Well here’s a subject that doesn’t get many column inches. It is true that the Irish are so good at making beer and spirits (and even lethal cocktails such as the Gaelic Grasshopper), that they have neither the inclination, time nor sobriety to bother much with viticulture and winemaking. Not that the weather provides much encouragement.
But since when did winemakers need encouragement? In this respect they are just like their beloved vines: out in all weathers, most productive when slightly undernourished, and best once reaching a certain age.
The subject buzzed into my radar recently by discovering that a lady named Daria Blackwell has found the time, between improving healthcare systems and sailing, to plant a vineyard in the Emerald Isle. She is treading a path where others have been, some not recently, though also not frequently.
The oldest record is of a 5th century Cistercian monastery planting a vineyard in County Kilkenny. Irish monks subsequently gained a reputation as international consultant oenologists!
Later Irish winemakers also found it more productive to apply their skills abroad, becoming known as the Irish Wine Geese. They gave their names to many famous wine estates, such as Ch. Kirwan, Chx. Léoville-Barton and Langoa-Barton, Ch. de la Ligne, Ch. Lynch-Bages, Ch. Phélan Ségur and others in Bordeaux; in Spain, Bodegas Garvey Sherry; Concannon and Mahoney Vineyard in California; and in Australia, Hogan, Lagan, Murphy and O’Shea. The base of the Irish Wine Geese is Desmond Castle in Kinsale, Co. Cork, which since 1997 has also housed the International Museum of Wine.
Of current vineyards there are but a few. A German, Thomas Walk, reports making wine from a vineyard near Kinsale (he keeps the exact location secret) and sending it to Germany. Dennison’s farm at Ballinaboola, Newbawn, Co. Wexford has about 400 vines, of Rondo, Pinot Noir and Solaris, while Fruit and Vine at Rathmooney, Lusk, Co. Dublin makes wine from a small plot called Lusca Vineyard (Gaelic for vault or cave).
Which brings us back to Daria’s Vineyard at Kilmeena, Westport, County Mayo. This is a long way north for growing grapes, 53.8° to be exact. The ground is ‘surface water gley’, a wet clay-rich soil; in fact gley is Ukranian for clayey earth (glina is clay). It doesn’t sound very promising, but then Pétrus is on clay, and much else (including my own vines on London clay).
Daria charmingly describes her blog as ‘A chronicle of our preposterous journey to grow wine grapes and make wine in the west of Ireland, where the mountains come down to the sea along the Wild Atlantic Way.’ Experimental planting started in 2015 and is continuing, with Solaris, Rondo and some prized Chardonnay vines. There was good fruit this year but at the last minute the rains fell, the grapes swelled, the cats sheltered, and the birds swooped down and ate the lot. This is so sad! How do European growers avoid this? The INAO has just authorised anti-hail netting but not anti-bird netting, though I imagine the first will do double duty. In the meantime any scarecrow manufacturers reading this might like to give Daria a call.
Daria’s reaction to this loss was stoic (it involved going to Lidl to buy a bottle of wine). Better luck next year Daria!