Saturday 19 October 2019

Red, White or strawberry? Ireland's most summery tipple

Move over gin, strawberry wine is the latest craft tipple in town. Aoife Carrigymeets the couple behind Ireland's newest - and most summery - drink

Fruity tipple: Móinéir Fine Fruit Wine
Fruity tipple: Móinéir Fine Fruit Wine
Dream team: Pamela Walsh and Brett Stephenson of Wicklow Way Wines. Photo: Tony Kinlan.

The stuff is absolutely screaming out the door," says US expat Brett Stephenson, who, along with his Dublin-born wife Pamela Walsh, founded Wicklow Way Wines. "I can't label it fast enough." Success has come fast for Móinéir Fine Fruit Wine.

The couple launched their flagship strawberry wine at the Bloom Festival in June. They knew they had something "unique and really good", admits Pamela, "but that doesn't mean we weren't terrified. We had invested so much at that point and it was such a new category."

The response has been overwhelmingly positive, with a growing number of independent wine merchants and top restaurants such as Chapter One, Thorntons and The Greenhouse keen to list this unique Irish wine. And when I visit the pair of pioneers in their Newtownmountkennedy winery, they are packing up their first shipment for London's Fortnum & Mason.

That's quite a journey for those Irish strawberries, which started life in Pat Clarke's fruit farm on the Dublin-Meath border and made their way into the elegant Riesling-style bottles (over 100 strawberries per bottle) by way of Brett's tinkering about with the tools of his new trade: the bladder press that gently crushes the fruit, the small-batch 320-litre tanks in which the wine is macerated for four days and fermented for another week, and the larger storage tanks in which it is matured and blended before being bottled and boxed up on-site. That all this happens by hand makes it all the more remarkable to think of those bottles landing in London just in time for this weekend's Wimbledon finals.

It's been quite the journey for Brett and Pamela too. While a lot has happened since last month's launch, Móinéir (meaning meadow in Irish) has been years in the making. "It took a year to get the wine out," Brett says, but that's not counting finding the right space for the winery, or registering the business, or untangling the challenges of creating an unprecedented commercial category. "It's a huge undertaking."

The aromatic strawberry wine smells distinctly summery with that unmistakable fragrance of crushed, macerated strawberries. And it tastes like a wine, but with an unmistakable character of pure, ripe strawberries. It's off-dry in style, meaning it has a definite sweetness to it but one that is balanced with a refreshing acidity for a gorgeously tangy effect.

As well as making a great aperitif, Brett says "it cuts through food really nicely." They recommend it with nettle pesto and asparagus. It also pairs well with spicier fare such as Thai. But Brett's favourite match is with avocado and salmon.

The research and development for Móinéir began back in the 1990s when the couple were living in California where they became "hobbyist" wine-makers. A trained electrical engineer, Pamela worked in Silicon Valley, while Brett worked as a sound engineer in San Francisco. "I got to work with my heroes… Tom Waits, Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Santana." But in early 2000, with two young kids in tow - Shane and Celina, now 21 and 18 respectively - they decided that they wanted "to work to live rather than the other way around" and moved to Dublin.

Pamela landed a job with Airtricity where she headed up Ireland's first off-shore wind-farm on the Arklow Bank. But a decade in a senior executive role with a huge amount of travel eventually took its toll.

Meanwhile, their experiments with wine made from "every kind of berry" were producing fabulous flavours. They suspected they weren't the only consumers who would support an Irish fruit wine. "We said: 'Someone should do that'. And then thought: 'Uh oh, that's us!'"

There have been lots of learnings since they decided to take the plunge, as can be expected from navigating such uncharted waters. They've learnt, for example, just how expensive it is to produce a strawberry wine on a commercial basis. It doesn't help that we Irish have the highest excise rate for wine in Europe, as Pamela explains. "In a bottle of wine that's selling for €20" - which Móinéir strawberry wine fetches in an off-licence - "the best part of €7 is tax."

"And then you're talking the bottle, label, cork, transport, box, middle man," Brett continues, not to mention the fruit itself. "It's incredible. People sometimes say 'your wine is expensive' but have you bought strawberries lately?"

The couple keep a tight rein on costs and quality by doing everything in-house, down to attaching the beautifully designed labels on a small hand-operated machine. Brett's background in sound mixing gives him a patience for managing such minutiae. Meanwhile, Pamela's brand of professional attention to detail has helped manoeuvre the complexities of a start-up company, and their signing up to Bord Bia's Origin Green sustainability programme.

Currently, all the fruit used is either selected from Bord Bia-approved growers or foraged - as with the 9kg of elderberries Brett used for their elderberry and blackberry wine - to be released in late autumn. The by-product fruit pulp is recycled as compost for food production. "My raised beds have gone wild!" says Pamela.

Being members of Origin Green, she says, "puts the onus on us to continue that down the road." For example, having committed to using exclusively Irish fruit, "the challenge becomes how do you grow if you can't get the fruit?" The answer is to work with those growers to meet demand, including looking at planting elder trees.

That commitment to Irish-only fruit isn't just about air miles or supporting a sustainable local economy. They believe it is the unique sweetness, body, acidity levels and intensity of flavour of Irish fruit that make their wines so special. "Once it's been in the vats about six months, I like to pour a little glass and go sit out by the door…" Brett says, trailing off into a reverie that is cut by Pamela's good-humoured observation that this could be another reason the speed of labelling can't keep up with the rate of sales. Still, given their desire to work to live rather than the other way around, it sounds like they've hit on a recipe for success.

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