Wine of champions
As Ireland and England face off on the rugby pitch, those of us on the sidelines can cheer them on by raising a patriotic glass of wine
There are many alcoholic beverages that we Irish do a fine job of producing. You could fill a bar with Irish whiskeys, beers, ciders, gins, vodkas, poitín and a bevy of local liqueurs. We even invented our own cocktail: the Irish coffee was dreamed up in Foynes to revive flying boat passengers after an incoming squall interrupted their transatlantic crossing. But wine? Perhaps that's a stretch. After all, the capricious weather that gave us the Irish coffee doesn't exactly lend itself to the ripening of grapes.
The English just about get away with it, as their still young but steadily growing wine industry proves - the best examples taking advantage of what are very similar soil structures to the Champagne region across the English Channel. Of course, their primary wine-growing regions in Kent, Sussex and Hampshire all enjoy significantly more sunshine than we do. But that hasn't stopped us Irish trying our hand, and with some surprisingly tasty results.
An Irish Peat Wine was launched last summer in the Foynes Flying Boat and Maritime Museum, and it's every bit as inventive as that prototype Irish coffee. It's not strictly an Irish-made wine, in that the base booze is a Rheinhessen Pinot Noir imported from Germany by Brendan Reddin and Trisha Kelly of BT Wines, but instead of infusing the red fruit character of the Pinot Noir with traditional oak, they add depth and character with the smoky notes of peat. "We wanted to bring an 'Irishness' to wine," says Brendan, "and what better than peat? It's been an integral part of Ireland through the years and it's successfully used in whiskey."
Pamela Walsh and Brett Stephenson of Wicklow Way Wines decided to forget grapes and focus instead on some of the gorgeously ripe fruit we do have. Their Móinéir Irish Strawberry Wine tastes like a rare sunny Irish day, and it was followed up with the autumnal Blackberry Wine with Wild Elderberries. One brave soul is making his own wine from grapes grown in Lusk, just north of Dublin. David Llewellyn might be better known for his wonderful natural cider, but his Lusca wines are gaining fans - and he is pleased with the results from vineyards first planted in 2002. What began as a curiosity grew into "an oversized hobby" and eventually into what he now regards as a serious part of his horticulture enterprise.
"I do everything on a very small 'micro' scale in comparison to even the smallest commercial wineries," David says. He recently increased production from a minuscule 350 bottles a year to a still tiny 700, but this also allowed him to invest in the wine's quality by ageing it in 225-litre French oak barrels, or 'barriques'.
"In the earlier years, I did not have enough wine to fill barriques," he explains, "and it is critically important when using barrels that they are always kept brim full." He is now focusing his efforts on red wine - at this micro-scale, "it is easier to produce a very good red wine than a very good white wine".
Relatively expensive and with limited availability, Irish wine looks set to remain an occasional tipple. But if you wanted to raise a patriotic toast, today could be the perfect day to pop an Irish cork.
3 Irish wines to try
1) Lusca Cabernet/Merlot 2014, €43.99, 13.5pc
Blackrock Cellars and selected independents nationwide
Think Loire Cabernet Franc, with red and black fruits, green herbal notes and generous acidity rounded out by oak ageing.
2) Móinéir Irish Blackberry Wine with Wild Elderberries, €23.95, 11pc
The Corkscrew and nationwide. See wicklowwaywines.ie
A light-bodied, off-dry wine that captures the taste of the Irish hedgerows.
3) Irish Peat Wine 2014, €39.95, 13pc
Wines on the Green and nationwide. See btwines.ie
German Pinot Noir infused with smoky Irish peat to add complexity and depth.
3 English wines to try
1) Stopham Estate Pinot Gris 2014, €25.99, 11.5pc
Donnybrook Fair and Searsons Wine Merchants
Aromatic, expressive and off-dry with stone-fruit and elderflower character, generous body and crisp acidity.
2) Balfour Leslie's Reserve N/V, €49.99, 12pc SuperValu, Knocklyon
A creamy Pinot Noir-led blend of classic Champagne varieties, with enough sweetness to soften the racy acidity.
3) Wiston Estate Blanc de Blancs N/V, €50.40, 12pc Mitchell & Son
Irish winemaker Dermot Sugrue heads up this celebrated winery where south-facing chalk soil vineyards lend class to this sparkling Chardonnay.