The concept of Irish wine might sound like a joke but our winemakers have a long history of creating fine vintages — and some are doing it on Irish soil
Did you hear the one about one about the Ballyhaunis-based pharmacist who makes top-drawer Burgundy in her spare time? Or the North Dublin apple grower who can’t meet demand for his champagne-style bubbles?
The concept of Irish wine might sound like a joke, an oxymoron or a bit of a stretch of either ‘Irish’ or ‘wine’, but there are fine examples on our shelves today, whichever way you define it. ‘Wine’, of course, is a fermented drink made with fresh grapes. However, the term can also describe fruit wines, such as Wicklow’s Móinéir Straw-berry Wine, or honey wines like Kinsale Atlantic Dry Mead.
Meanwhile, ‘Irish’ might include any of our 70 million Irish diaspora, many of them with deep roots in wine country. For example, when William of Orange won the decisive Battle of Aughrim in 1691 the resulting exodus, dubbed the ‘Flight of the Wild Geese’, opened a new chapter in our colourful Irish wine story. Some of those fleeing married into local Bordeaux families to whose winemaking expertise they brought trade-route links. When King Billy banned the import of French wine into England, those valuable links opened up a back door via Ireland. More than a dozen of Bordeaux’s chateaux are run today by descendants of these ‘Wine Geese’, with give-away names like Kirwan, Léoville Barton and Lynch-Bages.
That tradition of partnering with expertise continues with many Irish-born winemakers today. Neasa Corish swapped Foxrock for the Languedoc where she leads sales and marketing for her husband Laurent Miquel’s winery. Lynne Coyle MW, who is wine director at O’Briens Wine, collaborated with Bodega Tandem in Navarra in Spain to make her stylish Rós rosé. Others pursued formal training, such as Roisin Curley — that Mayo-based pharmacist — who combined prestigious qualifications with Irish charm and a lucky lead to open doors in the closed shop of Burgundy.
Dubliner Mick O’Connell took his studies to the infamously challenging level of Master of Wine, writing a thesis on Sardinian wine. Having moved to London with a rock band, he began learning about wine to earn better money in retailers like Oddbins and Handford Wines — admitting “I always hoped that one day the music would pay for the wine”. Today, Mick owns the dynamic Neighbourhood Wine in Leeson Street (with a south county Dublin branch on the way) with importer Shane Murphy.
Among their selection of Irish-made wines you will find Mick’s own baby, a light and juicy red which he makes in Sardinia. The wine’s original name was Garnacha not Guerra, a cheeky play on ‘Cannonau’, which is the official name for Sardinia’s robust red wine made from a local type of Garnacha grape. Mick makes his in a very different style and so is not allowed to use the term Cannonau — or even Garnachia as unamused officials informed him (hence the now-truncated ‘G. n. Guerra’). His new wine is made with Vermentino grapes, which normally produce a white wine but in this case make an orange wine thanks to the skins being kept in contact with the wine at the start of its journey. It is called Buccia not Battles: “‘buccia’ being skin, as in grape skins for the orange aspect of it”, he says, and presumably battle being another cheeky pop at local officials.
Currently Mick and his business partner buy in grapes and borrow the winemaking facilities of a family-run winery, which gave them the flexibility to simply skip a vintage in 2020. He is not too phased by this slowing of momentum.
“The plan was always to build production slowly,” Mick tells me. “You could easily spend €250,000 on a winery fit out and vineyards are €30,000 a pop for every hectare. Once you’ve heavily invested, there’s a pressure to sell all the wine that you make. I know from working previously as a wine buyer for Findlaters how off-putting it is if someone is desperate to sell. If you’re chasing me as a wine buyer, then something is wrong.”
Other Irish winemakers threw themselves head first into their brave new world by planting vines and learning as they grow. One such intrepid soul is David Llewellyn, a Dublin farmers’ market trader with a loyal clientele for his organic apples, traditional French-style cider and raw cider vinegars. He makes surprisingly good wine in north county Dublin from organically grown grapes, mostly under cover of glass, polytunnels or temporary cover for pre-harvest ripening. His Lusca Cabernet-Merlot is reminiscent of a bright Loire Cabernet Franc, and his Blanc de Noir sparkling wine is bottle-fermented in the traditional method used in Champagne. Blush-pink, uber-dry and ultra refreshing, it has gorgeous summer fruits that carry through on the finish. It was so well received that it is sold out until the next vintage is released next December. So how does an apple-grower become a maverick winemaker?
“I remember the exact time the first seed of the idea came to my mind,” David tells me on the phone from his vineyards and orchards in Lusk. It was the late 1980s and he was gaining fruit growing experience with a farming family in southern Germany near Lake Constance, where local vines had been devastated in the 19th-century plague of sap-sucking insects called phylloxera. As pioneers in re-introducing vines and winemaking to the area, the family were experimenting with different grape varieties, including early ripeners which require less sun-soaked warmth to reach full ripeness. Young David found himself “fully immersed in the grape growing, the harvesting, the cellar work” and loving every element, including the post-work rewards. “That’s where I drank wine or indeed any alcohol for the first time.”
David remembers the light-bulb moment of noticing that Bacchus grapes — “sweet and aromatic and with a beautiful flavour” — ripened much earlier than others like Pinot Noir. “I thought, wow, I wonder if even earlier ripening grapes might ripen in our cool climate?”
It was 2002 before he acquired land that he could plant with “potential candidates for our cool short summers”. His first vintage in 2005 gave him 200 bottles of wine. Today he makes 1,000 bottles a year and has experimented with over a dozen grape varieties, of which Rondo is best suited to growing outdoors. He also successfully grows Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot under cover, along with some Cabernet Franc, Shiraz and Dunkelfelder.
Winemaking is an unforgiving process. “It’s like a hurdle race,” David says. “If you knock one hurdle you’re out, no matter how good the grapes were to begin with.” Following a simple rule of thumb (“if I’m not happy to have a glass and want another glass then I don’t want to sell it”) the results of several vintages were made into vine-gar instead. Sometimes he simply missed crucial timings, such when to switch the wine into fresh vessels. “I didn’t have confidence in myself as a potential winemaker,” he reflects, “and so sometimes I’d take care of the orchard and other ‘more important’ things.”
Having tasted David’s wines a decade ago and several times since, I can attest that they’ve gone on an impressive journey. He has good reason to be pleased with his recent results. He loves the Cabernet-Merlot — “I’d happily drink that myself” he says, as would I — and has been particularly pleased with the quality of and positive response to his sparkling wine.
So, should Ireland be eyeing up the success of English sparkling wine? David thinks that our marginal location on the edge of Europe will keep production very limited. “England has a much better climate than us,” he reminds us, emphasising the difference that just one degree celcius makes in viticulture. “They’re several degrees ahead of us.”
Another self-taught Irish winemaker is former medical doctor Deirdre O’Brien, who lives with her Italian husband Maurizio Caffer in northern Italy’s Piemonte. Wine did not feature in Deirdre’s Offaly upbringing, though an Erasmus year in the Loire did foster a love of bright Cabernet Franc-style wines. Deirdre and Maurizio met in Dublin where he worked in financial data management in the early 2000s. In 2005 they found themselves paying €35,000 for an acre of farm land and a beautiful if crumbling house in an abandoned corner of Monferrato between Milan and Turin — “for what reason I couldn’t really tell you,” Deirdre laughs today. “We fell in love with the rawness of the region — and we couldn’t believe you could buy some land and a house, even if it was a house that wasn’t fit to live in.”
After a stint living in London, plus a year’s sabbatical in 2009 during which they made the house “kind of liveable”, in 2013 they filled the car with as much as they could — including their four-year-old daughter Elsa — and moved their life to Monferrato, or “Langhe’s poor little sister”. They didn’t really have a plan as to how they would live. “We knew it wouldn’t involve commuting to Milan or Turin though, that just didn’t make sense.” Deirdre describes escaping a life that she felt “unprepared for”; they approached their new life with open hearts and minds.
Deirdre and Maurizio’s own light-bulb moment was also inspired by a grape. In 2013, they tasted a wine made from Slarina, a local variety that had almost become extinct before researchers of sustainable plants at the University of Turin’s helped resurrect it. “It had everything I love in a wine,” Deirdre recalls. “It had the fruit, the spice, the tannins and the lower alcohol levels; and it seemed age-worthy.”
They planted a hectare of the variety in 2014, and embarked on their new life as one of just three producers in the region working with Slarina, all of them organic in approach. “We’ve been very lucky in that it has put us on the map,” she says. They have since added Nebbiolo (a local clone that makes a “crowd-pleasing, approachable style but with a salinity thanks to our soil, which used to be seabed”) and Grignolino (“it’s like drinking a white wine, but it’s red”). Their remaining land is made up of forest and meadows, walnut groves and vegetable plots. They make honey as well as wine, and life is pretty sweet — if extremely hard work “from day break to sundown”, never mind the challenge of working so closely with your spouse.
For Deirdre, working the land and vines under biodynamic farming principles “made everything have sense”, besides linking them into a natural winemaking community from which they could learn. “The farmer is at the heart of the process and everything you do makes a difference to the results,” she explains. “Biodynamic farming teaches you to listen, to pay attention, to work with nature and not against it.”
Their former lives in finance and medicine certainly afforded more disposable income for holidays and material possessions. However, like Mick and David and their many hard-working peers, Deirdre wouldn’t swap it for the richly rewarding life they have chosen as one of the growing legions of Irish-made winemakers. And we Irish wine drinkers are all the luckier for those choices.