All about Yves

Yves Cuilleron (Photo: Caves Yves Cuilleron)

I was recently privileged to host two masterclasses with Yves Cuilleron, one of the top winemakers in the Northern Rhône Valley. Reviews of Cuilleron’s excellent Côte Rôtie, St Joseph, Condrieu and other wines tasted at these events are now on the website.

In a quiet moment, I took the opportunity to shout Yves a beer while I posed a few questions about his distinguished 30-year career.

Yves Cuilleron took over the running of his family’s domaine 30 years ago in 1987. At the time, the family was considering selling it. Yves’ uncle wanted to retire, Yves was doing his national service in the Army, and there was no obvious successor in the family. Till Yves put his hand up for the challenge.

The estate then consisted of just 4 hectares. Today, it’s 70 hectares, including prime parcels in Condrieu, Côte Rôtie, St Joseph, St Péray, Cornas and Crozes-Hermitage. The only Northern Rhône appellation where he has no vines is the famed Hermitage.

How did one young man in his 20s with limited resources manage to build up such an amazing collection of great vineyards?

“I arrived at a good time,” says Yves. “There was a lot of land available, it was easy to find and the prices were low. I was sure the price of the wine and the value of the land would increase soon. The Northern Rhône had a very good reputation in the past and had been forgotten by people because of the two world wars, the depression, and so on. And vineyards are hard to work in places like Condrieu and Côte Rôtie.”

They are steep, terraced vineyards that require manual labour and are difficult, often impossible, to mechanise.

“That’s why the Northern Rhône vineyards disappeared at a greater rate than other, flatter areas such as Bordeaux.”

But people were still drinking wine, weren’t they?

“Yes, we drank wine, but simple wine. It was too expensive to produce this kind of simple wine on terraces. Today, we drink less but we drink better quality wine. We drink bottled wine, not wine sold in bulk. I could see the trend towards drinking better wine happening in other regions, such as Bordeaux and Burgundy, and I could imagine it happening in the Northern Rhône eventually. But my family was not sure it was a good idea for me to continue the domaine. A lot of my cousins had stopped working in the vineyards and gone to get jobs in the factories. Plus my family had never seen me work in the vineyards, so they doubted whether I could do it.”

“But I was young and free, and I could start with a ‘blank slate’, with no influences. I had my uncle’s help. But first, I was required to do a year’s internment with a producer in Cornas, Domaine Courbis. That was the 1985 harvest. Then I spent one year at a wine school for adults in Mâcon – 1986 – before my first harvest at the family domaine in 1987.

I started off doing all the work myself, the vineyard, the winery, the desk, the selling, then after one year I employed one person for the desk, then the next year one person for the vineyard, and so on. You have to delegate to develop the business. It was a good thing I started that way, because I got to understand every aspect of the business.”

He already had some good markets thanks to his uncle, who had been making good wine and had already been selling wine into the top restaurants in Vienne, such as La Pyramide.

“I bought only land, not established vineyards – small pieces at a time. That way I could choose the planting material, and decide how to plan my vineyards. It was difficult to find workers, and I needed workers because everything is done by hand in the Northern Rhône. I would get people young and train them, and they stay a long time with me. Now I have 20 permanent staff and in summer time, 40 more people – for training the vines and green harvesting. Eighty during the harvest.”

His wife is an accountant and she keeps the books. He has a 17-year-old son who is learning winemaking in Beaune. Next year, he’ll work half-time at Domaine Courbis like his father did, and attend school the other half of the time.

Cuilleron is a busy man with a finger in many pies. He is part of a 20-year-old company which produces a range of Rhône wines called Vins de Vienne, with fellow winemakers Pierre Gaillard and François Villard. He has a joint venture in California’s Sonoma Valley with winemaker Jeff Cohn, producing a syrah. Cuilleron takes half the wine to sell in France, Cohn takes the other half. It’s also available in Australia.

Cuilleron loves food and regularly cooks for his family and friends.

“I don’t understand winemakers who don’t like eating,” he says.

He drinks wine from every corner of the globe and is interested in all wines. He makes a range of less-expensive Vin de Pays, which are also sold under the Yves Cuilleron name, for which he also grows the grapes.

“It is interesting to make wines at a low price, that you don’t have to be wealthy to drink.”

His latest project is to revive local grape varieties that had been lost to the region. These include durif, dureza, chatus, and persan. He is nearly ready to harvest his first grapes from his durif and persan vines, “perhaps not this vintage, but the next”. He is aware that Australia produces durif wines, but says there was no durif in the Northern Rhône until he revived it. He bought a 10-hectare property especially for this project. There are other old varieties he wants to plant, including bia.

And finally, he is making a selection of the best old vines in his vineyards, which he is propagating “in order to preserve the diversity.”

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