The Secret Vineyards of Hidden France – The Splendour and Mystery of The Sud-Ouest & Midi-Pyrenees AKA The South West


In France, they use the phrase, Sud-Ouest, not unlike we use the phrase, Gach Treo Eile on road signs, it is the shorthand for, everywhere else, or perhaps, all the rest of it.


In simple geographic terms, the Sud-Ouest, or South West is all the land, south of Bordeaux, west of the Rhone that runs along the Atlantic Coast and hits into the giant wall of the Pyrenees Mountains, the border with Spain. However, crucially not including the Languedoc and its sliver of Mediterranean coast. 

The South West is green, Atlantic France, it is the mystical heart of France’s past, filled with castles on mountain tops, Romanesque cathedrals, walled towns, wild rivers, gorges, mountain passes and the echoes of 2000 years of battles, schisms and swordplay.

This is musketeer country, from Cyrano de Bergerac in the northern part, to D’Artagnan in the Gascon south. This is also the home of Armagnac, the other great French brandy made from distilled grapes, a close rival to Cognac.

In wine books, after running through Champagne, Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Rhone, Languedoc and the Loire, there is often a very big catch all section into which the Sud-Ouest, or South West is poured.

This literary snub continues centuries of treating the South West poorly and has resulted in the region being poorly explored, badly imported even by nations like our own that have had a 300 year love affair with French wine and above all very slightly known by even the most enthusiastic wine lover.

The reason for this lack of profile can be summed up in two words, political prejudice.

The whole region, almost from the Loire down to the Pyrenees to the west of the Massif Central, France’s vast high, almost empty interior was once all the Roman region of Gallia Aquitania. The Romans loved the region because it was criss-crossed by the pre-built superhighways of the Ancient world, massive navigable rivers.

The Garonne river, the Gironde, the Lot and the massive Dordogne River all allow fast military and trade movement right into the heart of France. In the case of the River Garonne, it allowed huge vessels to navigate from the Atlantic right through the breadbasket of ancient France, past Bordeaux, then known as Burdigala inland to Toulouse and to the very foothills of the Pyrenees.

Much of the green fertile land here is rich alluvial soil, filled with complex geology and minerals leeched out from the high Pyrenees and swept downstream.

These lands along the rivers were often 100 to 200km inland from the Atlantic and enjoyed a temperate continental climate. Warm, not infrequently hot summers, dry warm autumns and cold, snowy but short winters.

The south west is the very median point between the cold wet north and the baking Mediterranean heat.

After the Romans, the Visigoths made Toulouse their capital, then in the 5th century came the Merovingian Kings, who built many of the castles.

Of course during all this Roman and post Roman regal occupation, castle building and nation founding. there was vineyard planting.

cotes de millau

So it is that this ancient South West region contains some of the oldest vineyards in the world, with wines that run through every style from sparkling to Beaujolais like, to beefy reds and zesty white wines, yet three quarters of its appellations are essentially unknown outside their own region and the most famous often evoke a vaguely interested shrug when seen on a shelf.

While most wine lovers will have heard of Bergerac, Cahors, Jurancon and Madiran, the wines of Fronton, Duras, Gaillac, Lavilledieu, Tursan, Irouleguy, Rosette and Marmandais are very much less well known, while with Parcherenc du Vic Bilh, Vins d’Entraygues and Marcillac we begin to enter pretty obscure ground.

With 1000 years of royal patronage, political and strategic importance, it is at first almost inexplicable that the wines of this region have not become associated with this luxurious and powerful image.

The answer then is tragically simple.

The royal lines that made the South West their base, culminated in Eleanor of Aquitaine and her off spring, the Plantagenet Kings of France and England who, after ruling both Kingdoms for 300 years lost it all at the end of the 1000 Year War, in the South West at the Battle of Castillon, just to the east of AC Bergerac.

The House of Valois and all subsequent French Monarchs made the North their base, beginning in the Loire and eventually making Paris, the far from obvious choice, their capital.

The South West became a deliberate, cultural backwater. A backward, wild, distant, rough and rustic place.

Over centuries of neglect and marginalisation the wines of the South West were seen as rustic imitations of Bordeaux wines, an outrageous and largely inaccurate piece of defamation. While the wines of the Dordogne River like AC Bergerac, AC Saussignac, AC Montravel or AC Monbazillac  could be regarded as echoing Bordeaux wines, the wines of Cahors or Jurancon are on a different plane altogether.


The Grapes of Wrath and Prejudice


   AC Bergerac And Its Satellites

In AC Bergerac, and its high quality tenderloin, AC Pecharmant and its sweet wine cousins, AC Monbazillac and AC Saussignac we see, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc respectively as the main ingredients and they are indeed the grapes we find in classical Bordeaux. They share climates and in many cases owners and contiguous soils so this is entirely to be expected.

Indeed it is these characteristics that make these wines and wine regions so interesting to wine lovers, for here is a way to buy and drink wines of good quality without the celebrity premium of better known Bordeaux appellations like Pomerol, St.Emilion or Sauternes.

No one is suggesting that Monbazillac sweet wines are a match for the best of Sauternes but, in good vintages Noble Rot driven Monbazillac wines like those from Chateau Belingard and Chateau Vari can be delicious echoes of Sauternes at a fraction of the price and well worth seeking out.

The same is true of AC Saussignac delights like new Irish wine geese Chateau Haut Garrigue, which as of St. Patrick’s Day this year is now legally known as Chateau Feely, carrying on a proud Irish owner tradition of placing the Irish surname into the Chateau name.



However 90km south east of Bergerac, we find the fortress city of Cahors, epicentre of the AC Cahors wine region. Cahors is surrounded on three sides by the River Lot and with its medieval fortified bridges feels like a castellated island.

On almost every steep hill, vineyards flow out in every direction. The grape dominating here is Cot, better known to us today as the national grape of Argentina, Malbec.

If for once, French wineries could be persuaded by any argument of modern marketing, they would paint in large letters the world Malbec on the front of every Cahors wine and see the money roll in as Malbec lovers around the world try the original source for the wines they love in South America.

I would not hold our breath on this and indeed since they also like to call Malbec variously, Auxerrois, Pressac and Cot Noir in Cahors, the chances of getting unity or change at all are, nil.

Of course plenty of wineries are business minded and while they have not engraved the words, Cahors Malbec on the front label, they have begun to mention Malbec on the back.

 and let wine writers know as often as they can during visits that this is the source of Argentine wine’s star, Malbec.

In fact Cahors wines have improved dramatically over the last 20 years moving away from the famous Black Wines, which were in fact hefty and tannic rather than the Blockbuster fruit style we might think Black Wine meant to evoke.

In other words, AC Cahors wines have become more like Argentine Malbec over the last decade, so that rather than Argentina’s Malbec being a descendant or pupil of Cahors, Cahors is a disciple of New World practice and taste profiles in its most modern wines.

 RV-AJ460_BKRVPh_G_20130125004520Beyond The Familiar

As we travel further south from Bergerac and Cahors we reach the northern outskirts of Toulouse which is surrounded by a semi circle of wine appellations, from west to east, Saint-Sardos, Fronton and Gaillac.


   AC Fronton and AC Gaillac

Administratively this is the heart of the Midi-Pyrenees, which is the more southern and indeed quasi-Mediterranean section of the South West.

This is rugby country, there has been substantial industry here for three hundred years, it is in many ways, France’s Yorkshire, maybe even its Newcastle. Vast infrastructure projects like the Canal du Midi link it with both the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. Mills, cloth, bulk agriculture and latterly aeronautics in the form of Airbus and the European Space Agency are all here.

The wines here reflect this muscular, plain speaking persona.

The grapes here include Rhone and Midi stalwarts like Syrah, which is a dominant wine in Sardos and Gaillac, and Negrette the main grape in Fronton.  These wine regions are so inward looking and self sufficient that they evolved to produce all the wine styles that the city of Toulouse and surrounding towns might want.

So in AC Fronton we see, medium bodied red wines that foreground acidity, aromas of violets and raspberry and which can be quite harsh in youth. This is wine that was almost built for Toulouse sausage.

In AC Gaillac the very much larger region to the east of Toulouse we find a wine appellation that straddles the Tarn River and finds itself located in both flat alluvial plains and rough, gorges filled terrain leading up to the ancient city of Albi. This region contains the awe inspiring Gorges du Tarn, where the walls of the Tarn Bank can reach 1800 feet in height on either side, it can be a claustrophobic and exhilarating experience.

This is where the tallest bridge in the world, the epic, Norman Foster bridge, the Millau Viaduct is situated.

The wines of Gaillac reflect this rapidly and significantly changing landscape. Under the AC Gaillac they produce a Beaujolais nouveau style wine, 3 different types of sparkling wine, two different styles of sweet wine as well as almost half a dozens dry styles.


   AC Madiran

About 100km to the west of Toulouse, towards the Atlantic coast sits AC Madiran. This small wine region sits on the old route to Santiago de Compostela and you can draw a nearly straight line down from St.Emilion the previous wine stop on the Way of St. James for pilgrims. The religious centres of Pau and Lourdes in the foothills of the Pyrenees are just to the south of AC Madiran.

The grape here is Tannat and it is an exclusively red wine commune. Until the 1980s it was considered a, vin du garde , a monolithic, blocky, nearly immortal wine that needed decades of cellaring to soften up. 

What this meant to our ancestors, especially pilgrims, was that it was a very stable wine that was not going to change any time soon. Ideal to put in skins and barrels for the march over the mountains to Spain, or have in the castle cellar for the long winter.

We are less enamoured of brutalism these days and the wine lover used words like unapproachable, profoundly tannic and lacking fruit. Then somehow the grape, Tannat, found its way to Uruguay and northern Argentina, where it was found to be capable of producing intensely concentrated, dark fruited and joyous wines with a bit of leather and spice.

Back in Madiran, in 1980 Alain Brumont, the saviour of Madiran purchased its most famous Chateau, Chateau Montus. Along with a new generation of winemakers and an influx of owners from outside the South West in the 1980s, they pioneered a softening up, to some critics, a Napa-isation of Madiran.

To which we could really say, they should be so lucky. It is certainly not Napa, either in style or ambiance, but the wines with micro-oxygenation have been softened up, and with judicious use of new winemaking have been made fruitier. They are still big wines, but now in an enjoyable style.


   AC Jurancon and AC Irouleguy

At the very southern most tip of the South West region are the potential stars of the region Jurancon and Irouleguy, though so far only Jurancon has broken through, in modern times, with Chateau Jolys and Domaine Caulhape. Although most Jurancon winemakers would have you ear off you for saying such heresy for a wine that was used in its brilliant crystalline sweet form from the Petit Manseng grape, for the christening of King Henri de Navarre in 1553.

Irouleguy is up in the Pyrenees in the heart of Basque country, it has yet to make a breakthrough, though it has a very powerful champion in Jean-Claude Berrouet, until his retirement in 2007, the winemaker at Chateau Petrus and in Napa Valley at Dominus. He has his own winery down in Irouleguy making a hard to find white wine called Herri Mina from Gros Manseng that has brought considerable US media attention. So far this has yet to see any serious impact on its general profile however in the rest of the world. 

As I hope you can see there is huge diversity and antiquity in the wines of the South West and far from being Bordeaux clones looking to trade on their proximity to that region, these are proud, distinct and vital wines with ancient claims to any open minded wine lovers heart and palate. It is a glorious hidden treasure to be explored.


The Wines of the South West

Red –

Chateau Montus, AC Madiran 2007, €27.95 (90)

Chateau Montus, AC Madiran 2004, €28.95 (91)

Domaine Arretxea, AC Irouleguy 2010, €29.95 (91)

Chateau Bellevue La Foret, AC Fronton 2009, €16.99 (89)

Chateau Bellevue La Foret, Le Foret Royale, AC Fronton 2008, €26 (91)

Chateau Haut Garrigue, La Source, AC Bergerac 2008, €18 (91)

Chateau Des Eyssards Cuvee Prestige, AC Cahors 2010, €14.30 (90)

Chateau de Chambert, AC Cahors 2008, €17.19 (91)

Chateau de Cedre, AC Cahors 2009, €22.80 (90)

Chateau de Cedre, Cuvee Heritage, AC Cahors 2010, €14.95 (89)

Chateau de Gaudou Tradition, AC Cahors 2012, €13.55 (90)



White –

Chateau de Navailles, Grain Sauvage, AC Jurancon Sec 2012, €16.49 (90)

Chateau la Brie, Blanc, AC Bergerac 2010, €11.59 (88)

Chateau Haut Garrigue, Semillon-Sauvignon, AC Bergerac 2009, €13 (89)

Chateau Des Eyssards Blanc, AC Cahors 2012, €12.15 (89)

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Posted by on May 15, 2014 in Uncategorized


St.Emilion – Ausonius’s PR, St.James, The Camino and The Invention of Wine Tourism



Le vignoble bordelais
And then, there is St. Emilion.

Perhaps the most beautiful, certainly the most important and without doubt the best known wine village in France, indeed, probably the best known in the wine world.

Along with Chablis and Chianti, St.Emilion is one of the oldest and most powerful brands in the wine world.
Like most wine lovers, the first time I visited St.Emilion was just a daze of joyous wonder that this famous wine style, could be a real place, tinged with just a little pinch of, is this a real place. It was so perfect and so unremittingly so beautiful.

St.Emilion is a honey coloured citadel of castles, cathedrals, cloistered monasteries, criss-crossed by a labyrinth of nearly vertical beige cobbled stoned streets and marbled walls.

It sits draped over the edge of a cliff, with the cathedrals, castles and cloistered part of the village on the clifftop, with the golden horse and cart wide alleyways they call streets falling away down the cliff to the red and ochre coloured rooftops of village square and merchants houses below.
It is of course, a UNESCO World Heritage site and even waking up in the morning and thinking about changing a bulb in your village house here, requires planning permission.

On a visit to St.Emilion a couple of years ago, Irishman Paddy O’Flynn, the founder of the Wine Buff chain of shops throughout Ireland, who is a resident of St.Emilion and owner of a chateau in the region, pointed out to me one of the proudest secrets of St.Emilion’s 2200 residents. I had thought it might be the newly discovered burial site of St.Emilion himself, an 8th century hermit, but it turned out to be a resident who had fought the entire French legal system and managed to get a heritage quality double glazed window in his house. A feat that will never be accomplished again as that loophole has now been closed apparently.

It struck me very forcefully that, in addition, to the general and usual troubles of winemakers around the world, from weather to disease, St.Emilion’s growers are battling with the reality of living and working inside a giant, heavily controlled, museum.

In reality while it brilliantly preserves the fragile heritage for humanity, it freezes much of life at the date of the listing in the UN register, fine if you are Newgrange or Stonehenge, less so if you a re a living and breathing business.

St.Emilion has managed to survive and prosper because it was a working village, and over the years has simply made each tiny adjustment carefully and subtly allowing daily life to continue.

The World’s First Tourist Trap
The first thing that actually strikes you when you walk into St.Emilion, cars are of course forbidden, is the smell and the crowded silence. Cars, harbour an unseen blight, not the pollution, but the noise. By keeping cars and large herds of tourist coaches to the edge of the village, you immediately get the hubbub of medieval life, the shuffle of foot on cobble, the sound of chatter.

However this is only a secondary sensation, because the first and most powerful experience is the waft of baking. The warm doughy rush of baking biscuits hits you on all sides. Tiny, wafer thin almond biscuits are the speciality of St.Emilion and they are sold, hot, from a dozen little bakeries.
Every other shop also seems to be a wine shop or an architecturally perfect restaurant.

Any objective viewer of this entire experience while being mildly seduced will of course accept, that what you are sitting in is a tourist trap. Admittedly a fur lined, gold-plated, diamond encrusted, environmentally and historically sympathetic tourist trap.
Then, it strikes you, it has been one of the world’s great tourist traps for over 2000 years.

The Romans conquered this whole region and named it Aquitaine, they defeated the native Celtic tribe, yes, another of our lost homelands, who were called the Burdigalii. The Burdigalii and around a dozen other Celtic tribes occupied sites all along the major rivers of the region, including in the natural caves at the bottom of the cliff edge that has now become St.Emilion.

However these tribes seemed to have cultivated little and certainly not vines.

The Roman’s made swift work of their conquest, fortifying the Burdigalii capital as Budigala, modern Bordeaux. However the wealthier Romans travelled up the Dordogne and established settlements in the plateaus and hills that are the ancient edges of the previously much wider Dordogne River.
The cliffs on which St.Emilion sits is actually part of a complex granite and limestone kerb to the river basin.

This high ridge runs largely east to west, that is, it faces south and southwest, ideal for vineyard location and it seems to have taken the conquering Romans minutes to figure this out.

Ancient vineyards and terrace formations are found across the entire length of this eastern part of Bordeaux, more usually described as the Right Bank. This is where in addition to St.Emilion we find, Pomerol, Montagine-St.Emilion, Fronsac, Libourne, Bergerac and Bourg.

The Bordeaux region really entered the western consciousness when philosopher, teacher, political advisor and crucially, wine estate owner, Decimus Ausonius became confidante to Roman Emperor Valentinian and tutor to his son and next Emperor Flavius Augustus.

We know he must have been a very accomplished politician because he survived decades of intrigue at the heart of the Empire and many shifts in power and finally retired back to his beloved St.Emilion, where he died, peacefully.

During his life however, he promoted, through story and poetry the Eden like glories of his native St.Emilion estates and the wine that came from there. Wines from we call St.Emilion today were apparently a prized export to Rome’s elite thanks to Ausonius’s literary PR.


The Way of St.James, The Camino and The Invention of Wine Tourism

In the period between 740 and 840 AD, the former Roman powerhouse of Bordeaux had become a peripheral, but very active region, a home and political stronghold to Visigoths , whose kingdom ran from northern Spain right the way to Cognac 100km to the north of St.Emilion.
In those violent times, wandering ministers and Christian missionaries peppered Europe. In Aquitaine the most famous was a hermit called Emilion, who eventually installed himself in a natural Grotto, the caves of the former Celtic tribes and began to preach intensely. After his death, a church, monastery and eventually a cathedral in his honour were built on and around his grotto. When he was canonised the entire village and commune took his name, St.Emilion.

We might have heard little more of St.Emilion, and its wines, but for the Islamic invasion of Spain.

Miraculously as the Spanish church and nobles began their fight to reconquer Spain, a great discovery was made in the north west of Spain at a headland called Finisterre, the End of The World. It was the tomb of one of Jesus’s disciples, St.James.

His body had been transported to northern Spain after his execution in Jerusalem not many years after Jesus’s own death.

Happily for wine lovers soon after the discovery the church established a Pilgrimage from every corner of Europe to northern Spain, called The Way of St.James, or today the Camino.

Routes from every point north and east converged in Northern Spain and snaked across to Santiago do Compostelo, but before that most of the northern routes converged in France, with the most popular beginning in Paris and Tours. The English and indeed Irish Pilgrimage route usually took this Way.
St.James Gate in Dublin is the start point for the Irish Pilgrimage, the subsequent arrival of the brewery cements the liquid elements of the very long journey.

So it was that the monastery of St.Emilion, like many on the route, began to offer hospitality and the wines served to Pilgrims began to be spoken of widely and with considerable praise.

Over time wealthier Pilgrims would arrange for wines from their favourite stops to be transported home and along with a few rumours of miraculous health giving benefits this cemented the reputation of St.Emilion.

As the clergy and lay wine merchants in St.Emilion became wealthy on the profits of the wine they began to become protective of their reputation and in 1189 they obtained a royal charter from King John, England ruled the region until 1453. This charter set up standards for wine production, and granted exclusive powers of control and even taxation to what was called the Jurade de St.Emilion.

Today, almost 1000 years later the Jurade retains some powers, even though it is largely a ceremonial society now. The most important of which is the annual parade, in full robes to the top of the old Cathedral to read out the date of the bans, the date after which you may harvest.
This was, and is, a huge power. It means that there should be no one picking to early and producing light watery unripe wines that would damage St.Emilion’s 2000 year old reputation.

Today this is done in conjunction with the INAO, the French state organisation and with the advice of laboratories checking biochemical ripeness.

Regulation, Regulation, Regulation

To have kept their reputation for so long, despite being flooded with tourists for well over 1000 years and put under severe commercial pressure by every wine importer, wine shop and restaurant in the world looking to have a St.Emilion on their list is nor easy or uncontroversial feat.
Ruthless regulation and meticulous governance has been the open secret.

Essentially placing the word St.Emilion on your bottle is a licence to print money. Buying land or and estate in AC St.Emilion is a licence to print money, so regulating just what is AC St.Emilion and what is the best of St.Emilion has been of primary importance for centuries.
Today the landscape is governed by statute, with a legal St.Emilion Classification being established in 1954.

This Classification is re-run every 10 years and every single classified estate is put back into the pot and rejudged. So that theoretically the top estates could end up declassified or relegated to a lower level of classification. Equally some newcomer could burst onto the scene and become the new king of the appellation.

In reality since land is unbelievably expensive, and kept within large family dynasties for centuries the best plots, owned by the richest and most well capitalised people, usually make the best wines. So the reclassification is usually a shuffling of a well used set of cards, with few surprises.
The classification is quite neat, unusually for France, but contains one big potential tripping point for wine lovers.

The commune of St.Emilion is divided up into AC St.Emilion and AC St.Emilion Grand Cru. If your vineyard is in either of these locations you can cal it after the appellation, so every single winery in AC St.Emilion Grand Cru is entitled to put Grand Cru on its label regardless of the quality of the wine.

The Classification is of the wineries who enter the competition so to speak, and put their St.Emilion Grand Cru up for consideration.
The best St.Emilion Grand Cru will be awarded St.Emilion Grand Cru Classe status. So that is what we might want to look out for the world, classe, if we want the legally judged better wines.

The St.Emilion Grand Cru Classe, are dived into two categories, AC St.Emilion Grand Cru Classe and the upper tier, AC St.Emilion Premiere Grand Cru Classe. This later class is divied into category A and B. There are 4 Chateaux in Category A, 14 Chateau in category B and 63 chateaux in the lower Grand Cru Classe.

The four top Class A Chateaux are, Chateau Ausone and Chateau Cheval Blanc who have been there on their own for decades and since the 2012 reclassification they have been joined by Chateau Angelus and Chateau Pavie, tow of the longstanding equally high priced and highly regarded St.Emilion wines.

To say that there is war each time there is a reclassification is a mild understatement. French lawyers’ fortunes have been made at almost every reclassification event. The 2012 reclassification has 3 loosing chateaux Châteaus Corbin Michotte, La Tour du Pin Figeac and Croque-Michotte en route for the French supreme court, in their attempt to get the classification overturned. Also this time, criminal charges of rigging have been made out by the three chateau which has turned the whole affair very sour indeed.

For the moment, and probably for the next four or five years the current classification stands and visitors who sip the wine and admire the scenery would not even perceive a flicker of sweat in the magnificent façade and global reputation of St.Emilion and its wines.

For wine lovers, this constant regulation and reclassification means you can explore the lower regions and newer wineries with hopes of finding the next super star, a real joy and an unexpected pleasurable result of meticulous regulation as even these newcomers are watched like hawks to make sure they do not dent the reputation. It is not a guarantee of brilliance every time but it provides a base line that means the word St.Emilion more than most wine names, does give that rarity in wine, a real hope of brilliance with a core baseline of competence and ambition.

The Wines of St.Emilion and its Satellite Appellations
Chateau de St.Georges, AC St.Georges St. Emilion 2010, €20 (91)
Clos Saint Jacques St Emilion, AC St.Georges St. Emilion 2010, €20.49 (90)
Vieux Chateau Des Combes, AC St. Emilion Grand Cru 2011, €21.49 (90)
Chateau Pipeau, AC St. Emilion Grand Cru 2008, €48 (92)
Chateau Haut-Plantey, AC St Emilion Grand Cru 2010, at €40 (92)
Chateau La Commanderie, AC St. Emilion Grand Cru 2007, €39.30 (91)
La Fauconnerie, AC Montagne St. Emilion 2008, €19.99 (91)
Chateau Petit Corbin Despagne, Saint-Emilion Grand Cru 2008, €26.99 (90)

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Posted by on May 15, 2014 in Uncategorized


The New Spirits of Christmas – The Triumph of Irish Whiskey : Jobs and Presents Galore

           The New Spirits of Christmas – The Triumph of Irish Whiskey : Jobs and Presents Galore 



Investing In Irish Whiskey is now gaing huge momentum from €200 million at Tullamore by Grants of Scotland or by the barrel as a founding father at artisan distilleries like The Dingle Whiskey Distillery

While it always comes as a slight surprise to find out that you are now just one weekend away from Christmas, the incessant Christmas advertising, and the festive food-porn, that we have been surrounded by for the last two months, has surely lessened any genuine sense of astonishment.

Never the less the time is right to get out your alpine climbing gear and get ready to wade through the tin forest of special Cjhristmas editions of almost every whiskey on the planet. And as you enter that forest you will begin to notice that more and more of them are new, or revised Irish Whiskey offerings.

What you are surrounded by is solid walls of evidence of the unbridled success of near double digit, year on year, growth in sales of Irish Whiskey. These may not just be superb present for Irish festive shoppers, they are also a dazzling and much needed present for the Irish nation and economy.


The Best Whiskey Present Of All For Ireland This Christmas


The best news about all this is that, before we as consumers buy one of the wall of tinned whiskey that is now being assembled like metal forests in every off licenses and supermarket, the real gift for Ireland Inc has already begun. 


Jobs and Investment have begun to flow in to towns large and small across the country as the Distillation revolution has now begun in earnest.


From Dingle to Dundalk, from Slane to Tullamore’s e200 million investment in a brand new mega distillery under construction by Scottish Distillery giant, Grants Whiskey, the revolution is now under way.


The Slane Whiskey story is particularly illustrative. Lord Henry Mount Charles, as he then was, he has now succeeded his father and is Henry, Marquess Conyngham, and his son, now Alex, Lord Mount Charles, began by buying in whiskey, having it blended to their specifications and then sold under the Slane Castle Whiskey brand.


Henry, Marquess of Conyngham and son Alex, Earl of Mount Charles are behind the architecturally dazzling new distillery granted planning permission this year at Slane Castle in partnership with Coganc firm Camus/ Their Slance Irish Whiskey is already on the market

This was quite typical of the story of Irish Whiskey between 1970 and 2011. Then, with the sale of Cooley Distillery to Beam and the loss of anyone selling whiskey to companies who might want to commercialise their own blend without founding their own distillery a lengthy and very expensive process with a wait of 3 years before you can sell the first drop as whiskey all seemed lost.


Happily, the year on year rise in sales of Irish Whiskey has convinced the world and the Slane owners to think again and in July this year, Meath County Council gave planning permission to Alex Mount Charles to begin construction on a multi-million euro, architecturally beautiful distillery at Slane. He will be joined in this project by very savvy Cognac producer the ancient family run House of Camus, another vote of confidence in the sustainability of this transformation of the Irish Whiskey industry.


It is a transformation in sales and production that is palpable on every high street. When you hear talk about 7% annual year on year growth in the brown spirits sector, it is impressive, but it does not really strike you what that means, until you look up from the wine shelves to behind the counters across the country.


There behind those counters you can now see the Everest like wall of brown spirits rise up behind the cash registers. Then hear about


While Japan and then China were the initial drivers according to Teeling, it is  Brazil, South Korea, India and across Africa that is becoming the more exciting drivers of this trend.


This explosion of Irish Whiskey sales has meant that project after project is now getting under way to harness and surf that new demand. Which has lead to the present leap in the desirability and viability of the Irish spirits and distillery businesses.


John Teeling, after selling Cooley Distillery to giant multinational Beam International who make Jim Beam Bourbon amongst a massive portfolio, bided his time and has with his sons Jack and Stephen, started again, but this time on a vast scale, purchasing the entire former Dundalk Brewery of Diego, to transform it in 2014 into one of the largest distilleries in the country and have whiskey pouring from its doors as soon as legally possible in 2017.


In Dingle Oliver Hughes of the Porterhouse Brewery Group and a group of like minded backers has founded the Dingle Distillery and is a year or so in the run towards being able to release his whiskey on a demanding world..


These projects like the Tullamore distillery which will become the home of Tullamore Dew are employing thousands not dozens in their construction, manufacture, distillery operations, bottling, marketing and transportation not to mention farming for the raw cereal materials from which all this whiskey is being made.


It is feeding in nicely to Ireland as a green, foodstuffs world capital, because Whiskey and related spirit products are the ultimate value added consumable products.


You take Irish water and grain, process it, let it sit quietly in Irish cellars for 3 years and sell it for a dizzying multiple of the base cost of the agricultural materials.



The Meaning of Christmas Spirits


What has changed most in Ireland’s distillery scene over that last 8 years is that the resurgence in Irish brewing, Irish beer making has lead to an availability of raw material and a source of cash flow for anyone thinking about breaking into the Irish Whiskey market.


The mash of warmed crushed cereals from which dozens of local artisan brewery companies across Ireland have made beer for the last 5 years is of course exactly the base material from which we make spirits.


Whiskey, indeed all spirits are distilled from a base product that is usually rich in starch or sugars, cereals, root tubers, rise, fruit and grapes are all acceptable and depending on which one you start with and how you age the resultant spirit you get whiskey, brandy, cognac, gin, vodka,  bourbon, sake or Poitin.


For brown spirits like Whiskey, Cognac, Armagnac or Bourbon you need to place the clear white spirit into barrels to age and draw their signature amber colour from the barrels. For gin, vodka or Poitin, you are almost ready to bottle as it flows from the still.


A Damascus like revelation that a distillery should be the at the heart of a suite of products which could be earning money from day one has been the key wake up call.


While your whiskey is in barrels getting its statutory 3 year sleep, you can be selling gin and vodka made from clear distilled spirits and the beer from the brewery part of the process that enabled you to gain the expertise and funding in the first place.


The only thing anyone will ask in 20 years time is, what took us all so long to see this as a systemic, sustainable, jobs rich, spatially diverse businesses that these distillery business will have become.


Did I mention tourism. Every county and town with a distillery will and can become as they are in Scotland, Cognac and Kentucky a source of artisan pilgrimage and tasting tourism.



The Christmas Spirit Gift Scene


All this activity has meant that in addition to the usual suspects we can begin to see in amongst the throng of Irish Whiskey presently produced a raft of ancillary products that are the flickering of the next generation of Irish distillery life, Poitin and Gin, small batch start up Whiskey and my personal favourite the test tube packs of spirit, not legally able to be sold as whiskey, but evidence of how the spirit is evolving. Kilbeggan Distillery pioneered this in Ireland when it released pre-legal Whiskey releases of the Spirit of Kilbeggan a sampling of one and two year in barrel spirit.


This year we see that adventurous spirit in something like Dingle Gin, the entirely standalone product of the Dingle Distillery, but a hint of the kind of quality we can expect when the whiskey is ready to be sold in a couple of year’s time.


In Poitin it has been a transformative year with Teeling’s Poitin, perhaps the best, most rounded and ambitious Poitin every released being joined by half a dozen new Poitin players. If you have not tried Poitin since someone produced a red lemonade bottle with a sticker on it containing firewater back in 1987, you need to drop your prejudices / emotional scarring and have a look at the well made, complex flavours ranging from the uber smooth like Teelings to musky Ban Poitin or the genuinely spicy Glendalough Poitin.


The only thing we might need to argue about is at what point an amber coloured, barrel aged Poitin is in fact an Irish Whiskey and you can debate that point over a glass of Glendalough Sherry Cask Finish Poitin.


Beyond these upstarts of course the main players in Irish Whiskey have wisely and confidently gone back to their roots with the continued resurgence of Pot Still Whiskey offerings to compliment the now world dominating brands like Jameson, Tullamore Dew,  Powers and Bushmills.


These Pot Still Whiskeys represent for me Ireland’s first classed growths, they are increasingly recognised as the peak of irish whiskey production and of course are charged for on that basis.


What is most interesting is that they are now recognised as such, so the issue I mention and whine about each year that really most of we gift giving and receiving consumers would be hard pressed to know if a 10 year Old or 12 year old or 18 year Old whiskey is a e50  gift or a e250 gift, something no one wants on either side of that interaction.


Hint, Bushmills 10 Year Old Single Malt sells for around e45, the Bushmills 21 Year Old Single Malt is e138. That is a wide difference and if the recipient simply knows that single malt with an age is a good thing, without the gulf in differentials between ages then the whole hierarchy is under threat.


Pot Stills have liberated us from this, they are superb richly textured whiskeys and apart from ridiculous super cuvees issued as 25 or 30 year old Pot Stills, the normal Pot Still is now running to around e50-e80, just enough wiggle room for both sides to enjoy the ambiguity benefit, an ideal business and client gift then.


Here Then is the quick guide to this years most interesting spited purchases.



The Classed Growth Quality Spirit Gift


Midleton Very Rare Irish Whiskey 2013 around e160 widely available (92)

Dungourney 1964 Pot Still around e799 (I have not tasted this whiskey, but it is in essence a Middleton Very rare from a 1964 Cask and is probably going to make some 50 year old next year a very happy person if someone plans to make this the centre piece gift)

Hennessy XO around e130 widely available (94)  

Remy Martin Excellence XO around e140 (93)

Green Spot Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey around €57 from Mitchell and Sons (93)

Tyrconnell 10 Year-Old Sherry Finish Single Malt around e75 (93)

Jameson 18 Year-Old Limited Reserve around e130 (94)


The Pot Still – Executive Level Spirit Gift


Powers John’s Lane Release 12 Year Old Single Pot Still around €63 (94)

Paddy Old Irish Whisky Centenary Single Pot Still around e78 (93)

Redbreast 12 Year Old Pure Pot Still Irish Whiskey around €59 (94)

Redbreast 15 Year-Old Pure Pot Still Irish Whiskey  around €97 (95)

Yellow Spot 12 Year Old Single Pot Still Whiskey around e75 (94)


The Leftfield, Go On, Go On Poitin Selection


Ban Poitin by West Cork Distilllers around e38 (91)

Bunratty Irish Potcheen around e28.50 (90)

Glendalough Poitin around e36.99 (92)

Teeling Whiskey Company Poitin around e32.99 (93)



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Posted by on December 19, 2013 in Uncategorized


Wine’s God Particle – The Science of Terroirism


                                     water retention data sets on a vineyard one of the earliest scientific tools of terroirism

beauty 3

                                  Beauty and the memory of years of success and failure has been the traditional method

Brian Crosser is a cutting edge scientist, steeped in the academic rigour of the hard sciences, the natural sciences as they used to be called. He is also a former Decanter Man of the Year, winemaker, consultant and founder of the famed Petaluma Estate in Australia. Former Chief Winemaker of the entire Hardy’s Wines group in the 1970s he planned and conceived a new vision for Australian wine that has now come to pass.

If anyone deserves the title, Guru, then Brian Croser is that candidate.

Dozens of the world’s leading winemakers studied under him at Riverina – Charles Sturt University, from the 1970s onwards including many who like Martin Shaw of Shaw& Smith, the makers of Australia’s current best Chardonnay, also worked for a decade studying ujnder him in situ at Petaluma.

In 2004 having been the subject of a successful hostile takeover of Petaluma by the giant Lion Nathan drinks group, Croser along with his family founded Tapanappa in Australia and another winery in the US.

His key breakthrough in science and wine was to map out, in meticulous detail, the actual, not the supposed or agreed best confluence of factors that make for the right spot to plant vines.

He in a word, found, the God Particle in Terroir.


He has been refining, perfecting and experimenting ever since and without a moments self conscious pause refers to his wildly complex data sets as The Matrix

Mountain High, River Deep

Now, Brian Croser has become a feature of South American wine working as a consultant with the Santa Rita Estates wine group. For the second year running this has resulted in a no holds barred scientific conference on South American Wines, with Croser at its heart.

It is a refreshingly scientific and collegiate affair with half a dozen different, and competing,  wineries taking part, along with winemakers, consultants, regional experts, environmentalists and workers from all parts of each of the companies. Into this mix Oz Clarke, Jancis Robinson, Steven Spurrier now looking incredibly like Alan Rickman who played Spurrier in the film Bottleshocked and Tim Atkins MW the feisty co-Chairman of the International Wine Challenge.

Like any good academic conference abuse came with dripping innuendo and terribly, helpful, tiny, data corrections.

Croser and Atkins crossed swords on the issue of ‘dead fruit’. A style of wine Atkins accused Croser of seeming to praise. It seemed a mistaken impression by Atkins but I watched in growing fear of a more direct riposte from Croser as his face bloomed purple and he spoke ever more quietly, over the top of his glasses.

Croser, like all Gurus and I dare say driven scientists is not an easy man to work with. Most former students and colleagues use the phrase, does not suffer fools gladly, interspersed with the even more frequent statement that when Brian Croser has his data well secured in his own mind, you would want to be very, very sure of yourself to offer other thoughts.

Perhaps the greatest evidnce of this iron and self confident will is that the muti-million dollar behemoth of Lion Nathan after taking control of his company against his will, eventually fell in line, with Croser, leaving him in full control  of Petaluma and adopting a new policy of autonomous units within their vast empire of wineries.

So, his keynote address was widely anticipated and, was superb.

Through minute analysis of the vine and geology, Croser and a generation of oenological scientist from Universities in Australia, Bordeaux, California, Santiago, Chile  and Germany have essentially unravelled the wine equivalent of the exploration of the world of sub-atomic particles.

Finding the right place to plant Cabernet Sauvignon for example is now, under this methodology a game of science not art.

This has meant that Croser personally pioneered the shift from the, its only dirt and if we irrigate and fertilise we can grow anything anywhere school into a genuine scientific terroirism.

Croser is often called a Terroiriste, and does seem to enjoy the title.

Croser pioneered Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in Coonawarra, Riesling in Clare, and Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in the Adelaide Hills.

Today he can most frequently be found in 10 and 15 foot deep holes across Chile and Argentina, and this is where his consultancy expertise is being put to superb use, fine tuning the potential of Chile and indeed Argentina into a fine wine, world class leading reality.

Cabernet Sauvignon is a good way to begin looking at his theories.

The Green Gene and Calibrating Greatness

Cabernet Sauvignon is not an ancient grape, it first really surfaces as a recognised entity somewhere in the early 18th, perhaps late 17th century. As a grape species it emerged sometime in the period just before this as the improbable offspring of the red grape Cabernet Franc and the white grape Sauvignon Blanc.

At that time farmers would often plant red and white varieties together, sometimes to be harvested together, sometimes harvested and produced as red and white wines. Vineyards were wild affairs and reproduction was sexual with many thousands of different clones. Today vineyards are made up of identical individuals, clones, and reproduction is asexual, so we do not get the variations, crosses and happy accidents of a field of endlessly varied clonal individuals.

So, from long study Croser suggest in relation to Cabernet Sauvignon that “it shares with Merlot and Carmenere their shared propensity to retain the green character of Isobutyl Methoxy Pyrazine.”  or IBMP to its friends, who are not legion. “In cool and damp years and cool and damp soils where vigour is too great, and canopy shades the fruit, the grapes retain IBMP, which reflects in the wine as an herbaceous, tomato vine, green character.” Says Croser.

The sequence of ripening according to Croser also affects “The propensity to retain IBMP, which together with phenol builds up in the lag phase of berry development before veraison.” In other words, veraison which is when the grapes (and tomatoes) change from all green to their final grape colour, purple, blue red in the case of Cabernet Sauvignon is key to finding greenness despite any other factors like good weather in any particular vintage.

Mirco-Climate and micro-geology are going to play their part here. The geology is going to have to be rocky and free draining to avoid damp which will only encourage the vine. It will have to be the kind of soil that can also both stress the vine and keep it warm.

Essentially shattered, fragmented rock, hard rock too raised up on an underlying bed, stones on a damp proof layer if you will. We can most easily get this if a hard mountain were ground down by glaciation and washed into a nice bowl by river action.

Think, the Pyrenes ground down and spilling its fragmented detritus south into Navarra and Rioja, but best of all, north into the Gironde basin. The entire Medoc, a gravel pit of waste from the Pyrenes created over millions of years.

This is what Croser is in holes in Chile looking for, and he has found many matching sights for Cabernet Sauvignon across the world that mimic the quaternary gravel soils of the Medoc including the clay loams on a quaternary Limestone ridge, essentially Coonawarra, The Gimlett Gravells in New Zealand and excitingly in Chile in several ”Alluvialrock and gravel benches and colluvial fans of the Maipo Alto and Aconcagua river tumbling down from the Andes in Chile” says Croser.

But he is not looking at this generically he is seeing this only in tiny spots.

This is mainly because “We have to now take all the geology and general climate and place a Matrix of other significant factors over this.” Says Croser.

“While climate is vital, and temperature is at the core of this, altitude, distance from cooling factors and rainfall are equally important. But the thing we really need to look at is Diurnal Difference.” Says Croser.

Diurnal temperature is a range figure that tells us the distance in degrees from day to nightime temperatures and has never been overly fretted about.

The previous scientific god, still enthroned is Heat Summation.

Heat Summation is the cumulative heat a plant can expect to receive over a growing season, however this is now sidestepped by hipster to foreground GDD or Growing Degree Days, this is the number of days that are effective for growing, potential more accurate but wildly complex to work out because you need to go, hour to hour and degree by degree in your analysis.  So the Units of GDD are in thousands, but immediately fascinating.

We Irish wine lovers have been singing the praises of Chilean Pinot Noir for a few years now, but it has always been a shade away from Burgundy Pinot flavours.

But look at this, Casablanca a current source, San Antonio, not.


Region                        GDD Units     Diurnal Range           Maximum C   Min C

Casablanca                  1245                17.2                             24.5                 7.3

San Antonio                1145                10.6                             20.7                 10.1

Burgundy                    1172                11.4                             21.2                 9.8

Its pretty clear that if we were equipped with Croser’s data we would have gone straight for San Antonio and planted Pinot Noir, it is a much better fit according to these figures than Casablanca which is both too hot and too cold, its swing in temperature the Diuranal range is doing something else however according to crosser.

“The vine, shuts down under 10 degrees.” Says Croser, we can see this clearly, the theory used to be that therefore we need not worry if the Diuranal range as large because no damage was being done as the plant was dormant. But the issue is this, in essence the plant will continue to tick over in Burgundy, over night.”

So, even though Burgundy and sites like it seems under powered heat wise, and curious climatic anomalies which are then described as privileged sites that the word, terroir gets attached too. The scientific truth is that its miracle status, and therefore its uniqueness was due to an essentially unmeasured or unappreciated piece of data.

Fill in the night time elements, the crucial post 10 degree point and we have the explanation, best of all, we can now begin to look for the exact match for our Pinot Noir or our Cabernet Sauvignon. Not only that but it can be ultra fine tuned to find actual, privileged sites that offer the holy grail of a fine wine site.

This chart is fascinating too

Region                        GDD Units     Diurnal Range           Maximum C   Min C

Pumanque                   1513                14.2                             21.9                 10.1

Coonawarra                 1399                14.4                             23.8                 9.5

Bordeaux                    1485                11.4                             22.6                 11.2

From this it is clear that the rising star in Chile should be Cabernet wines from Pumanque with the heat GDD of Bordeaux and the Diurnal range of Coonawarra, the prospect of a savoury but muscular cabernet giving us the best of  both the other class leading regions is exciting.


Using Science to Seek The Sustainable

Not alone does the idea of a data set driven exploration of the Chilean landscape bring up exciting possibilities for wine lovers, best of all is that it should promote a better, green and sustainable approach to viticulture which has up until now in many New World locations been a thirsty and rather blunt agricultural instrument.

“Using this kind of matrix of data, we can literally dial up, the exact locations we need to examine planting particular vines in and with accuracy that can be beneficial.” Suggested Croser

The accuracy issue is interesting, much of the waste surrounding viticulture is about irrigation, but if you could tailor your sites exactly, before planting every vine randomly to see which works, we can move to a much more sustainable vision of agriculture.

The reason people persisted with unsuitable vines in the wrong area thus necessitating fertilisation, irrigation and a myriad other interventions was twofold, firstly a belief amongst Australians and US wine growers that they should in any event impose on the land anything that could be grown, which was therefore everything if you had the money, rather than asking what, should be grown.

Secondly, vines took years, decades to show if they had worked in a region and people were reluctant to uproot and start again, naturally. Now with the Chilean scientific revolution, fore fronted by a wily Australian Guru, things look like they are about to change.

Almost any wine lover, with mouth watering, will want to follow the new Matrix Map of the world and see every matching privileged site planted and on our shelves. The blind faith era is over, long live Leyda Valley, San Antonio and Pumanque and the Wine Matrix.

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Posted by on March 7, 2013 in Uncategorized


A Quick Global Survey of Horsegate Seems To Contradict Bord Bia’s View that there is Low Awareness Beyond UK and Ireland


“Awareness is very low outside the UK and Ireland and consumers connect this issue with only low-value meat products,” says Aidan Cotter, Bord Bia chief executive. “It is not seen as an Irish problem.”

Reported in the Financial Times

Comforting words, yet put othe words like say, Irish Beef, into what internet users would call, a search engine. Say for example Google.

Then unfortunatley you will see that, I am afraid, awareness is the opposite of LOW.

Here are just a selection.


Irish Beef’s ‘new’ Reputation Around the World











FRANCE ( where they charmingly use le “horsegate” )






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Posted by on February 5, 2013 in Uncategorized


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Irish Beef’s Reputation Slaughtererd Live On ITV


A Frame by Frame view, of the consequences of Bord Bia,Department of Agriculture and Governmental Love Affair with ‘Big Food’ and ‘Processing’ at The Expense and damage of Artisan, unprocessed production

The words, “34 Different Burger products Supplied By Irish”  firms booms out over the first two pictures while the words, Contaminated, Horse, Meat, DNA and Irish Meat producers lingers in the minds of UK viewers
Bravo then to the Dept of Agriculture who are in thrall to added value processing that fosters the kinds of firm at the heart of this debacle, value adding firms as we like to call them. Reading the Dept of Agriculture’s own statements in their Food Harvest 2020 strategy document is a very queasy making activity : a goal for example for 2015 is
Develop a new research programme in collaboration with the meat industry to increase the value of waste streams in the sector.”   (– lovely.)

You can click on the first picture to see the actual video of the news report2013-01-17 12.50.11 2013-01-17 12.50.39 2013-01-17 12.50.47 2013-01-17 12.50.562013-01-17 12.50.05

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Posted by on January 17, 2013 in Uncategorized


Rioja : Wines From Lost Mountain Kingdoms and Forgotten Heroes

 Rioja Dusk

One of my favourite reads of the last decade was published just about a year ago this month, Prof Norman Davies, Vanished Kingdoms. It is the literary equivalent of luxuriating in browsing old maps which detail, as the book does, a forgotten Grand Duchy here, an ancient Visigoth Kingdom there.

However the real pleasure is in the huge lost kingdoms that Davies examines, realms so large it is absolutely breathtaking that anyone has forgotten them, and which have left indelible impressions that very quickly become lost giving rise to inexplicable alliances and creations to those who forget the former giant kingdom.

The wines of Rioja and their rise to fame as the most famous and important wines in Spain is and example of the power and echo across the centuries of those lost Kingdoms.

The Vanished Kingdoms that have influenced Rioja’s story are the Kingdoms Castille, Navarre and the Kingdom of Aragon.

Spain and long distant past kings are not the only examples of how trading relations, economic and cultural ties survive and thrive the fall of a vanishing Kingdom. In wine the USSR is one of those vanished kingdoms too and in 100 or 200 years time people will struggle to understand what Uzbekistan and Baltic Estonia, Czechoslovakia ( another vanished realm) and Berlin all had to do with each other.

Long after the Iron Curtain and the USSR are a memory, goods and trading patterns will lightly remain if history is repeats itself, as it will, in wine. The sweet cloying wines of the USSR, originating in Georgia and around the Black Sea are still favoured by many Polish and former Iron Curtain nations, turning up in Polish Supermarkets in Lucan in 2005. That will definitely keep historians scratching their heads in 2212.

One of the most politically altered landscapes in Europe however is Spain. What we think of today as a near core European state is nothing of the sort. In reality it was a contrived fusion, through marriage of two of five very powerful Kingdoms, The Kingdoms of Castille and Leon in the 15th century.  However, this only accounted for north central and western Spain. To the north east lay the mountain kingdoms of Navarre and Aragon.


The Spanish Mountain Kingdom of Wine

Travelling South by car from Bordeaux to the Spanish border just south of Biarritz the journey becomes increasingly anxious making in good weather, in poor winter weather it becomes almost alarming, throw in a ferocious headwind and machine gun style rain on the front windscreen and you can see why you would definitely call a halt to the journey as the giant mountains of the Atlantic side of the Pyrenees rise up before you.

This is classic, strong border territory. There is no need to get out a compass and look for imaginary straight lines on a map. That mass of rock, ravines, fast flowing rivers and deep forest say it all.

Clearly if there was a link between Bordeaux and the wines of Rioja, which there is as we shall see momentarily, it was not one forged by easy neighbourly communication.

After an hour or so of hard driving on steeper and steeper sections of roads, in the dark, where the main light is from small villages deep in the valleys or high on hills, the E5 autoroute imperceptibly crosses the Ebro River and following that river southwards, you arrive in the mountains at the mouth of the Rioja region, the town of Haro. The modern administrative region of Castilla Y Leon ends a couple of kilometres from the town of Haro. This is the fringes of the old Kingdoms of Aragon and Navarre.

The reason for the border is the mighty river Ebro, the Rhine of Rioja, though the smaller River Oja, is said to be the source of the regions name, Rio Oja.

The Ebro River runs some 550 km, that is the entire length of Ireland, from its source in the hills of Cantabria to the Mediterranean sea 150km south of Barcelona. All the main towns of Rioja stretch along its course including the defacto capital of Rioja, Logrono.

The landscape of Rioja is not steep or mountainous however, it is a high plateau, with a modest river valley, the entire plateau is however around 1500 feet in the air, dropping to an almost desert like dusty plain at the eastern end of the Rioja region. This far end, heading towards Saragossa famously being used as the landscape for Clint Eastwood’s very poorly named Spaghetti Westerns.

The wine region of Rioja is therefore split into subregions. La Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Baja. Rioja Alta is the highest part of the region, the first portion you arrive at via Haro and is the classical home of Rioja. This is where the oldest and most traditional wines largely come from, like Bodegas La Rioja Alta.

Moving north eastwards and framed by the distant Pyrenees is Rioja Alavesa. While being frequently told that this area is slightly lower than Rioja Alta, there is no physical senses of this at all, in fact Rioja Alavesa with snowy peaks as a near constant backdrop feels positively Alpine or Andean. This is the home of some of the more progressive wineries in Rioja, ones that have been rewarded with parker and Wine Spectator points and offer a fruit forward, blockbuster style amongst their portfolios.

Rioja Alavesa is the home to very many progressive Bodegas including a major part of rebel winemaker Marco Eguren’s  Empire that includes Sierra Cantabria, named for the nearby mountains, Protocolo, one of Ireland’s largest selling Spanish wines and the ferociously expensive icon San Vincente icon wine. Also here is Bodegas Faustino, probably the best known of all Riojas, Bodegas Luis Canas and Bodegas Marques de Riscal.

Bodegas Marques de Riscal was already the main object of wine tourism in Rioja before they had superstar Architect Frank Gehry’s create a daring Dali-like Bodegas of giant swooping folds of silver and gold titanium. It houses a hotel and a visitor centre. Also here is Bodegas Ysios home to bridge architect Santiago Calatrava’s wave formation winery, where set against the mountainous backdrop is a metallic standing sine wave shaped building of the Bodegas Ysios.

Somewhat unsurprisingly the architecture has is some ways begun to outshine the wineries here.

Finally Rioja Baja is the home to warmer, full-bodied and hotter wines. Rioja Baja is at a lower altitude and closer to the Mediterranean its main influence.

Many wineries, especially the broader and more widely available brands actually blend across all three regions to give a more complete wine, softening the stern tones of the Rioja Alta with fruit from the Rioja Alavesa and a bit of fire from Rioja Baja.

Hannibal, Pilgrims and Plagues

Rioja’s wine history stretches back before the Romans, with the Greeks and Phoenicians both playing a part. The reason is the large navigable river. Roman galleys explored and mapped almost every large river around the Mediterranean and the Ebro was hugely significant. Indeed the Romans called the Iber, almost certainly giving the name to the Iberian Peninsular. The Ebro river marked the end of Ronan territory for centuries and the border with Carthage. It was from here that Hannibal set out with his elephants to attack Rome.

As a border region it has always been occupied and over valued by conquering parties, as a strategic communication infrastructure it was also well guarded and militarised, this is where as ever much of the impetus for planting vines came about.

Rioja after the fall of Rome became a plaything amongst the kings of Castille, Navarre and Aragon for centuries. Each perhaps over exaggerating the beauty of the wines available.

Eventually wine production faded became a local treasure with some of the earliest control laws passed to protect the authenticity and unadulterated nature of these mountain wines.

The fame of Rioja wines grew steadily, but slowly, until the region fell under the control of France courtesy of Napoleon. It became integrated as a French Department at the turn of the 19th century and this is where modern Rioja and its ultimate superstar status arose and why Bordeaux played such a role.

At the turn of the 19th century Bordeaux was already a world famous and highly commercially successful wine producing region with world wide exports. Wealthy local aristocrats in Spain began to look not the model of peasant farmers across Spain, and colonial markets, but rather towards high value exports to the USA, Holland, Belgium and above all England to aristocratic owners in Bordeaux.

They travelled north and studied both the viticulture and the economics of the fine wine production. They began to prioritise noble varieties such as Tempranillo which came to dominate.

Eventually Napoleon was defeated and Spain got Rioja back. Increasingly good wine was being produced and this was exported to Spain’s colonial empire. Eventually Rioja may have found its way to fine wine tables on its own, but a small pest intervened. Phylloxera.

As France’s vineyards were being destroyed one by one in an apocalyptic plague, the wine makers of Bordeaux began to look south to see if their was some safe haven for wine. Eventually the looked to Rioja.

In the 1870s, railways were completed up to Haro from the Bay Of Biscay coastline, bringing an effective modern shipping route for Rioja wines north to Britain and Belgium and across the Atlantic to the west.

The Bordeaux players who came to Rioja bought and founded many Rioja Wineries to procure Phylloxera free, top wines. They brought with them the ideals of lengthy ageing and a love of oak barrels, setting the style for contemporary Rioja.

Bodegas La Rioja Alta is a classic example of Bordeaux and local influence using both the impetus of plague in Bordeaux’s vineyards and the possibility of stealing Bordeaux’s export markets as the rationale for foundation.

The peak of Rioja’s reputation ran from the 1870s to the first world war. Unfortunately for Rioja, by the turn of the 20th century the cure for Phylloxera was widespread and replanting across Bordeaux and Europe had begun.

However, Rioja had a few compelling advantages.

It had used the very best modern techniques that Bordeaux wines had enjoyed, the grape selection was first class, the sites were of clear Grand Cru status  and best of all, taking a leaf out of the Bordeaux book, good wines were aged for 2 to 4 years before being given to the citizen

Rioja became famous for putting its money where its wine reviews and or its mouth was. Wines were sold fully mature with many Reserva and Grand Reserva wines being well over the minimum 2 years status.

Traditional Rioja Bodegas still do this and it is now a legal requirement if your wine is going to have the status of Rerserva or Gran Reserva. The resulting wine is famously soft, with silky tannins, it is all about graceful ageing.

These wines are however light on fruit notes, which would have been regarded as too simplistic and transitory, by traditional Rioja makers.

So, the New Wave winemakers over the last decade have replanted many vineyards in higher densities, and produced wines that are blockbuster in style, fruit forward and aimed at an more contemporary demographic.

This is the genius of Rioja down through the ages, unlike Burgundy or Chianti it was not fostered by a native ruling elite. Rather as a political plaything of France, Aragon and Castille it adapted to each new twist, creating new markets for each new elite.

That all ended with the opportunistic dive into finer, chateau or Bodegas style wines when Bordeaux hit its Phylloxera crisis and from that point on until now Rioja is making wines for itself, now a semi-autonomous Spanish administrative region that has taken a little from each former Kingdom around it.

Eengagingly and intelligently Rioja has become the world’s finest Tempranillo producer and the fine wine region it has always promised to become.


Wines Of Rioja

Faustino V Chardonnay-Viura DOCa Rioja 2011 (88) around €11.95

Faustino I, Gran Reserva DOCa Rioja 1999 (90) around €22.50

Torres Ibericos Crianza, 2009 (90) around €14.39

Vina Real, Gran Reserva DOCa 2006 (91) around €22

Muga, Reserva DOCa Rioja 2007 (90) around €20

Marques de Riscal Rioja Reserva, DOCa 2007 (91) usually €20 around €14.99 on sale at Obrien’s

Bodegas Riojanas, Monte Real, Reserva DOCa Rioja 2004 (90) around €18.99 on sale O’Briens €12.99

Luis Canas, Reserva DOCa Rioja 2005 (92) around €19.85

Marques de Riscal, Reserva DOCa Rioja 2006 (90) around €18.99

Sierra Cantabria, Reserva DOCa Rioja 2004 (91) around €21.99

Sierra Cantabria Rioja Gran Reserva DOCa Rioja 2004 (92) around €27.99

La Rioja Alta Gran Reserva 904, DOCa Rioja 1997 (93) around €39.95

Imperial, Gran Reserva DOCa Rioja 2004 (92) around €31

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Posted by on December 17, 2012 in Uncategorized