron also produces wines outside the cru regions and the wines are called Vin de Pays des Comtés Rhodaniens (country wine designation).
If you compare the wines, you will find that the Vin de Pays are fruitier and easier to drink. The cru wines are complex with minerals and have a good body. These wines will benefit with cellaring.
Additionally, I got together with two other producers and replanted an old vineyard near Cote Rotie on the Vienne side of the river. In Roman times this vineyard also carried the name of Cote Rotie. We are producing 400,000 bottles of wine from this vineyard and various parts of the Rhone as well, under the name of Les Vins de Vienne.
Are there any secrets to making great wines?
Firstly, you have to control your yield so that you get a good balance of vigour (leaf growth) and grape. In general, I like to keep vigour low, as it means ripe grapes, smaller grapes (with more flavour) and also riper stems. Not only that, the vines become less sensitive to diseases.
Next, when necessary, practice green harvest (remove and discard some grapes before they are ripe). With fewer grapes on the vine, what’s left will ripen well, with more intense flavours. For example, last year, the temperatures were cold and the days were short. Even though we harvested late, and to be sure we ended up with ripe grapes, I decided to reduce yields by green harvesting. When the vine has fewer bunches of grapes, the vine ripens the remaining ones quicker.
In contrast, this year, I harvested earlier in the warm April and May months, when the vines flowered early. As a result, we did very little green harvesting and were able to get a big crop that was ripe.
All of the above translates into a very simple vinification process where we do not have to use oenological products or aids such as yeasts, enzymes, acids or tannins. Moreover, I don’t use new oak. Rather the barrels I use are made from wood that is seasoned over three years and have small pores.
Why do the same wines from a region, made by different people, taste so different?
It’s because of the producers’ taste. All producers taste grapes to determine the right time to harvest. Each producer tastes differently from the rest, and, thereby, harvest at different times. Hence, no two producers’ wine will taste similar!
I heard that you’re very hands-on with winemaking?
To make white wines, we will press the grapes, drain the juice but maintain some turbidity of juice. Turbid juice contains nutrients necessary for a good fermentation. After fermentation in barrels, we leave the wine on the lees (spent yeast and other particles) as it protects the wine from oxidation and also lends a rich texture to the wine.
For red wines, we will ferment the juice with stems in open tanks while pumping over juice or pressing down the “cap” of skins and stems. We typically macerate the wine for three weeks. The decision to add more or less stems isn’t made at the winery. It is made at the vineyard where I am picking grapes – so, while tasting the grapes and assessing them in the vineyard, I can decide what is the best way to make the wine.
Usually I will telephone the winery and give instruction on what to do when the grapes arrive. You could certainly say our wines are made right there in the vineyard!
Les Chaillets, AOC Condrieu (Viognier) 2010: Tropical fruit basket with pineapples and flavours of nougat, peach tart and apricot pie.
Les Pierres Seches AOC St Joseph (Syrah) 2009: Bright, small red fruits, spice and a hint of meat. Good structure, medium body and lingering flavours.
Madiniere, AOC Cote-Rotie (Syrah) 2009: Ripe, small black and red fruit. Excellent balance with an satin mouthfeel. Big stature yet elegant.
Gamay, Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes 2009: Fresh crushed fruit with spice and soft smooth tannins. Very quaffable.
Les Cranilles, AOC Cotes du Rhone 2009: Dark red fruit with spice and a hint of earth, chunky broad tannins with a bitter sweet finish. Easy drinking.
AOC Crozes-Hermitage (Syrah) 2009: Rasberries with ripe, lightly sticky tannins and a warm finish.
L’Arzelle, AOC St Joseph (Syrah) 2008: Bright, with small red fruits, white pepper, tobacco, complex with sticky tannins, lively acids and long finished.
Domaine Cuilleron wines are imported by GeoVinum Sdn Bhd.
Edwin Soon is a qualified oenologist and has run wine shops and worked as a winemaker in various countries. He now writes and teaches about wine around Asia.
THE first ever Kuala Lumpur Cocktail Week (KLCW) will take placenext week. Various venues in the Klang Valley will celebrate cocktails and local bartending talents who have worked hard to promote and drive cocktail culture in KL and Malaysia.
A host of cocktail parties, dinners, and trade training sessions as well as a whisky forum are being held throughout the week. Events that are open to public include:
> The Unusual Gin Encounter (July 26, 7.30pm-10.30pm): Try unique cocktails made with an unusual types of gin with Jamie Terrell from Hendrick’s gin.
Venue: Skybar, Traders Hotel, KLCC.
> Spirit Of The Tropics (July 27, 7.30pm-10.30pm): An array of tropical concoctions made with Angostura rums will be crafted by Junior, KL’s very own rum cocktailian.
Venue: View, GTower Hotel, No.199, Jalan Tun Razak, KL.
> Cocktails And Conversations (July 28, 7pm-10pm): Twentyone’s bar personality Joshua Ivanovic will be shaking and cooking up Skyy Vodka and Campari cocktails in a tropical beachside setting.
Venue: Twentyone Kitchen & Bar, No.20-1, Changkat Bukit Bintang, KL.
> Mexican Gold (July 28 and 29, 7.30pm-10.30pm): For RM95++ per guest, experience a dinner that pairs cocktails with Mexican food; drinks include those made with 1800 tequila and also Reserva de la Familia, prepared by guest bartender Timothy. Limited to 23 seats each evening; reservations are required.
Venues: July 28 at Las Carretas Mexican Restaurant in Subang Jaya, Selangor (No. 29, USJ 10/1F, Subang UEP; % 03-5637 3058); July 29 at Damansara Heights, KL (Lot B-0-7, Semantan Avenue, No. 10, Jalan Semantan, Damansara Heights; % 03-2093 0380).