Paolo Tullio with a wine that everyone should try
A seeming act of lunacy resulted in a wine that everyone should try, writes Paolo Tullio
When I first arrived in Ireland, I found a country with a beer-drinking culture. Wine could be found, although not too easily, and the choice was limited to French wine. Back then, a large percentage of the wine that was imported went directly to priests, who used it to celebrate Mass.
For most people, wine was almost unknown, or perhaps was a drink that was taken once a year -- at Christmas, for example.
Over the past 40 years, the rise in consumption of wine has been dramatic; roughly speaking doubling every five years. Now it's everywhere, in supermarkets, off-licences and even in garage forecourts.
The Irish consumer has a far wider choice of wines today than their continental counterpart. Wine-producing countries tend not to have much of other countries' wines on their shelves.
Yet here in Ireland, we are confronted with wines from all over the world, from Europe, the New World and even from the southern hemisphere.
That's a very broad palette to have to get to know. Nonetheless, it's true that, these days, most people will have tasted a huge variety of wines from many countries.
Most people I know have favourites and also wines that they have learnt to avoid. Grape varieties such as Pinot Grigio from Italy, Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand, Merlot from Chile and Chardonnay from Australia are well understood. They please some and annoy others.
But the wine world is a big place and there are nooks and crannies filled with unusual wines that are largely unexplored.
Today, I want to point you to a kind of wine that I'm passionate about, and yet has few admirers in Ireland. What I want to introduce you to is a particular kind of dessert wine -- a wine that's made from mouldy grapes.
There's a fungus called botrytis which forms a mould on grapes in damp, humid conditions. It can form on many grape varieties, but it likes Semillon best.
A bunch of grapes with botrytis is a very dispiriting sight -- the grapes are shrunken and covered with a steely grey, furry mould. Unattractive would be putting it mildly.
What this fungal infection has done is take much of the water that was inside each grape, and the effect is to concentrate the sugars.
Some time in winemaking history, an anonymous genius looked at these pitiful mouldy grapes and said to himself, 'I'm going to make them into wine anyway'.
Much like the first person who looked at an oyster and said, 'I'm going to eat that', this seeming act of lunacy resulted in something truly delicious.
By concentrating the sugars in the grape, as well as all the other flavour elements, the botrytis gave the winemaker something new, something beyond the ordinary.
A wine made from botrytis grapes is an explosion of flavours; it's intense, concentrated, aromatic and rich in aromas. It's also sweet, but, of all its attributes, that's the least important.
Anyone can make a sweet wine -- all you need to do is stop the fermentation before it's finished. It will be low in alcohol, probably have not much taste, but it will be sweet.
If ever there was a wine that ought to be avoided at all costs, a wine like this would be it.
The point is that you mustn't confuse a botrytis wine with a sweet wine, just because they have sweetness in common. That's all they have in common. A good botrytis wine is an experience never forgotten.
A lot of wines, especially white wines, that were traditionally made semi-sweet are now made dry to satisfy the recent change in tastes.
And certainly, for wines designed to go with a savoury meal or to be drunk on its own, there's no argument -- dry is better than sweet.
But when it comes to the dessert course, there's nothing as perfect as a good dessert wine. For a start, you're unlikely to have more than a small glass each, and it's a wine you sip rather than drink. The flavours are so intense that even a tiny sip leaves its flavours in your mouth for a long time.
With Christmas just around the corner, now is a good time splash out on a good botrytis wine. I say splash out, because they cost more than ordinary wines.
It's obvious when you think about it -- if the grapes have shrivelled, you'll get a lot less wine from your vineyard than you would from big juicy grapes. So with less liquid to sell, the price goes up.
The finest of all the botrytis wines come from the Sauternes area of Bordeaux, and the prince of them is called Château d'Yquem.
If you have €150 to spend on a half-bottle for the 1998, available from O'Briens, give it a try, but for a more economical spend, a lesser Sauternes will give you a taste -- perhaps less intense -- of what d'Yquem offers.
Last, I'll mention this for the adventurous among you. The French are fond of pairing Sauternes with foie gras.
On the face of it that's counter-intuitive, but I've tried it and I can tell you that it works well for my palate.
If you've never tried a botrytis wine, make this Christmas the first time you do and give yourself a treat.