With the St. Patrick’s Day, a wine lover’s thought naturally turn to alarm at how quickly our national holiday has rolled around again, and of course the idea of pulling on the Green Shirt and seeking out Irish wines and maybe some Irish spirits.
As I set off to root out those Irish wines, it quickly became clear that Ireland really is an idea, a spiritual and cultural construct more than a mere set of geographical co-ordinates.
A walk to find Ireland and Irish wine brings us to shelves over which swing a large French tricolour, a Diamond shaped yellow road sign with a Kangaroo poised for action and a stern faced USA sign somewhat softened by a dash and the come-hither, sunshine infused word, California leaping out a jaunty angle.
I was surrounded by a cacophony of nationalist identities.
Moving across the supermarket and out across the large shopping complex you find as you walk along the aisles of breakfast cereals, jumpers, cosmetics or expensive trainers, as you will in the majority of our shops and supermarkets from Cork to Castleknock, that you absolutely will not see are large signs with the names of countries emblazoned on or over those other products.
You cannot walk over to the South Korean tracksuit section and compare the products to Indonesian tracksuit section. There are no flags or small cultural logos decoratively displayed over breakfast cereals.
The reasons for not doing this are complex, but it is probably best for our easy digestion not to know that Brazilian chickens, Mexican Pork or German Eggs fly back and forward across the globe, having one process done in one country, spending time in haulage containers on route to another country for the next process and finally being offered up as fresh, edible food to us.
In some products like clothes it may be possible to find, after a committed search a tiny tag giving a hint of national identity.
In the wine business, and in the ill defined artisan food section of our stores, the story is very different. Argentina and Chile battle out a fight over hardy red wines in the €10 category with vigour and panache. Argentina’s proud Malbec derived wines are frequently to be found emblazoned with the blue and white of Maradona and the Pampas.
They are not hiding their origins, it is a source of pride and a guarantee in many offerings of passionate, delicious winemaking.
Meanwhile further down the wine aisles, sits Austria, its red and white capped wines, standing stoically tall and poised in their high fluted national bottles. The Austrian flag is stapled carefully around a row of Gruner Veltliner and Riesling that wants Irish wine consumer’s to know that, yes, it was true that in the past bad quality wine was made and Austrian Wine’s name was bruised, but these new wines here are something to be proud of and quite different from anything Alsace in France or Rheingau in Germany are producing.
What is clear is that whatever the benefits of denying or concealing the origin of many wines, wine producing nations have made it a part of their credo and in many part of their laws to proudly stand on their national identity.
In the wine lover’s world, national identity is a vital component, as is history and the story of the people who are involved in making any wine.
This is because wine has always, for over 3000 years been seen as a window on the world beyond the table of the wine lover.
Wine is a lens through which a wine other can see other cultures, and even other times.
Time Travelling St. Patrick’s Day Treasures
This, Time Travelling claim, is not all bluster. I used to read the opening chapter of Robert Parker’s Bordeaux and feel that I knew what he meant when he suggested that at a particularly fine tasting, he was suddenly caught off guard, when he opened a venerable bottle which had the same vintage date as the year of his mother’s birth.
He inhaled the wine and realised that it had not seen the world since that day, it was travelling directly from that time to him, directly. He burst into to tears.
Now, unfortunately, I do not just understand it, I feel the truth of it too.
There is a lovely phrase in the spirits world for a distillery that has ceased to be, it is called silent. Not extinct just very, very quite. In the Celtic Whiskey Shop on Dawson street, you can find Silent Whiskey, bottles from distilleries that have disappeared. The market for such whiskey is a rarefied sub-world of reserve and icon whiskey buying, itself a very expensive hobby.
The thrill of the hunt and the exotic time travelling pleasure to be able to taste the work and passion of generations long dead, as a living experience comes with a high price. A rare bottle of Jameson Crested Ten, distilled at the Bow Street Distillery in Dublin is selling for €399 for the bottle. That time travel jaunt is only back to perhaps 1971, the year the Jameson Bow Street Distillery in Dublin went silent.
While Dublin’s Bow Street Distillery is a pretty expensive travel through Ireland’s past, but for €89 you can sample the Bushmills 1989 Single Bourbon Cask, sealed up when Samuel Becket was still alive, he died in December that year, or when Charles J Haughy was eyeing up fine French shirts as Taoiseach.
You slip back to the Ireland of 10, 15 and 20 years ago, with Jameson, Bushmills and Cooley contemporary offerings for more reasonable prices.
Desperately Seeking Ireland
With all this emphasis on times and flags you mighty expect wine lovers to be some sort of class of little Irelanders, trapped in the past, but in fact the exact opposite is the reality.
Wine lovers are driven to explore other wine nations, to enjoy the complexity of their wines, their history and perhaps their culture. Wine tourism is a fact, huge swathes of travellers annually travel to regions they know only through a wine bought in their local wine shop or supermarket. They make pilgrimages to Napa Valley, the Loire, Champagne or Chianti.
Wine tourism is a billion dollar business, with almost every wine region on the globe now spending a part of their budgets letting people know that many wineries are also artisan hotels, with restaurants and of course a very large wine cellar attached.
It is here that Irish Wineries have been making the most noise and where the concept of an Irish wine is shown to be a reality and not a figment of the history books.
Chateau Montelena, is probably the most famous US winery. As winner of the 1976 Paris Olympics, the legendary blind tasting where New World wines first broke through as equal and superior to European wines, Montelena and its owner Jim Barret found themselves on the cover of Time magazine and a bottle of their Chardonnay on display at the Smithsonian Museum.
Chateau Montelena is located at the very top of Napa Valley, a three hour drive from San Francisco along small, un-US like roads. Yet hundreds of international and US wine lovers make the pilgrimage to see the famous winery, every day.
It is of course, an Irish Winery, with Jim Barret having Irish parents and having spent part of his youth in Ireland.
The film Bottleshock tells his story, Ireland could not provide for him or his parents who made their life in the US working in the hotel business, for low but liveable wages. He enlisted in the US Army during World War II, fought in Europe, landed and survived Normandy on D-Day. When he returned, the GI Act gave him a free university education from which he became a successful lawyer and subsequently bought Chateau Monetlena.
In every sense, Jim Barret is the icon of the American Dream, a self made man, given the tools and opportunities by his home, the USA.
“I have an Irish passport, it is, perhaps my proudest possession.” Said Jim Barret sitting in his office directly across from the entrance to the main and oldest part of Chateau Montelena.
Visitors to Chateau Montelena have to park in a beautifully concealed car park amongst dense woods then trek the last 500 or 600 yards uphill to the winery, unless of course, they are Irish, when they will find two spaces reserved for them, marked and clearly sign-posted, right at the front door.
“My children are of course fully American, and I am not sure if it is as important to them, I certainly will not be pushing them to look for passports. That’s something they might want to consider, but I know that they understand their heritage and we are Irish. In every sense.” Says a proud Barret.
Ireland, gave Jim Barret nothing. No opportunity, no money, no work and even today, damn little recognition on any official level.
Yet this is one of the wines that I feel most represents, Irish Wine, that I would want on my table on St. Patrick’s Day.
Jim Barret gives us an idea of Ireland and Irishness that is based on people and an approach to living, not some 19th century map maker’s idea of nationality.
In the middle ages, people used to carry their own laws and customs with them, we still have this idea today, in the world of diplomacy.
Each Irish Embassy is regarded not just spiritually, but legally as a piece of Ireland resting on a foreign shore.
We understand and indeed strive to protect that idea almost every day. Irish men and women in trouble look to that slice of Irish soil for protection, security and comfort. Not having an Embassy in Libya recently, left Ireland and Irish people at the mercy of the kindness of strangers.
Every winery, where Irish men and women have established themselves and proclaim their Irishness should be embraced by Ireland, as an outpost of the Ireland of the imagination, our true heritage.
I would love to see, as part of the rebirth of this fine country of ours, the government, particularly the Department of Foreign Affairs, reach out to these fixed outposts of Eire even in something as simple as a national wine cellar, with examples from each of these other Irish.
Across the world next Thursday, almost every one of these wineries will be raising the tricolour, donning the Green shirt and doing their bit to keep Ireland’s reputation alive and vibrant.
Irish wine lovers can reciprocate by engaging in global exploration, crossing endless borders, with the wave of their hands between nearby shelves, to seek out the Irish-of-soul wines this St. Patricks Day.
Michel Lynch Blanc 2007 (88) around €12.49
Echo de Lynch Bages, 2nd Wine of Chateau Lynch Bages, AC Pauillac 2008 (89) around €39
Chateau Lynch-Bages, AC Pauillac 2008 (92) around €76
Chateau de La Ligne, Prestige, AC Entre Deux Mers, France 2005 (89) around €17.95
Thomas Barton Reserve, AC Sauternes 2005 (90) around €23
Thomas Barton, AC Graves Blanc 2007 (88) around €10.99
Domaine des Anges, Archange Blanc Cotes de Ventoux 2009 (91) around €21
Chateau Haut Garrigue La Source Cabernet Merlot 2006 (90) €15.99
Chateau Kirwan, AC Margaux 2006 (91) around €59
Les Charmes de Kirwan, 2nd Wine of Ch. Kirwan, AC Margaux 2007 (89) around €28
Chateau Phelan Segur AC St. Estephe 2006 (92) around €42
Frank Phelan, 2nd Wine of Chateau Phelan Segur, AC St. Estephe 2005 (90) around €25
Chateau de Fieuzal Blanc AC Pessac Leognan 2001 (91) around €55
Chateau Leoville Barton AC Saint Julien 2004 (92) around €60,
Concannon Winery, Petite Sirah, Livermore, California 2006 (90) €14.99
Chateau Montelena, Chardonnay, Napa Valley, California 2005 (92) around €45
Leeuwin Estate, Prelude Chardonnay, Western Australia 2005 (90) around €28
Leeuwin Estate, Art Series Cabernet Sauvignon Western Australia 2003 (91) around €50