Her wines are now sold in the world’s top restaurant — but Róisín Curley’s route into winemaking was an unconventional one that took her from Ballyhaunis to Burgundy
Mayo-born Róisín Curley describes herself as “very lucky”. Of course, the thing about luck is that, the harder you work, the more of it comes your way.
For this part-time Ballyhaunis pharmacist/ part-time Burgundy winemaker to have her wines showcased at Copenhagen’s Geranium restaurant — which tops the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list — is a pinch-me dream. It’s also a result of years of hard work.
Some of that work has been the most pleasurable kind. “It’s hard to make great wine without having tasted great wine,” Curley says of her highly trained, finely calibrated palate. And tasting great wine has been key to getting to where she is today — a Master of Wine (MW) with a separate MSc in viticulture and oenology, and an acclaimed winemaker with more potential customers than she has hand-crafted wine to sell.
That journey was far from pre-ordained for a young Curley. Most small-scale producers of fine Burgundian wines come into it via a family ownership of a small plot of vines. They learn the trade by being born into this most tradition-steeped of wine regions.
I was so intrigued by how the same grape could express itself so differently
Curley grew up in 1980s Ireland. “Wine wasn’t something that we had at our dinner table,” she recalls, and it certainly “wasn’t the norm to have wine the way French kids would do”. She spent weekends and holidays working in her father’s second-generation family pharmacy. “That’s what I really loved and, as a young girl, I would have never have dreamed of doing anything else.” And if she had, winemaking “was never a career opportunity” for consideration.
Still, the seeds for her journey were there from a young age.
“I always had an inquisitive mind,” she tells me on a Zoom call from Ballyhaunis, where she still spends half her time working alongside her brother, Mark, at Curley’s Totalhealth Pharmacy. “I liked languages, though I was never great at them. I tried to play lots of instruments and I was never brilliant at any of them. But I’d try anything. And I was enthusiastic about anything that I did take on.”
That combination of curiosity and enthusiastic commitment proved powerful. It propelled her from a casual wine appreciation course with the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) through to her 2020 graduation in its notoriously gruelling Master of Wine exams. Along the way, she managed to set up her own little winery in one of the world’s most hallowed wine regions.
In many ways, Maison Róisín Curley is a family business — one that couldn’t have been achieved without the support of her parents and brother, plus the wider family of the wine world.
It was her mother, Rosaleen, who encouraged her to do that first wine course in Galway. “She had just done one and she loved it.” Curley had moved home to Mayo from a stint in the UK, during which she had visited friends in Germany’s Rhine Valley. “Their house was in the heart of Riesling country, a stone’s throw from the Rheingau, the Pfalz, the Mosel. I remember sitting at dinner, tasting different wines, and them saying, ‘That comes from over there and tastes like this,’ and ‘That one comes from a little further north and tastes different.’ I was so intrigued by how the same grape could express itself so differently.”
That first-hand introduction to the notion of terroir — or how the grapes in a particular wine are influenced by the natural environment they are grown in, from microclimate to soil type — fuelled Curley’s nascent interest in understanding flavour in food and drink “and how things were made”.
Now, with that first WSET course under her belt, that spark of curiosity became a hunger to learn more, and to taste and understand wines from different terroirs all around the world. “We’re so lucky in Ireland that we can taste so much,” Curley observes, “because we have so much in our market” — one advantage over winemaking countries who have more limited imports.
Curley excelled at the initial WSET levels, and continued as far as the diploma, which officially qualified her as a sommelier. Around this time, Mark came back to work in the family business. “So then there were three of us — and that opened the opportunity for me to explore my wine education a bit more.”
Her family really encouraged her, and her late father, Hugh, in particular. “Sure he thought I was a genius,” she laughs, “like every father thinks their daughter is a genius.” With their active support, Curley “just kept going”, and got herself a scholarship for a masters in viticulture and oenology at Montpellier and Geisenheim. These much-respected winemaking schools helped open doors to some very prestigious wineries, including Bordeaux’s Château Latour and Condrieu’s Château-Grillet. Having done a 10-month internship at Château Latour (she based her masters’ research dissertation on its organic programme), and two months as a vineyard and winemaking assistant at Château-Grillet, Curley knew she wanted to continue making wine. She just had to figure out where, and how.
“I had a million ideas,” she says, but she also knew that she wanted to keep working in the family pharmacy. Just six weeks into her MSc in Montpellier, her father passed away and Mark took charge of the pharmacy. Now she wanted to support him and invest herself in the family business. “And I really love being a pharmacist, it’s not something I’d give up. So I needed to figure out a way I could do both.”
One idea was to set up her own winery somewhere, and the first step was to suss out its viability. Curley went to hang out with some friends in Burgundy, taste some great wines (“any excuse!”) and research sourcing equipment for her tentative business plan.
What that trip led to surprised Curley as much as anyone else.
During chats with one of Burgundy’s bigger suppliers of winemaking equipment, he suggested she try making wine here in Burgundy. “I really hadn’t considered it beforehand, and initially I just thought it crazy that I would even dream of doing that.” He could see she knew her stuff, however, and offered to make some introductions.
“He had just sold equipment to this winery in Beaune, where they wanted to do that kind of thing, to facilitate other winemakers, so he said ‘hop in the car’.” Before she knew it, Curley had a tank to make a small amount of wine, and space to store barrels to age it. Now she just needed some grapes, and to navigate Burgundy’s considerable red tape.
Fortunately, “because of the system in Burgundy of the grower (who either produces their own wine or sells the grapes), the courtier (who acts as the middleman for any grapes sold) and the négociant (who buy grapes for winemaking), this system was already in place for someone like me to set up.”
Traditionally, négociants were high-volume merchant houses who bought and blended grapes from many sources. More recently, however, there has been a trend toward micro-négociants like Curley buying small parcels of grapes that they can vinify and sell as single-estate limited-release bottlings. “This was all there and possible,” she says. “I just needed to penetrate it.”
After approaching many courtiers, Curley got lucky. “It was all very last-minute,” she remembers. “It was the end of summer and most contracts are done much earlier. But there was one courtier, another woman, who said, ‘I think I can get you what you want’ … and she did!”
Part of her luck was down to timing. “This was 2015, so the perfect year to do that because there was quantity as well as quality. If I went in 2016, it wouldn’t have been possible.”
Curley bravely invested her own money without the safety net of deep-pocketed backers. “I didn’t think too much about it, I just went and did it. I knew I could make wine, and I’m a business person, so I knew I could do that, though it’s different to do it all on my own … trying to keep all the balls in the air is very challenging.”
The risk has paid off. The wines Curley produced with those 2015 grapes were greeted with considerable acclaim. Fast-forward to spring 2023, and her wines have a cult following here in Ireland and a growing fanbase in Japan, China and northern Europe that has been boosted by that Geranium listing. She is very pleased with her 2022 vintage, which will be released next year, and was again “great in terms of quantity but also quality”, allowing her to increase her portfolio to a dozen different wines.
Not all vintages have been so kind. In 2020, the small matter of a global pandemic saw her having to choose between Burgundy and Ballyhaunis. “That was a huge decision… but I had to put my pharmacy profession first.” Then spring frosts decimated her 2021 vintage (to be released in coming months), and put some of her growers out of business. She made a little more than 3,000 bottles in total — which is a third of her normal production — including just 440 bottles of her beloved Saint-Romain alongside three other appellations.
Besides those major challenges, there are constantly smaller challenges to be navigated, and the ever-spiralling prices of Burgundian grapes to lose sleep over, and the knowledge that extreme weather events are a regular feature of our changing climate. “I cry as much as I laugh, I’d say, and I sometimes really question why I’m doing it. The road is often very foggy.”
You really need to be able for humiliation, and you have to learn from your mistakes
But then Curley has never been shy of a challenge. She is one of fewer than 500 people worldwide to have achieved MW status since the WSET established the programme in 1953 — a very small fraction of those who attempt it. That “character building” experience took her seven years and several attempts at the practical blind-tasting element to complete. “It’s so challenging,” she admits, “and there are serious falls along the way that you need to get up from. You really need to be able for humiliation, and you have to learn from your mistakes. It’s an amazing journey and I’m really happy I did it, but mostly happy that I passed and I’m not a student anymore!”
Curley doesn’t rule out making wine elsewhere, and has a quick-fire list of places she’d love to dabble in, from the Languedoc to Barolo. She’s also realistic about not overstretching herself, especially if she is to prioritise time for her first calling in life.
If the MW journey kept her humble, her role as pharmacist helps her to keep things real. “Sometimes we can be caught in this little bubble in the wine world, and there’s a whole other reality outside of that.” She is hopeful that Ireland will tweak its legislation so that the great resource of pharmacists can be better utilised, as in the UK. “It’s a fact that we could take 15pc of the workload off overburdened GPs.”
Curley loves playing such a rewarding role in the community, and doesn’t see herself ever giving that up. “We make a difference to people’s lives — just as much as a winemaker does!”
There are just eight MWs in Ireland, four of them women, and a couple of Irish-based MW students studying under Róisín Curley’s mentorship
Antonia Dominguez MW Stage 2 student
Irish-based with roots in Spain’s DO Jerez, Dominguez is the ‘long half’ of the podcast Wine: The Long and the Short of It, which she co-hosts with wine educator Lynda Coogan. She is the wine specialist at Donnybrook Fair, and studying for the Master of Wine programme under the mentorship of Curley. Dominguez previously co-founded and ran Amores Wines to represent Spanish boutique wineries in the international market.
Lynne Coyle MW
Scottish-born but with Achill Island roots, Coyle has been an MW since 2015 and is a key player in the Irish wine scene as wine director at O’Briens Wine. She often co-hosts masterclasses with producers as part of O’Briens’s events schedule. She also judges at international wine competitions, is a WSET certified educator and makes wines in Spain with Navarra’s Bodega Tandem, including the superb Rós Rose.
Barbara Boyle MW
Boyle became an MW in 2016, two years after she established WineMason wholesalers with her husband, Ben Mason, with a focus on the wines of Portugal, South Africa, Austria and Germany. During the pandemic, they set up Wine Upstairs as a pop-up shop at Forest Avenue, but mostly you’ll find their wines listed in Ireland’s independent wine stores and on restaurant lists focused on small-scale producers.
Harriet Tindal MW
Director of fine wine at Tindal Wine Merchants, Tindal became an MW in 2019. She runs events and courses through Searsons Wine Merchants, the public-facing arm of her family’s wholesale business. She is the face of their recent ‘Vino Cru’ masterclasses, leads WSET courses for wine enthusiasts and professionals, and has created free online content for anyone dipping a toe into the world of wine education.