The Past, Present and Future of Winemaking in Ireland
Emerging wine regions all over the world are earning praise for the quality they’re achieving. Countries whose wines would have been deemed a novelty a few decades ago are now collecting gold medals: British sparkling enjoys wide acclaim and Brazilian fizz is surely one to watch. A Bolivian red surprised in 2016 by taking home a platinum medal at the Decanter Awards and Canada’s quest for acknowledgement beyond its Ice Wine is slowly succeeding (the same can be said for Hungary’s attempt to show it’s not a Tokaji-making wine trick pony).
The list is lengthy: Romania, Croatia, Slovenia, Georgia, China, India and Japan are all finding their voice in the international wine community. So… What’s the story with Irish wine? Is quality winemaking in Ireland the next success story, or is the country better off sticking to beer and spirits, products in which Irish provenance is already respected and highly valued worldwide?
Traditional knowledge sets the limits for quality viticulture between 30° and 50° of latitude. Ireland’s southernmost point is 51°, slightly past the edge but equal to the UK’s Kent (where Taittinger Champagne owns vineyards) and way below Scandinavian countries in which the race to make fine wines has also begun. Hence, Irish wines could fit comfortably in what has come to be known as “New Latitude Wines”.
Oh, but the rain. Spain’s Rias Baixas gets over 1,000 mm/year (over 1,500 mm/year in the rainiest parts) and that doesn’t stop it from crafting beloved Albarinos. According to MET Éireann 30 year averages (1961-1990), Wexford’s Rosslare gets 877.2 mm/year and it’s not the only area in Ireland with rainfall levels comparable to this Spanish DO. The difference however lays in the distribution of such rainfall, as Irish summers are wetter and cloudier. But while latitude is something that won’t change, climate is a completely different issue.
As the world map of wine evolves, looking into the past and present of winemaking in Ireland will help us understand the country’s potential and future.
Master of Wine Stephen Skelton, lecturer and consultant to the English and Welsh wine industry, compiled “A Short History of Vineyards in Ireland” as an appendix to his UK Vineyards Guide 2010. There, he points out that one of the first mentions of vines in the country come from the writings of the Venerable Bede, specifically his Ecclesiastical History of the English People (completed in AD 731) and he quotes: “Ireland abounds in milk and honey, nor is there any want of vines.”
He then explains how 12th century writer Giraldus Cambrensis stated that this was false and that Ireland had never had vines. Perhaps due to the oral tradition of Irish culture, winemaking wasn’t as well documented as it was in other countries in which Catholic monks brought the trade with them.
Wine writer and consultant Susan Boyle estimates that there are about 2,000 years of wine history in Ireland, and she credits the Celts with introducing the drink into the island, even in pre-Christian times. She tells the story of Irish wine in her one-woman show A Wine Goose Chase, and she reckons the wine-stained pottery found in archaeological sites is proof of the drink’s presence in the country, at least “a good 500 years before Christ was even born.”
These vessels are believed to have travelled with the Celts, west from the wine growing regions where you would find Greece on modern maps. The patterns on these urns bear a remarkable resemblance to the triskele found on the Celtic carved stones which can be seen at the Neolithic burial site at Newgrange.”
Much better documented is the history of the Irish diaspora and its contribution to the international wine industry. The group known as the Wine Geese, named as a nod to the Wild Geese, gathers the numerous merchants, winemakers and characters that became celebrated names in Bordeaux and other distinguished wine regions. Wine writer and educator Liam Campbell has summarised their story, and those wishing to know more can head to the Museum of Wine within Desmond Castle in Kinsale, Co. Cork.
On the more recent past, Stephen Skelton MW recalls that one pioneer attempt to plant grapes for winemaking in Ireland occurred in the 60’s, “by a gentleman who was in the army with Sir Guy Salisbury-Jones (who planted the first UK vineyard at Hambledon in 1952) in a small vineyard south of Wexford in the vicinity of the ferry port of Rosslare.” Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are likely to haven been the grapes of choice.
In 1972, the owner of the Longueville House Hotel (Blackwater Valley in County Cork), Michael O’Callaghan, planted Müller-Thurgau and Reichensteiner in his property. In 1977, he visited Germany accompanied by Dr. Billy Christopher, who in 1985 decided to also plant a vineyard in the area, named Blackwater Valley Vineyard. Varieties grown there included Madeleine Angevine, Reichensteiner & Seyval Blanc. Dr. Billy told Skelton that the project gave him “twenty years of fun”, but his production never became commercially viable.
Another two pioneers in modern winemaking in Ireland include German Thomas Walk who planted his vines in the mid-eighties near Kinsale in County Cork and David Llewellyn, founder of Lusca, whose beginnings are documented by Skelton with a small vineyard in Swords, planted in 2000 as a test prior to his current production in Lusk. More on them in the next part.
As of 2017, there is a very small commercial wine production in Ireland as well as a few experimental or private vineyards. With recent advancements in technology, more resistant hybrid varieties are available and with the expected changes in the climate over the next decades, it is still an industry of dreamers and risk-takers but the possibility of crafting fine wines in the country becomes more within reach as times goes by.
In an interview with James McWalter, author of the essay “The Feasibility of Ireland Becoming a Wine Producing Country due to Climate Change”, which he kindly shared with TheTaste, he identifies Wexford and Waterford as the counties with the biggest potential. While he points out that Ireland is protected from destructive frost thanks to the influence of the North Atlantic Gulf Stream, he also concludes that “Ireland currently does not have sufficient GDDs [Growing Degree Days] for viticulture”… yet.
In his work, James compared Wexford’s climate with that of other wine regions in the northern extreme, both established and up and coming. He chose Elkton (Oregon), Chablis, Rheingau and West Sussex. Below a comparison of their weather figures:
This hasn’t stopped a few from trying and we have talked with some of the pioneers in Irish winemaking who are currently producing wine in Ireland.
David Llewellyn is a horticulturist, fruit-grower and the winemaker behind Lusca, a commercially available Irish wine (stocked at Celtic Whiskey Shop) made in Lusk, Co. Dublin, where he also grows apples, pears and cherries and makes a range of artisan food products.
He has moved from producing both white and red wines to focusing on the reds, which he finds give him better results. “I’m at around 700 bottles per year now, hoping to be up at around 1000 bottles for the 2017 vintage”, he says, and while his flagship wine to date has been a Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot, he explains that in 2016 he decided to make something “totally different” he’ll be launching soon: a varietal made from Rondo, a grape that might be Irish wine’s ace up the sleeve…
— David Llewellyn (@DavidsOrchard) June 20, 2017
Regarding his methods of production, David acknowledges that he works on a “micro-scale, very small in comparison to even the smallest commercial wineries”, he does everything himself, from vineyard work to labelling the bottles.
I do not filter the wine, and neither do I add any fining to the wine. Instead, I just give it time, to go through the various stages of fermentation in its own time, I rest it on the lees, and after racking off, I allow it to settle and clear during the year or so following the vintage.”
He has progressed to use oak, which he deems expensive but worth it. And while he’s aware “Irish wine will always be expensive” and considers it “a niche product, with a limited market, even if it can be produced to a good quality”, he points out that he’s pleased with the wines. When asked if he believes there’s a bit of snobbery surrounding wines from non-traditional regions he says yes: “I sometimes feel, for example, that at this stage my wine would be regarded more highly by ‘experts’ if tasted blind, and if the taster was not told it was Irish!”
David Dennison is a Waterford-based Irish winemaking enthusiast. We spoke to him about the wines he makes at his experimental vineyard in the county, a 1 hectare crop with approximately 2,700 plants including hybrids Rondo (red) and Solaris and Bacchus (white) as well as some Pinot Noir.
It’s funny, we have 1/3 ha ofPinot Noir, I always wondered what the fuss was about this grape,?,ok , has not flowers yet ,but excited pic.twitter.com/qdBXtzwGt9
— Dennison’s Waterford (@Dennisons_Farm) June 22, 2017
David’s trajectory in the wine world traces back to the early nineties; holder of a WSET Diploma, he worked as a wine educator for over two decades and “did some vineyard work in Bordeaux, New Zealand and Brazil”, however when it comes to actually making wine, he has learned the most by trial and error and working the land.
He also has hopes on Rondo as a variety that might work in Ireland. It is a cross between Zarya Severa and St. Laurent made in 1964 by Professor V. Kraus and developed by Dr. Helmut Becker in Germany.
For us, when you taste [wines from Rondo] there is a real fruitiness, flavours of wild raspberries, some cassis and blackcurrant and quite a long finish. Quite acidic at the moment.”
One of the distinguishing characteristics of Rondo is how early it ripens, which on one side, means it can be harvested before the rain or humidity deteriorates it, but it is challenging to reach levels of even a modest 10 or 11% ABV. “The Germans are extremely honest about alcoholic percents, they won’t chaptalise as much”, he says, referring to the addition of sugars to feed the yeast to encourage it to produce more alcohol than the one it would make naturally from the grape’s juice.
— Dennison’s Waterford (@Dennisons_Farm) June 1, 2017
Come harvest time, David Dennison is expecting to make wines from Rondo and possibly blend in some Pinot Noir. “I think it’s possible to make wine every year, but not good wine every year”, he says, pointing out that he’s in fact very pleased with the wines he made in 2016.
“We don’t spray, and we work organically”, in fact at the time we talked, he was in the process of getting certified by Organic Trust. He keeps dandelions, other berries and apple trees near the vines to attract bees and protects plants from excess weeds with environmentally friendly methods.
We’re at the mercy of the weather, at the mercy of everything, really.”
Thomas Walk is a German winemaker who owns and operates a small and private winery in Co. Cork, near Kinsale. The Thomas Walk Winery, which has been standing since the early 80’s and in which organic and environmentally friendly principles are the norm. After more than 25 years producing Irish wine, he considers that the biggest challenge is that “one can not get a consistent yield every year and the vintages are much smaller as in ‘real’ vine crowing countries especially if you go for organic vine growing as we do.”
He explains that micro-climates are key, and he tells us that his vineyard is “south facing, with decent shelter and most importantly, the right grape variety combined with the adapted way of growing and pruning.” This “right grape variety” is Rondo, which he discovered after many years of trying to find the ideal fruit for the Irish climate.
On his website, he explains how he pioneered the use of Rondo (including how he introduced it into Ireland), after he found the right partner for his project in Dr. Helmut Becker from the Institute for Grape Breeding in Geisenheim. Back then the grape didn’t have a name, and Thomas was allowed to call it Amurensis Walk. The name Rondo became generally authorised in 1999.
Amurensis Walk produces a unique full-bodied ruby-red wine, which, during the course of the wine-making process, can develop an intriguing degree of complexity, while the scent and taste are reminiscent of dark cherries and blackberries.
Those interested in trying his wines can request an order here.
Steve Doyle has also been on the Irish winemaking scene since the eighties. He begun with a tiny vineyard in the back of his home in Dundrum, which is no longer planted there but from which he told us he was able to get “a small amount of wine.”
Nowadays, he owns and operates a vineyard in south Dublin county, and he sells vines and other implements needed for winemaking through his website irishgrapevines.com. When asked what’s the minimum amount of vines a person should get in order to make non-commercial amounts of wine (a few bottles a year for friends and family), he reckons “if you’re making a gallon of wine (4.5 litres), probably about 6 vines. 6 vines outdoors would make about a gallon of wine, but if you grow them in a polytunnel or a glasshouse, you could get a bigger crop and get about two gallons per vine. A big mature vine in a glasshouse, you could be talking about 10 gallons even.”
Vine plants are sold at €5 each plus postage costs and delivery can be arranged across Ireland and the UK. Among the grape varieties listed on his page there are global best-sellers such as Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot as well as many less known varieties including Rondo, but also Madeleine Angevine and Regent. For Steve, there’s no order too small: “If someone wants a bundle of 25 [plants] I can supply that too, but people that call me for 2 or 3 vines or 10 and I’ll supply, even 1 vine, I’ll supply”, he says and mentions that the best time to buy them is between November and April as they’re easier to transport.
If you plant in a glasshouse, it is best to plant anytime during the winter. There’s no point in planting outside after December because the ground gets too cold and wet.”
Regarding his piece of advice for people who’d like to venture into winemaking in Ireland, he suggests to combine outdoor vines with fruit grown in polytunnels “to allow for cold summers”.
If you’re going to plant a couple of acres and you get a bad summer, you might get a very small crop, but if you get some of those vines in polytunnels, you’re hedging for bad years, because those ones will always produce. It’s a safety net.
While the future of winemaking in Ireland is not paved in gold, it’s not a completely bleak vision either. The south of the country is the area with the biggest potential and while there’s a tame optimism, it is clear that it is an extremely challenging endeavour.
“I have no doubt that climate change is very real, and will change agriculture in Ireland in the medium to long term”, says David Llewellyn, however, it might take decades until an appreciable difference has a real impact in Irish wine.
Daria Blackwell, who has ventured into the West of Ireland to make wines, has also contemplated the possibility “as to whether climate change would make Ireland suitable for grape production outdoors.” She has a background in biology and chemistry and her husband is a marine biologist, and she explains they’ve been “approaching it from the naturalistic point of view.”
While she acknowledges that for them, it’s in an experimental stage and “more of a hobby than anything else”, the idea of having “the westernmost vineyard in Europe” sure sounds promising.
Whether we can actually produce something drinkable will determine whether we eventually go the wine route, the spirits route, or just grape juice. But that’s a few years down the line.”
She documents her project in the blog Viticulture Ireland, which she describes as “a chronicle of our preposterous journey to grow wine grapes and make wine in the west of Ireland, where the mountains come down to the sea along the Wild Atlantic Way”. Images showing the vineyard’s progress as well as other interesting findings are published in this page.
“While all climate models over a multi-decade timeframe must be interpreted with care, current climate science indicates promising developments for Wexford regarding its suitability for viticulture”, suggests James McWalter. For as soon as 2050, the county might experience a reduction of summer rainfall of 25 to 40% and a summer temperature increase between 1 to 2.5 degrees, with an accompanying increment in the much needed sunlight.
Below, a climate change projection for Wexford, in which it can be compared with 2015’s West Sussex:
While he reckons that “the hills near Wexford City, at 656 m, and near Rathnure, at 1,342 m, are the most promising sites to explore”, the region’s fertile soils might also become a worry: Sandy soils might be too close to the coast and therefore too exposed, and other areas might be too fertile for quality viticulture.
On a more positive note, he points out that the expertise and know-how in an agricultural-oriented region such as Wexford will mean skilled labour and experienced farmers who understand the land.
Stephen Doyle considers that the consequences of climate change can be perceived already but while “we are getting higher temperatures at times during the summer” they are peaks and the highs don’t last for long “because the Atlantic is always there to cool things down.”
In decades to come, small producers who are willing to put in the effort and research heavily into finding the right grape for the right plot of land are the ones who have the most to win. Due to the high costs and experimental nature of the trade, large-scale commercial productions are still not in the panorama. Thomas Walk shows a balanced optimism and points out that “subject to the right variety, micro climate and experience, it is possible.”
So, what’s next? Deeper (no pun intended) soil research is needed. James McWalter suggests to look at the US, where “wine is made in every state now including Alaska.” As investigation and development of hybrid varieties progresses, experimentation to find suitable matches will also open the door to new possibilities.
Gabriela’s passion for writing is only matched by her love for food and wine. Journalist, confectioner and sommelier, she fell in love with Ireland years ago and moved from Venezuela to Dublin in 2014.
Since then, she has written about and worked in the local food scene, and she’s determined to discover and share the different traditions, flavours and places that have led Irish food and drink to fascinate her.