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The Struggle Continues in The Shadow of The World Cup – South African Wines

The sight of Brazilian footballers playing North Korea was almost as intriguing as the fact that the Brazilians were wearing layer upon layer of clothing for their opening night time game of this year’s South African World Cup. They were freezing, the crowd was freezing and as a light rain began to fall, the atmosphere resembled a mid winter match in Dublin.

If we learn nothing else from South Africa’s World Cup, the general realisation that seems to have occurred to the fact that in the southern hemisphere our summer is their winter might be satisfactory.

Johannesburg the scene of the polo neck and black tight wearing clash between Brasil and North Korea is 1300km from Cape Town and the Cape Wine region.

To put that in context, Dublin is, as the crow with extra powerful wings flies, 1300km from the dusty heat of Chateauneuf Du Pape.

To say that South Africa is a large country is a wild understatement, however, the wine growing regions are not spread out through South Africa and although there is a perception that the South African wine industry is a large and almost industrial business this is absolutely not the case.

South Africa has around 110,000 hectares under vineyards, of that around 15000 hectares are growing the sultana grape for your fruit salad and for distillation. So perhaps around 90,000 hectares are devoted specifically to grape growing with wine varietals.

This may sound impressively large until you realise that Bordeaux covers around 140,000 hectares on its own in France. Add Burgundy, the Loire, the Rhone, two dozen smaller regions and the giant Languedoc wine country to Bordeaux and you can begin to see why South Africa accounts in the last statistics for around just about 4% of the world’s wine production.

So the wine industry in South Africa is small and it is quite regionally confined. The majority of the  wine producing regions are clustered around the south western tip of South Africa around the city of Cape Town and the adjacent Cape Provinces. Most of the wine  more famous regions are  just a day trip from Cape Town.

Stellenbosch South Africa’s wine capital and home to some of its finest wineries like the venerable Meerlust Estate, for example is about 35km from Cape Town, really just an afternoon’s jaunt, while Paarl, home of  adventurous wineries like Fairview Estate, home of Goats Do Roam is just 50km from Cape Town.

The South African wine producing area can be viewed as a semi-circle of about 250km in diameter centred on Cape Town.

There are good climatic reasons for this, but it hardly explains the absence of wine growing in many other reasonable sights across the entirety of South Africa. For that we need only look at history and more unfortunately politics.

Prisoners Of History

The white population of South Africa still accounts for about 9% of the population despite all the dire words of foreboding that circulated after the fall of the white south African requiem and the end of Apartheid 16 years ago.

The Rainbow Nation that Nelson Mandela wanted to see created has in many senses come to pass. That is not to say that South Africa has been transformed into a political paradise, far from it.

The wine industry is probably the most disappointing of all, but there are very obvious reasons for the lack of a breakthrough by the majority population into the world of wine production.

The first is simply the location of the wine regions at present.

Cape Town sits in the heart of what was the Afrikaans heartland, and before that, the English heartland and before that the Dutch heartland. The Cape as it is known was the first colony and the spiritual base for European settlers.

Wine only exists in South Africa because the East India Company needed a safe port to break the journey to India mid way and to replenish with supplies. Wine and spirits were the best kind of liquid for the long journeys with good potential to stay fresh and it was believed, as a good source of fruit to stave off scurvy in their sailors.

That wine had been sourced from vineyards in or near the first colonial station at what is now Constantia. An exact date is controversial, but most historians agree that the first South African vines were planted sometime shortly before 1652. As I have pointed out in several articles over the years this predates nearly all of the great Chateaux of the Medoc, a wine region created by Dutch Polder makers during the end of the 17th and beginning of the 18th century.

Happily they did not need polders to dry out the Cape vineyards. What the first Governor of the Cape Colony, Jan van Riebeeck found was a hot southern Mediterranean climate, heavily moderated by the cooling influence of the Atlantic Ocean.

For grapes it is a viticultural paradise. They get the warmth and sunshine they require to ripen in the summertime months, our Northern Hemisphere winter, but not the burning swelter that so often turns wine from overly hot regions into jam.

The unique heat and cooling wind is further added to by the rapid ascent in altitude of some of the next wine regions in from the coast all this favours cooler climate, savoury European style cabernet Sauvignon and Burgundian Chardonnay, while lastly there are some deeply cut valleys which run east west and drier more dusty regions to the north east of Cape Town which can produce increasingly excellent Shiraz.

The early settlers were encouraged to farm and they did so prodigiously creating a beautiful patina of Dutch Colonial farmsteads across the entire region.

It is very noticeable in interviewing South African winemakers that, nearly all of them, of Dutch heritage or not,  refer to the winery and the vineyards not as winery, estate or vineyards, but as, the farm.

In some way it is I often feel the true stamp of the lasting impact of the austere, slightly severe modesty of their colonial Dutch heritage. Of course in practice South Africa, wineries, are as commercial and marketing orientated as any in the world with inviting tasting rooms, shops, tours and many add on features like art galleries and even the odd hotel, but in private, it’s still a farm.

The huge advantage of farming is that it fits a family heritage structure very well, a well run farm can expend in familial time to meet the needs of each generation. The high capital cost of set up can be averaged down over generations.

Of course for many of the original homesteads in cape Province the capital cost of set up was zero. The land was simply expropriated from the native population by the colonial settlers.

Anyone wishing to get into wine over the last 16 years in post-Apartheid South Africa was not so lucky. Land prices in the main wine regions make Irish land seem almost reasonable. Returns are low in the first years of setting up a vineyard and coupled with the fact that anyone staring up now is going to be competing with increasingly well known brands from across South African wine never mind brands from Australian dn Chile and you can see why it could be suggested that these are the reasons that the wine industry in south Africa is dominated by the minority population.

There is more to it than that of course. If you look at where the majority population was pushed by the white south African government for generations you can clearly see that the vast majority of South Africa’s 49 million are on the east coast and in the industrial and mining region. The system of Apartheid was not just controlling behaviour and political access, it also impacted on population location.

That isn’t enough of an explanation either. There are hundreds of thousands of South Africans from the majority population who have been involved in wine and wine making for generations. Just not in any managerial or ownership positions.

These workers suffered badly under successive minority rule governments and under the stifling Afrikaans culture of the KWV the largest wine producer for most of the 20th century. It and most other wineries operated what was called the DOP system, this was a way of paying workers a pittance but then supplementing their employment with rations of the very worst of wines as part payment. This part payment in bad wine and camp style accommodation for workers could lead an outsider to see the workers as nearly slaves.

Even today I often feel uncomfortable as an earnest white winery owner tells me about their progressive program for accommodating their workers or providing schooling for the children of workers.

One man has gone further and seems to me to be the model of what should really be happening in South African wine, that is Paul Culver, the owner of Paul Cluver Winery and maker of one of the world’s great sweet wines, Paul Cluver Noble Riesling.

Instead of platitudes about crèches, Paul Cluver cut up part of his lands in the Elgin wine region to the east of Stellenbosch and created a joint venture with his former workers. Together they founded Thandi Estate. Thandi is one of the pioneering wineries that is partly funded by the current South African government’s agriculture Black Economic Empowerment project. Thandi is the pioneering Fairtrade Wine in South Africa and is also committed to a just and sustainable production process.

Over the 7 years that it has been in existence the workers have increased their shareholding each year, with the goal being 100% ownership. This has been a very slow process and Thandi is still one of just a handful of such wineries. I suppose it is a credit to the restraint of the post-Apartheid governments that some sort of compulsory purchase or transfer scheme was not set in place. The Paul Culver scheme is not Marxism, it brings a financial reward and in effect the land is being sold, but at terms which make the entry of the majority population into wine, one of  South Africa’s most prominent exports a possibility.

Things Can Only Get Better

As a wine producer of quality, South Africa is getting better at exponential rates. The days of dull shelves dominated just by rather modest big brands like Long Mountain are long gone, but so too has the early excitement.

In general Chilean wines are cheaper, Australian wines are better presented and European wines have the pizzazz.

But at the specific bottle by bottle level there is increasingly dazzling wine in that South Africa section.

Forget the World Cup branded wines and the Vuvuzela fracas, and venture to the better producers and you will find Chardonnay that outpaces many Burgundy wines, in fine wine terms and of course in price. Bordeaux blends that are subtle and savoury, that speak of the Medoc in ways that Australia can only dream of and again at a fraction of the price, then swing over top the coast to find Sauvignon Blanc of increasing quality at price points that are now part of New Zealand’s history.

South African wine is coming of age in its post-Apartheid rebirth, the vats of big brand soup are a distant memory, now becoming the heavy hitter on the fine wine stage it knows it can be is increasingly the goal of the best producers. However until, the big unspoken issue of majority ownership is addressed meaningfully there will always be a final hurdle to jump no matter how fine the wines are in South Africa.

Wines of South Africa

Southern Right, Pinotage 2007 (89) around €18

Southern Right, Sauvignon Blanc 2009 (89) around €16

Simonsig Sauvignon Blanc, South Africa 2007 (88) around €8.95

Hamilton Russell Winery, Chardonnay 2007 (88) around €27

Paul  Cluver Noble Riesling, South Africa (89) around €15.99

Quagga Ridge Sauvignon Blanc / Semillon, Paarl, South Africa 2008 (87) at around €8.49

Kanonkop Paul Sauer,  Simonsberg, Stellenbosch, South Africa  2003 (91) around €32
Vergelegen Estate, Cabernet Sauvignon, Somerset, South Africa 2004 (90) around €26

Diemersfontein Carpe Diem Pinotage 2007 (90) around €24

Graham Beck, Railroad Red, Western Cape, 2007 (88) at €10.45

Kanonkop, Pinotage, 2007 (91) around €26.95

Meerlust, Pinot Noir, Stellenbosch, 2004  (93) around €34.95

Graham Beck Shiraz, South Africa 2004 (90) around €13.89

Wines are available at selected wine shops and off licences nationwide including Fallon & Byrne, Exchequer Street, Dublin 2; Redmonds Of Ranelagh, Ranelagh, Dublin 6; Sweeney’s, 6 Finglas Road, Harts Corner, Glasnevin, Dublin 11; 64 Wines, 64 Glasthule Road,Sandycove, Co. Dublin; Donnybrook Fair, 89 Morehampton Road, Donnybrook  Dublin; Cellar Master Wines 18, Maple Avenue, Stillorgan Industrial Park, Dublin 18; Cases Wine Warehouse, Galway and O’Briens Wines nationwide and most good wine shops.

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Posted by on July 2, 2010 in My Columns and Journalism Singles, Albums and Versions and Remixes


Chile’s The Irish Wine Heritage – A Sligo and Tyrone Wine Story

For the last month, Chilean winemakers and winery owners have been streaming into Ireland, but without doubt the biggest splash was made when Chilean Ambassador, Cecilia McKenna and Jose Yuraszeck, the owner of Vina Undurraga hosted a major wine launch at a Chilean food fair in Fire Restaurant at the Mansion House in Dublin.

The reason for the Irish launch of a Chilean wine is that, of course, there is a strong Irish link for Irish wine lovers to get their teeth into.

Ambassador McKenna, as you might have guessed is a distant relative of the second most famous Irishman in history of Chile, one John McKenna born in Clogher Co. Tyrone in 1771, an ancestor of the owners of Vina Undurraga.

The most famous Irishman in Chile, after whom the main boulevard in the capital Santiago is named along with his name on innumerable statues, schools, colleges, ships and medals is General Bernardo O’Higgins, The Liberator. Bernardo O’Higgins was born in South America, but educated back in Europe, sent there by his father Ambrose O’Higgins, Viceroy Of Spain, effectively the ruler of half the continent of South America and a Sligo born Irishman.

John McKenna, from Clogher, was taken under the wing of Ambrose O’Higgins from Sligo when the two met as soldier and administrator, respectively, of the Spanish Crown’s South American colonies.

Ambrose O’Higgins made his fellow Irishman, the 25 year old McKenna, Governor of Osorno, a province of what would become southern Chile.

If this happened today, there would be a tribunal of Inquiry that would run for a century as an expatriate Irish political mafia carved up positions of power for themselves. There was no need to demand transparency, it was all too obvious what was going on politically.

The point of difference between what people who get given sinecures today and those like McKenna who acquired them was what they did next.

McKenna, like O’Higgins was a self made man, a soldier and what we might call today and entrepreneur but was definitely an adventurer in 18th century language. Mckenna made a huge success of his Governorship for himself, and, the people.

Then when the time came, he became a hero of the revolution through audacity and military skill.

After Ambrose O’Higgins’ death, his son, Bernardo O’Higgins became increasingly convinced of the need for independence and a war of liberation ensued into which he called his friend, John McKenna, who eventually became Commandant-General of the Army of the newly liberated Chile.

In later years, post liberation in-fighting led to both O’Higgins and McKenna being exiled from Chile to Argentina after a Coup D’Etat led by one José Luis Carreras. It was not to be a long exile for McKenna.

On the 21st of November, 1814, on the streets of Buenos Aires, McKenna, engaged in a duel with the man who led the counter coup, Carreras, and was shot dead. An entirely suitable and dramatic end for a dashing 18th century adventurer.

His descendents however did get back to Chile and they eventually exited from the world of high politics, swapping swords and pistols for vines and corks.

There are hundreds of families in Chile who claim a lineage or have the name McKenna, in all walks of life in Chile, including the current Chilean Ambassador in Ireland, Cecilia McKenna.

The current CEO of Vina Undurraga, Jose Yuraszeck, is the man behind this move to emphasise the Irish heritage of the winery, but it was the Undurraga family, the previous owners who were the relatives of McKenna.

However, in spirit, Yuraszeck seems well in tune with his patriotic predecessor.

Winery Warrior, Jose Yuraszeck

In Chile, indeed across South America Jose Yuraszeck is a colossus of the business world, who headed up one of that continents most controversial business deals, one of the largest in Chilean history when he took Chilectra, the state electricity to the stock market. That was in 1997, when effectively the company morphed into a mega-multinational involving Spain and German state backed entities.

What followed was years of wrangling over who did what, and when, and who made money and who lost out, not unlike the controversy surrounding the privatisation of Telecom Eireann in this country. Many issues are still being examined, but in Chile the Supreme Court in 2005 upheld $66 million in fines against various executives, Jose Yuraszeck amongst them, of the former state electricity entity for company law infringements.

Of course this simply sealed his fame, and Yuraszeck has gone on to feature at the centre of a decade of top level acquisitions of businesses where he has made and remade fortunes. Perhaps his most important deal was the sale, of his SPL Group which owned the largest salt reserves in the Western Hemisphere, 10,000 years reserves, drawn from the Atacama Desert, in the north of Chile. This was one of the largest deals in Chilean history and had to jump through anti-trust investigations in 6 nations, including the USA, which with Yuraszeck at the head, it did.

In 2006 Yuraszeck with his partners in Prospecta Minera acquired a controlling interest in Vina Undeggara .

“No, for me this is not retirement, but it is a very different world to that in which I have been operating before this point.” Said Yuraszeck, in Dublin for the wine launch.

“Everything is on a much longer timescale, but the vision and the dynamics of business are much the same.” Says Jose Yuraszeck.

“The wine business is also fully a part of the rest of the global business system. In respect of transport issues for example, petrol is going to be an important factor in future growth of the New World, but there are many things we can do to offset the problems of such prices. Chile is at the forefront of looking at these responses.” Says Yuraszeck

These include sending wine in bulk to Europe and the US for bottling here, investing in alternative energy sources for international super tanker traffic and switching to entirely different enclosures, such as tetrapak.

“Many things are being considered, but I have to tell you that I am not at all certain that oil will reach that level, in the medium or long term. New sources are a distinct possibility.” Says Jose Yuraszeck in a way that almost made me think of investing in mining stocks.

“But with Vina Undurraga we have the opportunity to move towards what I believe is the real future for Chilean wine, to elevate the wines and the perception of our wines to the highest quality levels.” Says Yuraszeck

“You see, we are only beginning and we have already achieved so much, just 20 or so years ago, vineyards in Chile, and I mean nearly all of the major wineries, were located in a band perhaps a hundred or so miles north and south of Santiago.” Says Yuraszeck

“This was an industry that was clearly orientated on volume for that population. You travelled in the vineyard regions and across say the Maipo, a valley with excellent slopes and a wide array of soils and all you saw was vines planted in easy to access rows along the floors of the valleys.” Says Yuraszeck.

“I am sure you know that even the vines that were there were not even what people thought they were, so Merlot, which we grew a great deal of, turned out to be another varietal altogether. This was a blessing of course because in one move, it gave us, gave Chile our own unique varietal in the world, Carmenere.”

“In just a couple of decades, all that has changed, radically. And what is more, we are only just beginning. We are trying learn our country, our terroir, in a decade, when of course it took France or Italy a thousand years. But we are doing it.” Says Yuraszeck.

“In last months Decanter World Wine Awards, Chilean wines won in almost every major International category.” Says Yuraszeck, modestly not mentioning that his own Vina Undurraga, picked up the International Trophy for Sauvignon Blanc with his Vina Undurraga T.H. Sauvignon Blanc Lo Abarca 2008.

“This is happening because we are now finding the right spots, the exact parcels where the very best clones and vines can bring the best rewards. So you see that we are now searching out in remote cool climate regions like Bio Bio in the south, or Elqui in the north. This kind of enthusiastic and thorough approach si going to elevate Chilean wines in the years to come.” Says Yuraszeck

“My friend Eduardo Chadwick of course is taking the route of directly demonstrating the strides we have already made with his completely open tastings against the best in the world, I understand him but it is not the path we are taking at Vina Undurraga.”

“ We are putting our energy into young winemakers like Rafeal Urrejola, who makes our TH range, and into the winemaking.”

Yuraszeck is also investing money, millions of dollars have been spent on buying new land in the best sites amounting to almost 400 Hectares in Leyda, Maipo Alto and Almahue in the Cachapoal Valley.

This has allowed Yuraszeck’s team to then cherry pick the best parcels from their plantings, so the prize-winning TH Sauvignon Blanc is from a single parcel in Tapihue in the Casablanca Valley. In years to come, vineyard sites like Tapihue could Yuraszeck hopes become the well know clos of Chile as famous as vineyards like Clos de Vougeot or Clos De Mouches in Burgundy.

Wine is an expression of the people and the nation that makes it. Jose Yuraszeck is very aware of this and that in Vina Undurraga he is presenting an image of Chile. The impression of Yuraszeck himself is of a meticulous, observant and hugely ambitious individual, if those traits find there way into the winery Undurraga’s future is assured.

The Irish market in hard currency terms is small, but to Yuraszeck, he says, an important part of the jigsaw for Chile’s development.

“The UK market and Germany, and of course the USA, these are very important, but Ireland responded early to Chile, and with my Wines of Chile role I must say, we are immensely proud to be the best selling wine here.” Says Yuraszeck.

It would be easy to dismiss this as the wine making equivalent of ‘Dublin We Love You’ by so many touring rock bands, but it is said over and over by so many Chilean winery owners, that when you also realise that Santiago the capital is nearly bisected by the 8km long Avenue of The Liberator Bernardo O’Higgins, then you might even believe it.

We of course in Ireland get an unexpected boost, another wine of course, but even better another piece of the jigsaw puzzle of our country’s still fractured history, another small insight into who we really are and not the nationalist or colonialist myth we have been weaned on. Sligo and Tyrone, O’Higgins and McKenna joined in adventure, self determination and now, wine.

McKenna Collection Wines

McKenna Collection Sauvignon Blanc (88)

-This McKenna Collection Sauvignon Blanc is a somewhat one-dimensional offering that has a decent crisp, green and cut grass-like wash, but the mid palate lacks depth and the finish is clean but un-involving. Chilled it is a creditable, quaffable Sauvignon

McKenna Collection Cabernet Sauvignon (87)

-A rather smooth, sweet take on Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon which emphasises easy drinking ultra ripeness over complexity. A reasonable, correct and quaffable wine, for immediate consumption.

Other Available Wines Of Vina Undurraga

Aliwen Reserva Sauvignon Blanc 2007 (88) around €11.99
Undurraga Sauvignon Blanc 2007 (87) around €9.55

Undurraga Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 (87) around €9.55

Undurraga Merlot 2006 (86) around €9.55

Vina Undurraga wines are widely available, Tesco Supermarkets, Nationwide, Molloys Liquor Stores Chain, Martins Off Licence, 11 Marino Mart, Fairview, Dublin 3

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From Coast To Coast – The O’Briens Wines story marches on / The state of the Irish wine art

The O’Briens Wine group last month opened it 28th store in Ireland, this latest one in Galway bringing the group coast to coast coverage of Ireland and cementing its position as Ireland’s largest independent wine, beer and spirit retailer.

More than mere figures however, O’Briens Wines has acted as the cornerstone of new era of wine interest that has evolved over the last 20 years in Ireland. The O’Briens phenomenon is not a Celtic Tiger creation and had its roots planted long before that rapidly fading memory.

O’Briens Wines can trace its origins back to Patrick and Eileen O’Brien, opening a mixed grocery store in Bray in 1945, but the real wine story and the heart of the current business began in 1978 when the O’Brien family acquired The Wine Corner in Donnybrook becoming the ground zero for a wine business that now directly deals with and imports 750 of its own wines, along with offering for sale about the same number of wines from other importers. This is a touchstone of the O’Briens success, well over 1000 wines available in each of its stores.

It is this encyclopedic, library style offering of wines, in all price categories, particularly the monthly wines in cases in the middle of the floors of the shops at prices from €4.16 to €995 a bottle and everything in between.

Almost no UK retailer offers this range. This kind of diversity and cultural inclusiveness is unique to Ireland.

In many other countries, such as the UK and Germany, wine sales have been driven by the supermarkets however in Ireland, wine consumers have it seems preferred to stay within the specialist retailers such as Off Licences and wine shops.

The National Off Licences Association, or Noffla is headed this year by Chairman Jim McCabe of McCabes Wines in Blackrock and The Gables in Foxrock, with Vice Chair being Evelyn Jones of The Vintry in Ranelagh. This organisation represents over 330 individual independent Off Licences, throughout Ireland.

NOffla figures show that fully 35.6% of the monetary value of the alcohol business in Ireland, a total market of some €6.9 billion. In 2008 according to Anthony Foley’s Report on The Drinks Market issued by the Drinks Industry Group of Ireland this represented a 2.5% fall in overall sales. Nevertheless this still makes the drinks business in Ireland one of the largest domestic businesses and one that is still fighting its corner in an increasingly difficult Environment.

The latest figures from the Revenue and the CSO in August show that the decline in the value of sales slowed to 0.0% month on month in August, while the monthly volume of sales showed a 0.5% drop. This by no means signals a return to the days of 8 and 9% annual growth, but the steep declines of the last 18 months do seem to have now arrested.

Of course, the unresolved question, for the entire economy, and not just for the alcohol market is whether this represents the bottom, or a ledge we have hit on the way down.

Happily for the Independent sector, like Noffla and O’Briens, the wine component of the €6.9 billion annual sales is dominated by sales through the independent sector. Noffla figures state that 75% of the wine and cider sales in Ireland are through the Independent sector.

The percentages are however only part of the story, the underlying reality of the figures is that overall wine consumers in Ireland, appear to see wine shops and off licences, that is specialist drinks shops as the places they prefer to shop for wine and clearly in economically harder times this means that they are being well served or they would surely go elsewhere. Looking at sales and promotions in wine shops this year, it certainly does seem that the independent sector are offering increasingly good value.

O’Briens Empire

For some years now, the title of the Oddbins of Ireland has been up for grabs, not least by Oddbins. What is meant by this is the group of wine shops that people are not just supportive of or customers of, but the shops of which wine consumers are devoted fans.

It is a peculiarity of the food and wine business that not alone individual products, but individual shops and their owners become, heroes, with a fan base.

I know because I get regular emails, letters and accosted moments in the street from people who are bursting with the kind of enthusiasm for a wine or a shop that you really only find elsewhere for football or a pop music. The near rhetorical question, do you know such and such a wine shop in Kildare, Mayo or Fairview is not infrequent exchange.

Foodies are of course the same, with many people crossing the border between food and wine fandom with an ease only our continental fellow EU members can match, until the day we sign up to Schengen and allow Irish people to abandon their passports when travelling to France or Spain.

The Sheridan brothers of Sheridan’s Cheese-mongers would be the example of an adored outlet with a strong fan-base in a non wine field.

The amazing thing in Ireland is that we uniquely have in O’Briens Wines, a nationwide chain of stores that has a devoted, fan-base. Now I will probably offend Beatles worshipers by saying in many ways, the best comparison for the O’Briens phenomenon might be the The Beatles, that is, the rare alliance of artistic ground breaking musical genius and mass market popularity. Turning that dial down from 11, O’Briens have matched ground breaking, mould breaking exploration of the wine world, with a broad commercial success and mass appeal.

They broke a wine like Coyam, an all guns blazing bio-dynamic, exotic multi blend wine from at the time an avant garde and virtually unknown Chilean winemaker, Alvaro Espinoza.

O’Briens Wines, and at that time their wine buyer David Whelehan even brought Espinoza over to Ireland and held consumer tastings of his wines. Coyam back in 2005 was then offered on sale at €15 for the 2002 vintage. It was a huge commercial success for O’Briens Wines.

Irish wine consumers seemed to appreciate not being treated like commercial cannon fodder and the competitive pricing brought immediate solid sales.

This is a wine that had to be sourced, explained and sold by hand in each store, it was not a €7.99 big brand with a massive publicity campaign behind it. The O’Briens staff, perhaps their greatest asset, are enthusiasts who talk wine, wine politics, wine gossip and wine knowledge from the minute that you enter the 28 stores, it’s an infectious atmosphere and is it appears heavily encouraged.

Lynn Coyle has just taken over as Head of Wine Buying for the entire O’Briens Group. In one move Coyle has become one of the most significant players in the multi billion euro Irish drinks business.

“I was amazed, I mean almost immediately I was straight into the intranet, the in house network running between all the shops where there were fantastic conversations going on about ever aspect of wine, urging new suggestions, looking for information on harvests and new vintages, it was very energising” says Coyle of engaging with the huge staff conversation that circulates amongst the 28 stores, which has seen O’Briens take on the reputation as a wine university.

The ongoing educational drive in O’Briens Wines with all senior and junior staff encouraged to pursue certificates, diplomas and degrees in wine and wine knowledge gives a studious campus like air to many of the stores. Many of the founders and owners of best known independent wine shops began their careers in O’Briens Wines.

This positive atmosphere for the staff does palpably pass through to the consumer side, with local shop recommendations and staff and manager boards up in each shop with picks of wines by the people who work there.

The O’Briens stores also have wines on permanent week round tasting, this can vary subtly in each shop with some shops pushing one favourite of that area over another, in addition to the wines that are obviously on some special push, mostly new wines. This encourages dialogues between staff and with customers who importantly are not then buying blind.

“I want to keep surprising people with places and varieties that we can offer, it seems to me that the Irish consumer has come to expect this, every market has its own feel, its own culture and the Irish wine market is one of the most exciting.” says Coyle.

“Of course, increasing emphasis on good value is also going to be key as well and I think we can offer both” says Coyle ambitiously.

O’Briens Wines deserve as much credit for success of wine over the last decade in Ireland as the highly motivated New World wine producers, because without a venue for these exciting wines all the New World might have offered over the last decade could have been simply big brands or simplistic imitations of existing wines, but today Irish wine consumers have benefited from the entire independent wine shop sector, that is Off Licences, wine shops and chains, like O’Donovan’s in Cork, Molloys in Leinster, Harvest in Galway and Carry Out across the country. But, it is too easy to spend time praising Oddbins or Majestic in the UK, and overlook a prophet here at home, in terms of seeing the future for wine back in 1978, the O’Brien family were those voices in the wilderness.

O’Briens New Arrivals and a old favourite

Blason D’Aussieres, AC Corbieres 2006 (90) at €14.99

This is an offering from the Languedoc by Chateau Lafite Rothschild and it is a luscious and spicvy blend of Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre and Carignan, that is frankly astoundingly accomplished and compelling at its sub €15 Languedoc price. It is definitely in a youthful state, but with an hours decanting it mellows into a superb, complex wine begging for heart winter roasts, perhaps even cassoulet.

Almirez, DO Toro 2007 (91) around €19.99

This is another new wine into the O’Briens Wine range, it is a 100% Tempranillo that has been barrel aged for 12 months. The vineyards are located in the Toro region which is near Ribera Del Deuro, but slightly warmer, this produces more rustic, beefier, spicier wines that will probably not last as long as Ribera wines, but are considerably cheaper. Toro wines like this example which is a very polished, with rich blackcurrant, touches of dark chocolate and burnt coffee grounds are at the more sophisticated end of the Toro spectrum, but still represent value over Ribera wines. A super new find.

Roger Belland, AC Santenay Comme Dessus Blanc 2007 (90) around €22

Another excellent find, a very fine wine, a white Burgundy that is playing in the taste shadow of a Meursault, but with a little lighter fruit profile. In this 2007 vintage it is evident that the fingerprints of fine Chardonnay are here, creamy, buttery wash, long complex mineral touches mid palate and a finish of substantial cut and complexity. Stunning lightly chilled with a hard cheese.

Astrolabe, Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, New Zealand 2008 (91) at €12.99

A stalwart of the O’Briens range, this is the kind of quality Sauvignion Blanc that has made the reputation of the Marlborough region in New Zealand, most famously in the case of Cloudy Bay. In many ways this ultra crisp, clean nettle and tropical fruit soaked offering is the true successor to Cloudy Bay, as Cloudy Bay itself becomes more refined and restrained. This is old school New World Sauvignon and almost begs for a crunchy crab starter or lemon sole.

Wines Available in O’Briens Wines 28 stores, nationwide, from Galway to Greystones, from Droheghda to Limerick, and online at, a very neat web address.

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The Wine Web 2.0, or The Curious Case of The Cork Wine Web

New technology is often oversold as an engine of revolutionary change. This is usually a combination of marketing and perhaps honest but enormously un-objective hope by the inventors. One of the worst let downs of recent times was the near hysterical hype that surrounded the X device, which was its makers said going to revolutionise the ways humans lived and build cities.

Cities would be built around the device, which would change transport for ever.

The net, was alive with speculation. Most agreed that it seemed to be The Big One, a teleportation device. Airplanes and airports would be a thing of the past, a green future of instantaneous travel was ahead, maybe it would be a shortcut to interstellar travel.

Steve Jobs was apparently awed.

Unfortunately it turned out to be the Segway.

To say the world was disappointed is an understatement and the Segway has never recovered. Although across the US and even in Burgundy, in Dijon the capital of Burgundy you can take a Segway tours of the city and a few nearby vineyards.

Its gimmicky and most people spent their time giggling on the things trying to see if they can make it fall over.

Similarly, the internet we were told would transform the way good were bought and sold as well as putting the entire body of human knowledge at our fingertips.

I was very hopeful that this would be the case for wine, where it would give wine consumers access to every wine and wine region in the world.

Well so far I am still waiting for that revolution.

The problems for wine are a little more problematic than for music, films or books.

Wine is a bulky physical item that like food has to be physically in our presence to be consumed, so until we invent the teleportation device to turn my click on a bottle of wine and a slice of cake into a Pinot and chocolate cake on my desk we are always going to fall short of the ideal.

That said however, the other hope was to be able to interact with a wine region or chateaux. Streaming video, blogs and plenty of opportunities to buy wine would also suffice.

Even with this however, the real world quickly intervened. Wineries be they in France or Australia are primarily run by farmers who like farming their vines, not film-makers and writers who want to produce an all singing website.

So, most websites for wineries around the world are decidedly dull affairs that are really just a nice glossy brochure cut up and pasted onto the web. Worse, last year’s brochure. The amount of websites for wineries that have a short note about 2 harvest ago is astounding.

The Curious Case of Cork

All however is far from dull or lost in the wine web and in Ireland, one county is leading the way in revolutionising the wine web, and yes it is Cork.

One of the heroes of the wine web in Ireland is Curious Wines. Curious Wines is amongst the first of the Web 2.0 and soon Web 3.0 sites in Ireland, content rich sites that utilise the social networking ethic, blogs and tweets, video snippets and playful layout to enrich the cyber experience.

And we certainly need it. Not just in Ireland, but across Europe many sites are simply a kind of online version of their sales catalogue, worst of all, in many cases the mind set of the printed wine catalogue has been retained.

The most obvious hang over from the printed brochure is the lack of illustrations. In printing, full colour photographs, indeed all illustrations are extra expense. So a nice cheap list is favoured, maybe with the big selling wine getting a picture of its label or the odd bottle shot.

This is just unforgivable. Online, pictures, indeed all illustrations just demand effort, not expense. So the unillustrated spreadsheet of wines may have a certain, accountancy chic, but for the YouTube generation they are a real sign of a could-care-less attitude.

Once you have sprinkled your site with pictures you are in the lead in Ireland. Happily the very best sites take much more care, and add a bottle shot for every wine, in addition to say a picture of the winemaker, some links to the wineries website and some personally created content.

The personal content is what sets the best sites like, Wines, Bubble Brothers,, and Robert Francis apart from the mass of wine brochures in cyberspace. Together with stylish sites like, and the increasingly slick O’Briens Wines vehicle, these represent the more progressive side of Ireland’s wine web.

Plenty of other commercial sites do effective jobs with their sites, but they lack soul and a sense of vibrancy and way too many have banners proclaiming Summer Specials in November or alerts for a tasting evening back in June. These feel like empty rooms.

To find life and joy it is necessary to hit the blogesphere and here there is fertile activity from the like of which is the venerable mothership of Irish sites, with 13 years worth of tasting notes of the Preamble Club, one of the many Irish tasting clubs that form the bedrock of so much wine enthusiasm in this country. Then there is, run with charm by Lar Veale, the meticulousness of and many others.

It is not surprising that the Republic of Taste that is Cork city and county is responsible for a preponderance of blogging with sites like, and my stable-mate from The Examiner, Blake Creedon, tweeting and blog-rolling away. What is startling is how completely at ease one side of the Irish net is with web 2.0 and the social networking structures, while the other side are still banging out a spreadsheet with pretty colours.

If Enterprise Ireland or the government really want an actual knowledge based economy then someone needs to put this vibrant tech literate content side together with the, trying-but-just-not-getting-it commercial Irish sites in cyberspace.

There is no reason on earth or in cyberspace that Ireland could not dominate this space.

At present this tech savvy online world is dominated by a man named, Gary Vaynerchuk, the man who would be Parker for the facebook and twitter generation. He is an American, who transformed his parents wine business from the a regional liquor business into a solid gold online wine brand called The Wine Library, where he pioneered streamed online video wine tastings.

A key step on Vaynerchuk way to domination was to purchase the most popular wine bloggersphere of its day called Cork’d, which is still the go to blog central for wine. From an infrastructural point of view there is no barrier to one of our Irish sites playing on this stage. In addition from the commercial side, in the EU there are no barriers to shipping wine anywhere.

Why not a tech rich, twitter loaded, blogged up, RSS fed, video pumping Irish wine site selling Spanish wine to the Greeks or Italian wine to the Dutch, as well as Chilean wine to the Irish.

When it does all come together, as with Curious Wines, then it shows just how well Ireland can participate and revel in the exuberance of the cutting edge of the web right now, with lively constantly up-to-date blog, dropped in videos of food and wine pairing, twittering that seems robust and lively debates on wines, life and the latest bargains.

A visit to Curious Wines website feels like visiting Andy Warhol’s Factory in 1966, except its wine not 10 hour films of the Empire State Building that are on offer.

Heading up this iridescent experience is Michael Kane and his brother Matt, who is the web wizard and a third brother David completes the family picture. Michael Kane is the central figure who founded the Curious Wines business.

“I spent a long time in blue chip businesses, earning what we might call City salaries, before realising the dream of a business of my own in Curious Wines.” Says Kane.

“I worked for Texaco and GM Capital, so I knew what I wanted and I had the experience of that kind of view of the business world. Both those business are very pure, very focussed on two pure commodities, money and oil. Wine on the other hand is very different, though of course the big players would like to think that it is not.” Says Kane.

“I believe that you should only enter a business if you can add something, something better than is already there. That’s what we wanted to do. I want to put up a proper fight against the big players, the Tescos of this world.” Says Michael Kane.

“I love wine and all that it is, and I love sourcing wines in a direct and honest way. We don’t have suppliers, we have sourcing partners. People who share our passion and vision.” Says Kane.

“We have now formed a Wine Alliance, to sort of fight against these Death Star, Empire sized businesses with wines we can stand over. And I mean in price too. You cannot underestimate the price quality element.” Says a serious Kane.

“One of the things I loved when looking at models to start this business around, were businesses like Oddbins in its prime and most especially, Majestic in the UK. Majestic Wine Warehouses, these are businesses that are not all about selling a special or a bin end, they are about finding out what the customer wants and getting that. And of course that extends to the sites, exciting sites with great parking and real drama.” Says Kane “Its something, that business that I really admire.”

“On the web side, I just knew it had to be like this. I just travelled through so many sites which just never got updated. They are lonely and cold, there is no one home. It takes real effort and Matt my brother must take a lot of the credit along with our designers, but its Matt that keeps it fresh and makes it work.” Says Kane.

This seems to be the central point, and having won the Irish web industry’s best website award, he can speak with some authority when he suggests that running a website today goes far beyond an online brochure as we know, but that keeping it alive and truly social means working on the site, running it everyday as if it were a tv station.

“I cannot wait for people to see what we are going to do next.” Says a smiling Kane.

If our faltering broadband infrastructure allows, my money is on the Irish wine web breaking through UK and even US barriers, because the next wave of web apps are essentially micro-broadcasting and in conventional broadcasting the Irish lilt already has an edge that cannot be outsourced. Michael Kane and his brothers are ready to point that way.

Wine 2.0 Wines Top 5

Moillard Fleurie 2005 (89) €16.00

Chartron et Trebuchet Puligny Montrachet Meursault 2007 (92) €39

Domaine de Pellehaut Ampelomeryx 2006 (90) around €15


Xanadu Estate Chardonnay, Margaret River 2008 (90) around €18.50

Chateau Simone, AC Pallete, Provence 2007 (92) around €48.90

Personalised Champagne from Champagne J de Telmont for €69

-This is a super present idea, a personalised label on a very solid bubbly, a picture of a loved one or the newborn perhaps.


Caves de Lugny, les Charmes, Macon-Lugny 2008 (89) around €13.01

Ehrhard Roseneck Spatburgunder (Pinot Noir) 2006 (89) around €17.31

Mas de Daumas Gassac Rouge, 2004 (92) around €31.32


All three blog hosting sites hail from County Cork, but offer nationwide delivery. This is free in the case of Curious Wines, free in the case of orders over 100 for Bubble Brothers and a straight €9.50 from Karwig Wines, now celebrating 30 years in business.

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Land Of The Free, Home Of The Vine – Vines On Plymouth Rock

In the USA is the largest and most important national Holiday of the Year, its not Independence Day or Christmas, it is Thanksgiving Day. It is almost impossible for us or any Europeans to understand the effort, the ritual and the emotional weight of Thanksgiving. These days it is not merely a day of celebration, it is a whole festival, a long weekend of family, turkey, political myth making and increasingly, wine.

Thanksgiving is the one holiday where the USA, truly shuts down and concentrates itself inwardly. Anyone who has spent Christmas in the USA quickly realises that there is almost no pause in the rhythm of daily life, it is a little disappointing just how much of normal life goes on. For most workers, Christmas is more like a Bank Holiday in Ireland.

Thanksgiving however involves the entire US trying to get home and increasingly, that means a feasting on traditional foods with wine, not beer, which wine sales passed out in the summer of 2008. Also increasingly the wine at the US dinner table is, US wine.

Although we think of wine as being a relatively modern phenomenon in the US and centred around California, and Napa valley in particular, this is far from the true picture.

Today, every state in the US produces wine, including Hawaii and Alaska, so increasingly wine is forming part of the bounty of the earth that is placed on the thanksgiving table.

It is fairly clear while there was no American wine at that first thanksgiving feast, it is something that many US wineries across the US are trying to make up for, particularly the New England wineries where the Pilgrim Fathers and first colonists were located.

The US states of Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont are collectively known as New England and are the core of the early essentially English settlement of the US. They remain the archetypical home of the blue blood, upper crust WASP society in the US and home to not just the early colonies but also the social and political elites and their seats of learning like Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with Yale in nearby Connecticut.

New England is now home to almost 100 commercial wineries producing increasingly well regarded Chardonnay and even some Pinot Noir. There is even a winery in Nantucket, home of the Kennedy Clan. The Nantucket Winery produces a Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Riesling and even a Syrah amongst other wines. None of these wines make it to Ireland, largely because of cost, they are very expensive and produced in small quantities, but even more so because there is a cultural blind spot in Ireland, indeed in Europe to US wines.

We drink, huge quantities of US wines, they are the fifth largest source of our wines in Ireland, but they go largely unnoticed in their origin because these US wines hide in plain sight in the form of huge brands like, Gallo Blush Zinfandel, Turning Leaf and Sutter Home. These Californian high volume, entry level wines sell in large quantities through supermarkets so easily that they rarely seem to need or want to emphasise their origins at all.

Wine makers in California despair when they here that we know US wines through these brands.

“It makes me very disappointed” says Francis Mahoney, former owner of Carneros Creek Winery in Sonoma Valley and current owner of Francis Mahony Winery, a pioneer of Pinot Noir in California in the 1960s, and son of two Cork natives, his father from Skibbereen and his mother from Macroom.

“I am always disappointed that the wines I see on the shelves in Ireland from here are so bland, so unrepresentative of what we do.” Says Mahoney. “The whole culture of wine in the states today is about connecting with the land, with authenticity and that’s not always evident in those other wines.”

The Roots of A Wine Nation

Thanksgiving itself is part of this back to basics, back to the organic, earthy origins of US life. Thanksgiving Day is a celebration of locality and family, in complete contrast to the US Christmas a festival of auspicious consumption.

A key insight into Thanksgiving’s significance can be seen in New York.

In New York on Thanksgiving Day, which is this Thursday the 26th of November, the city comes to a standstill for a giant parade, Macy’s Parade. Half of Manhattan will be sealed off and filled with absolutely giant floating balloons, many the size and height of the GPO in Dublin, which rise up to he height of Liberty Hall.

Millions will watch the parade, hundreds of thousands will line the route, many booking into hotels along the route to get a view.

Macy’s Department store, will be closed for business.

Manhattan, along with the rest of the country will be all but completely closed for business. That is almost inconceivable in this the most unbridled consumerist nation.

Everywhere else is closed too because the whole of the US tries to head home to be with family or in groups of friends for the high ritual of Thanksgiving Dinner.

Independence Day celebrates the political freedom of the state from British rule, but Thanksgiving Day is the more psychically charged event, being the primordial day of creation of America in the mind of US citizens.

It is a day of national celebration now given legal status in law, where it occurs by Congressional Bill on the third Sunday of November every year.

Children across the US are taught that those first colonists, who arrived in the Mayflower, landing and setting foot for the very first time on America on Plymouth Rock itself, invited the native Americans to join them in a celebration, where they ate pumpkin pie, turkey, cranberry sauce and sweet potatoes. This is the main menu of the day in modern celebrations in meticulous ritual honour.

The message of the day is inclusively, the native Americans and the settlers sharing their food, with the emphasis on inviting the native Americans into the colony itself. So getting your entire family and everyone you know around the table, to feast and gorge on food and drink is central to the day.

Of course, there are some significant problems with such symbolism, that in effect the Native Americans were at first embraced by the colonists, that they shared the land

In this view of history America was not founded by barbaric, land-grabbing religious zealots who committed genocide to take a whole continent for themselves from the vast indigenous peoples who had lived there for millennia.

Nevertheless it is the more myopic vision of embracing cuktural diversity that the USA has largely now gotten behind and it has been almost totally secularised and is a celebration of a country at peace with its regional diversity, its rooted local self.

The New US Wine Order

One of the problems for Irish wine importers is that they find it hard to get at that local, diverse produce, such as the wines from the majority of states that now produce wine in more than sufficient quantities to export it. The problem is price and to some extent a cultural blind spot about the need to be known outside of your own neighbourhood.

In wine producing countries like France, Spain or New World countries like Australia or Chile, there had always been a wine drinking culture so wine was seen first and foremost as a domestic, everyday drink. This kept prices low except for the odd highly prized wine.

This is why supermarket shopping for wines in France or Spain can be so rewarding.

In the US wine was always a rarity, the struggle to successfully grow vines, in hostile predator filled soils obsessed the early colonists and successive generations of wine loving Americans including famously Thomas Jefferson, whom we have pointed out in tis column on several occasions had his own experimental vineyards endlessly tyring to figure out why vines never succeeded in the US.

The answer was microscopic, the Phylloxera louse which European vines had no resistance too. The solution was to graft European vines, Merlot, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and so forth onto native US vine roots. But it took 3 centuries to figure that out.

So, by the time the US wine explosion began in the middle of the 19th century, wine was seen as a tricky, rare and expensive luxury. Beer and distilled spirits from the southern states became the alcoholic drink of first choice in the US. Or almost, it is entirely likely that cider might have been the first alcohol produced by early US colonists, after all that were emigrants from Devon and Cornwall.

In the summer of 2008, wine sales surpassed those of beer in the US and coupled with changes in the law on marketing wine across the US, marks the dawn of a new love affair with wine across the United States.

The fact that each state now produces wine, means that wine has become a local, domestic product, which locals are taking a pride in.

“What is remarkable is just how loyal US consumers are to local products.” Says Veronique Drouhin owner and Chief winemaker of Domaine Drouhin Oregon, the Oregon state outpost of the large Burgundy winery Maison Drouhin.

“We Europeans might think of them as brash and even indiscriminate consumers, but this is absolutely not the case, they are loyal to local bakers, and increasingly farmers markets or produce clearly identified as from their state. Of course state laws do help, for example by making selling wine between the states as difficult as possible.” Says Veronique Drouhin.

“So the result is that there is great emphasis by wineries to sell at the winery door, or locally within the state, so, many people outside a particular state or even community might not see or taste the wines, it will all be consumed locally.” Says Veronique Drouhin.

Which makes wine an ideal accompaniment for the very local feasting and festival that is the Thanksgiving day feast, where there is also an emphasis on home cooking and local produce, the celebration being of course about the local bounty that got the Pilgrims through their first years on a new continent.

For Irish wine lovers, hoping to raise a glass of such local US wines it is a difficult, but not impossible task. Here is a guide to the more regional accent of American wine.


Domaine Drouhin Oregon, pinot noir 2006 (93) around €50 Tesco

-larger and selected Tesco outlets like Tesco Merrion Road or Tesco Bloomfield Centre Dun Laoghaire

Firesteed, Pinot Gris, Oregon, 2005 (89) around €15.95

-Cases Wine Warehouse, Riverside Commercial Estate, Tuam Road,Galway

Firesteed Pinot Noir, Oregon 2005 (90) around €21

-64 Wine, Glasthule Road, Sandycove, Co. Dublin and O’Donovan’s Off Licences, Cork City and County

Napa Valley

Cakebread Cellars, Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley 2006 (92) around €37.50

-Mitchell and Son, CHQ Building , IFSC Dublin 1, and 54 Glasthule Road, Sandycove

Chateau Montelena Chardonnay, Geyserville 2006 (91) around €43.95

-Fallon & Byrne, 11 Exchequer St, Dublin 2.

Clos du Val, Chardonnay, Napa Valley 2006 (91) at €18.99 down from €23.50 until December 28th

-O’Briens Wines, Nationwide

Other Californian Wines

Marimar Torres, Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley 2003 (91) around €44

-O’Briens Wines, nationwide

Concannon Family Winery, Petit Sirah, Livermore 2004 (90) around €17.99

-O’Donovans Off Liscences, Cork City and County and Harvest Offlicence Chain, Galways City and County

Washington State

L’Ecole No 41 Chardonnay, Washington 2005 (91) around €19

-64 Wines, 64 Glasthule Road, Sandycove, Co. Dublin

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Sour Grapes : How Snobbery is Killing Sweet wine

When we are children, good things are fairly easy to spot and to agree upon. If something is hilarious and makes us laugh, it is generally agreed to be a Good Thing. Tom and Jerry, Dustin, Basil Brush, Toy Story, iCarly or Peppa Pig; Winnie the Pooh or Artemis Fowl, depending on your vintage.

Food and drink are early vehicles for breaking up that childhood consensus on a Good Thing. While custard, chocolate, Lemonade and fizzy orange are undoubtedly Good Things, their sweetness is their downfall and is the beginning of a lifelong conditioning for most children to accept that sticky sweet things though alluring, are foolish choices and that meat, fruit and a myriad of sour things are much better.

By the time we enter adulthood, sweetness has become totally hot-wired into our sensibilities, even at a barely conscious level, as a part of our puerile desires and a Bad Thing.

As we settle into adulthood, bitterness, sourness and tastes that have to be acquired to be enjoyed are prioritised as indicators of sophistication and maturity.

In wine this is to be seen over the last decade or so manifesting itself in a mass movement towards a narrower and narrower set of wine styles, specifically those that exhibit incredible levels of acidity, austerity and basically sourness.

In the world of wine a few, mainly UK wine critics, seem to have seised on this sweet/sour battle as a way of attacking US influence over wine.

US writers, particularly Robert Parker are accused of dumbing down wines by praising fruit-bombs, ultra-ripe, sweet so called Parkerised wines.

This has slowly drifted through the entire wine industry, with wineries lining up to show how they have rejected the evils of succulence and sweetness.

This has reached dizzying heights over the last four years with the arrival of the phrase, Unwooded, code for saying that you will find no richness here, just pure austere fruit..

What we are now told to value however is not sweetness, but purity, minerality and austerity.

And here is the problem.

Having driven a generation of wine consumers towards the virtues of ultra clean Pinot Grigio, lean, fresh Chardonnay and zingingly acidic Sauvignon Blanc, the question that troubles most wine producers of sweet wines is whether it is too late to offer the complexity and joyousness of something sweet on the palate and in the glass.

A Walk On The Sweet Side

I suppose if there is a good time to try and lure a few hardened acidity addicts back to the Sweet Side, Christmas is the time to do it.

This time of year is the last little corner of public life that still allows us to enjoy sweetness in an almost unapologetic way.

Of course, it is all predicated on the underlying understanding that this is a season that momentarily permits adults to enjoy childishness and puerile antics.

That said then what we need to do is re-acquaint ourselves with the joys of a sweet alphabet.

Sweet wines are not an after thought in the wine world, they represent an astonishing commitment to an ideal of luxury and joy over short term reward.

Sweet wines are made when you can make wines that have sugar left over in your final wine after the fermentation has ceased.

This occurs in two ways, by having a high sugar content in your original grapes indicating incredible ripeness or by increasing the proportion of the grape that is sugar over that which is water.

A grape is mainly water, but the pulp of the grape contains a variety of sugars, minerals and proteins. If you can reduce the amount of water then the resultant wine will be sweeter than if it is diluted with a large juicy crop.

To make sweet wines you need to reduce the water content or increase the sugar. Increasing the sugar is fraudulent, unnatural practice that is also illegal in most wine producing regions. So the answer is to dry out the grape, to get rid of the water.

Three ways of doing this without additives have been found over the centuries, the first and still regarded as the best and most noble method is to use grapes that have been attacked by a mould called Botrytis which rots the grapes and causes them to dry and shrivel up. The attacked or Noble Rotted grapes produce a golden treacle like juice that ferments into some of the worlds greatest sweet wines such as Sauternes from France, Trockenbeerenauslese from Germany and Austria or Tokaji in Hungary.

The grapes attacked by Botrytis are truly disgusting to look at and are a result of a miraculous combination of natural effects.

For the Botrytis to grow and attack the grapes you need misty mornings, but in order for this not to progress to a gooey, grey rot, rather similar to how an over ripe banana or strawberry will end up, you need warm, drying afternoons. And all this has to happen after the grapes have ripened in the first place.

The result is that only a handful of places on the planet have the exactly right geographic and meteorological circumstances. Basically they need to be in warm continental climate zones, with large bodies of water and low winds that will produce early morning mists yet be hot enough to burn off in the afternoon.

The second way of getting rid of water in grapes in order to leave more sugar per grape is the Italian method of drying the grapes after harvest, this is the basis for Vin Santo. The grapes are laid out on bamboo mats in attics and specially constructed hot rooms across northern Italy and Tuscany for 3 months, being ready to make sweet wines from the first months of the new year.

Lastly you can reduce the amount of water by allowing the grapes to freeze.

This is what occurs in Germany and in Canada. The frozen grapes are then individually picked and crushed, with the frozen water, floating off as ice leaving the sugar rich pulp ready to make sweet wine.

All three methods are hugely labour intensive and expensive, largely because you are reducing the volume of juice you get from each vine in order to get enough sugar.

A regular vineyard, producing a dry wine will produce about 5,000 bottles from 1 hectare, more if you are in a poorer quality area that allows higher yields. That is about 3 bottles per vine. A sweet wine maker like Chateau D’Yquem famously manages to make about 1 glass of wine from each whole vine, that means it takes six or seven vines to make one bottle of sweet Botrytis wines.

In Canada where the vines are less productive again the yields from ice wine can be as low as half a glass from each wine. So Canadian Ice wine is often ludicrously expensive.

Inniskillen Riesling Eiswein sells for around euro95 a half bottle in OBriens Wines.

The Taste of Anti-Fashion

So, having found the rarest parcels of land, planted vines, waited for the mists, picked each berry by hand, not just each bunch and squeezed only a single glass of wine out of each vine, the next problem is to convince people that it was all worth while.

Well, apart from taste one chief interest of sweet and dessert wines these days is that they frequently have much lower alcohol levels than dry wine due to the fact that your aim as a winemaker was to have the fermentation fail to convert all the sugar into alcohol. So a sweet wine is usually low in alcohol, many German ice wines can be found at 8% or 9% Alcohol.

This is in happy contrast to many still dry wines which now regularly top a declared 14.5%, but which feel much hotter in alcohol terms.

Most importantly of all is the taste profile of sweet wines. These include nutty, baked fruit flavours, deep caramel and raisin-ated tones in a smooth, liquid velvet wash. These contrast with many of the purer wines that are now fashionable which emphasise primary fruit flavours like limes and lemons and grape skin over secondary and tertiary flavours like nut, vanilla or caramel.

If we were not blinded by a prejudice that said finding caramel and vanilla was just pandering to our childish interests in the simple things like ice-cream with a caramel swirl.

Of course if you look at what those who have enough money to free themselves from the tyranny of fashion or the opinions of others actually eat or drink you find something oddly unsurprising. Such people gravitate towards the happy simple sweet pleasures of childhood. Expensive Pomerol wines, bursting with toasty, creamy, jam like blackberry fruits with touches of soft milk chocolate and polished almost silky smooth tannins or caramel and toffee tinged Meursault or Pulgny Montrachet tend to be their first port of call, often to go with steak, chips, sticky toffee and chocolate puddings with piles of custard accompanied by a Sauterne that evokes the joys of a tin Golden Syrup.

The tyranny of tiny vegetables, over-priced, over praised John Dory and an ocean of acidic Sauvignon Blanc is reserved for the Dublin chattering classes.

Of course, the other attractive feature that sweet wines have, particularly from the New World is that being under-loved they sell at attractive prices.

Lastly unlike red wines, they actually enhance rather than contrast with cheese and of course they are the perfect match for so many Christmas time speciality foods such as Christmas pudding, rich trifle, Christmas fruit cake and of course mince pies.

If you can break free of the wine fashionistas then here are a few of the best and most rewarding sweet wines on sale this Christmas.

15 Fashion Free Favourites

5 Reasonably Priced Sauternes

Chateau de La Chartreuse, Sauternes 2006 (90) around euor20 – Mitchell and Son

Tesco Finest AC Sauternes 2005 (89) around euro16.99 – Tesco

Chateau Filhot, AC Sauternes 1999 (90) around euro24.99 – Oddbins

Chateau Suduiraut AC Sauternes 1998 (92) around 55 from – O’Brien’s Wines

Chateau Rieussec AC Sauternes 2004 (93) around euro 60 from – O’Brien’s Wines

5 Recession Busting Sweet Aussie Heroes

Brown Brothers, Orange Muscat and Flora, Australia 2004 (90) around euro 10.99

Peter Lehman, Botrytis Semillon, Barossa Valley 2007 (90) around euro 10.95

De Bortoli, Botrytis Semillon Vat 5, Riverina, Australia (91) around euro12.99

Wolf Blass, Gold Label Botrytis Semillon 2004 (92) around euro20

Tesco Finest, Botrytis Semillon Dessert Wine, Riverina 2005 (89) around euro 8.69

Widely available in better Off Licences and leading Independent Wine shops, please note that all above are half bottles.

5 Succulent Leftfield Delight

Chateau Jolys Cuve Jean AC Jurancon 2006 (90) around euro12.70 – Wines Direct

Mitchell’s Gold, AC Graves Superieres 2006 (89) around euro15.50 – Mitchell and Sons

Paul Cluver Noble Riesling, South Africa (89) around euro 15.99 – Independents

Schloss Schonborn Pfaffenberger Spatlese 2007 (90) around euro27.99 – O’Briens Wines

Chateau Court-les-Muts, AC Saussignac 2001 (91) around euro16.95 – Wicklow Wine Co.

Stockists – Wicklow Wine Company, Main Street, Wicklow Town, Wicklow; Wines Direct, 49 Lough Sheever Corporate Park, Mullingar, Co. Westmeath, and online at; Mitchell and Son, CHQ, IFSC, Dublin 1, Mitchell and Son, 54 Glasthule Road, Sandycove, County Dublin and Mitchell & Son, Marley Park Retail Centre, Grange Road, Rathfarnham, County Dublin and online at; Independents such as 64 Glasthule Road, Sandycove, County Dublin and online at, Redmonds of Ranelagh, Dublin 6, The Vintry, 102 Rathgar Rd, Dublin 6; Le Caveau, Market Yard, Kilkenny; and most multiples including Tesco, O’Brien’s Wines nationwide and O’Donovan’s Off Licences, Cork City and county.

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The Spirits Of Ireland – Whiskey Thoughts

Perhaps the most exciting event in Irish distilling for a quarter of a century is set to occur next year. Whiskey from and distilled at the 250 year old Kilbeggan Distillery is set to flow again.

The distillery was re-ignited formally on the 19th of March 2007, so since the Whiskey Act 1980 stipulates that Irish Whiskey cannot be sold until they have spent not less than three years in a warehouse in the State, or in Northern Ireland, we should be preparing our wallets from March onwards next year.

Happily, for anyone thinking of an exceptionally interesting Christmas present this year, the powerhouse of innovation that is Cooley Distilleries, the independent Irish distillery behind the Kilbeggan re-launch, there is something interesting afoot.

What is legal for them to sell, is the ongoing Spirit, which will latterly be the base for whiskey, but which cannot legally be defined as whiskey.

The Spirit of Kilbeggan is a tiny run of 1000 special box-sets, of three, six centilitre glass tubes for want of a better word, which contain the Spirit of Kilbeggan, we must emphasise for legal reasons, not, yet a whiskey.

Aged for one month, one year and two years, which should give anyone interested an insight into the final product that the maturing Spirit will achieve from its Kilbeggan Pot Still home.

It will be sold exclusively at the distillery in Kilbeggan itself and through specialist whiskey retailer, The Celtic Whiskey Shop on Dawson street, and its website The price is €20 for what will hopefully be a genuine heirloom of the re-ignition of a unique independent Irish whiskey industry.

The Rebirth of Irish Whiskey

The long shadow of one man, John Teeling falls across independent Irish whiskey in the 21st century.

Dr. John Teeling, is an Irish business icon, who today he heads up substantial business interests as diverse as diamond mining in Southern Africa and Connemara Mining discovering zinc in Limerick to his Persian Gold operation which is exploring for gold and copper deposits in Iran.

Back in 1970 he was at Harvard and wrote two doctoral papers on Irish business, in particular the disaster that was Irish whiskey, when the idea struck him that he could do much better than the current owners who controlled, indeed had a monopoly over Irish whiskey.

He set up to rival Irish Distillers and has done so effectively.

Last year, Cooley Distillery won the International and European Distillery of the Year Trophy at the IWSC, this year again they have taken the European Distillery of the Year gong. It is an almost unprecedented situation.

‘The Excise’

In Jim Murray’s A Taste of Irish Whiskey, the world’s leading whiskey writer, author of the annual Whiskey Bible, found that there were upwards of 2000 stills in Ireland at the end of the 18th century with perhaps almost 100 of these amounting to what might be described as whiskey making operations.

The reason for the vagueness about just how many whiskey producers there were in Ireland was down to a familiar issue, tax. Official records of how much whiskey was being produced and the reality are said to be highly divergent.

What we call Potin today was to some extent really, whiskey making gone underground after the introduction of excise on stills.

Whatever the true situation beyond the statistics, we can say with certainty that by the end of the 19th century there were around 30, large whiskey making operations scattered throughout the country, with most counties and bigger towns being possessed of one, much in the manner of English towns all having their own brewery.

Whiskey expert Heidi Donelon has perused the work of one Alfred Barnard, who was in the editorial team at the influential 19th century publication Harper’s Weekly Gazette. He took a tour of every operating distillery he could find in 1885. He tracked down 28 of them, producing hundreds of different whiskey offerings in every style and age.

These included Persse’s Distillery Nun’s Island, Galway, which was active near the present day Cathedral from 1815 to 1913. Walker’s Distillery, of Thomond Gate, Limerick City which was active from 1820 to 1919; Cassidy’s Distillery of Monasterevin in County Kildare who were operating from 1784 until 1921 and Nicholas Devereux Bishop’s Water Distillery in Wexford which was active from 1827 until around 1914.

Heidi Donelon has searched these out along with 24 other distilleries across the Republic.

Big Is Beautiful ?

The undoing of Irish whiskey was simple.

We bought into the idea that big, centralised semi-industrial production of giant branded spirits was the key to success over, small local, artisan production. And with annual healthy profits for multinational Pernod Ricard’s Irish Distillers operation, few accountants or banks would disagree, in their legal corporate domicile.

If we had not centralised distilling to Dublin and Cork, then Irish tourism and jobs market could be quite different and a great deal healthier, with every town having its own production, loyally supported by aficionados from Tramore to Tokyo and best of all visited by those fans.

Heidi Donelon is attempting to address one part of that issue.

“I created the Irish Whiskey Trail to fill an absolutely obvious need that I saw as I travelled around the world lecturing and presenting tastings on Irish Whiskey. When people think of Scottish Whiskey they think of where it is made, they think of and travel to hundreds of distilleries in incredibly scenic locations.” Says Donelon.

“But when I would finish a lecture, people just did not seem to think or associate, Ireland, as a whiskey destination.” Says Donelon, “So what I wanted to do and what I have tried to achieve in the Irish Whiskey Trail is to put a sort of map, a tour of Ireland from a whiskey perspective.”

“It is not a holiday website or tour site as such, I don’t run tours through the site, rather it is a place where you can download the map and explore Irish whiskey yourself.”says Donelon.

What she has produced is a very fine downloadable map from which you can print out. In addition the website also has plenty of information on the 28 distilleries that operated in 1885 and a good outline history of Irish whiskey.

Our Irish whiskey heritage is long, proud and diverse, with players like Cooley and John Teeling, and highly skilled craftspeople in Middleton and Bushmills, there is every prospect of a bright, diverse and local future beyond global brands too.

So, this Christmas when thinking about whiskey, indeed Irish whiskey, you might just want to explore a little further than the core big brands that dominate the market and see that slowly there is a bespoke, hand crafted and award winning set of possibilities.

Here are a selection of some of the finest whiskeys currently being produced in Ireland.

Top Ten Irish Whiskey Gifts

1. Redbreast 12-Year-Old Pure Pot Still (93) around €44.99

This shows just what superb levels of craftsmanship Irish Distillers craftsmen and women can pull off. This Pot Still whiskey, where you are essentially batch manufacturing just like in Cognac is gloriously complex confection. You need to spend time just inhaling the bouquet to reach the edges of the taste landscape it offers. On tasting you find touches of brioche, toasted on a grill, with melting acacia honey and soft butter streaming from its edges, spicy, exotic cinnamon, touches of vanilla and smooth toffee, leading to a warm, nutty, hot, but smooth finish.

2. Connemara, 12 Year Old Peated Single Malt (93) around €80

I have been astounded by this whiskey since I first tasted it some years back and it is a unique creation, a peated whiskey, it smells and tastes like the inside of a smoke filled white washed cottage on a windswept western seaboard. I have never failed to be transported to Roundstone on a wet, cold night after just one inhale of the bouquet. That of course is not where everyone wants to be, but if a roaring turf fire, yellow fisherman’s overalls completes the picture then this is your tipple. Winner of almost every award on offer, and Gold Medal winner again this year 2009 and best in class medal winner 2009.

3. Midleton Very Rare 2008 (92) €135

Now an annual fixture on many business Christmas present lists, the wooden box presentation and signature with barrel number have become the fetishist collectors items that IDL presumably had hoped for. The whiskey inside is not actually consumed as frequently as intended if my random snooping surveys of other peoples drinks cabinets are in any way representative. If they did you will find an amber delight, with an ultra smooth liquid caramel wash.

4. Green Spot, Mitchell & Son (91) around €44.95

The original Irish Icon whiskey, from Mitchell & Son, made by Irish distillers in a traditional pot still for Mitchells. It is a sweeter whiskey, with a delicious spiciness, a touch of malty creaminess in the finish.

5. Jameson 12 Year Old Special Reserve (91) around €35

Probably the best quality for the money in the Jameson portfolio, as at €35 in other words €8 dearer than the functional standard Jameson, it is a world apart, being made up of over two thirds of the blend of Pot Still whiskey and a goodly proportion of 20 year old whisky with a fine complex tone from time in Oloroso barrels. Superb and well priced.

6. Bushmills 10 Year-Old Single Malt (91) around €41.99

This is whiskey as a wall of sound. A rushing torrent of soft toffee, toasty cereal notes, spicy rich floral honey and even a touch of white pepper. It is a testament to the blending and ultra smooth distilling process that separates Irish from Scottish creations.

7. Tyrconnell 10 Year-Old Madeira Finish Single Malt (91) around €79

If you are looking to enter the more challenging world of fine, bespoke whiskies then this is an ideal gateway. It is very obvious here that something magical has occurred with the use of the barrels and it this could open a doorway to entire sub-world of different finishes in whiskey. Its an expensive world to explore, but happily there is a sale with a €10 in the Celtic Whiskey Shop at €64.

8. Connemara Peated Single Malt (90) around €39

The little sibling of the 12 year old stalwart award winner and a very enjoyable, complex array of favours too. A sort of watercolour version of the full on oil painting that is the 12 years old offering.

9. Kilbeggan Irish Whiskey (89) around €27.99

The cornerstone of the Cooley operation, not their best whiskey by any means, but a wonderfully enjoyable, butter and toasted brioche affair that I sometimes like to think of as the gateway between old fashioned Australian Chardonnay and Irish whiskey. A very well priced introduction to a world outside branded smoothness in Irish whiskey.

10. The Spirit of Kilbeggan, 3 Tube Limited Release (not really rateable) around €19.99

Ok, it is not legally a whiskey, but it is a spectacularly interesting offering and in the spirit of the season, an ideal present for anyone who is even the least bit interested in Irish history, native business ambition, whiskey or getting a jump on the next big thing, and frankly if someone does not fall under one of these categories, they deserve brown socks instead.

All Whiskies are available widely, in most Off Licences and Wine Shops nationwide and in chains such as O’Brien’s Wines nationwide; Molloys Liquor Stores, across Leinster and O’Donovan’s Off Licences, Cork City and county.

Except for

Green Spot – Mitchell and Sons, Mitchell & Son, CHQ, IFSC, Dublin 1, 54 Glasthule Road, Sandycove, Co Dublin and Marley Park Retail Centre, Grange Road, Rathfarnham.

The Spirit of Kilbeggan is exclusive to Kilbeggan Distillery Visitors Centre Kilbeggan, County Meath and at the Celtic Whiskey Shop, Dawson Street Dublin 2.

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