Did you know there are snakes in Ireland now? I suppose you could have figured that out. And did you know that there are wineries in Ireland now too (and not just in and around Cork)? You probably could have figured that out too, but you probably didn’t know that the Irish have a long history with wine. Yes, wine.
Despite the word “whiskey” deriving from the Gaelic “uisce beatha”, meaning water of life, and of course, the immediate association of Ireland with stout especially today, the Irish are no strangers to wine for many a century.
As far back as the fifth century, Irish missionaries not only spread the Word of God, but with it, the Word of the Vine, playing an active role in the migration of grape growing and winemaking in Europe. Despite that faux Irish beer named after St. Killian, that saint is said to have introduced viticulture into the Upper Maine Valley in Germany and is the patron saint of wine grape-growers in that area. St. Martin of Tours (not Wine Tours), another Irish missionary, is said to have discovered the chenin blanc grape and plays an even more prominent role in wine and Catholic history in Europe to this day.
But it is not winemaking that the Irish have the longer tradition with but wine consumption. Although the United States is the largest overall consumer of wine in the world, Irish per capita wine consumption surpasses ours by quite a bit. I am not sure it will be covered in “Vikings” on the History Channel, but the Vikings did not only do Vikingly things, they traded, and after establishing many cities in Ireland, also did a healthy wine trade with the Irish. And it wasn’t the British who were drinking those clarets in greater numbers early on, as we see almost weekly at “Downton Abbey”, but the Irish were importing four times the amount of wine from Bordeaux as the Brits right up until the 1800s. There is some history to explain what that may have been.
Those devoted to Irish history may be fully aware of the “Wild Geese”. After James II was defeated by the British armies in the 17th century, the Treaty of Limerick allowed Irish rebels to to settle in France. They were listed as “wild geese” on ships’ documents and joined James II in exile rather than stay behind and face persecution, which as we know lasted more than a few years.
Many of the “Wild Geese” who “flew” to France eventually morphed into the “Wine Geese”, getting deeply ensconced in the wine trade at all levels. Bordeaux was a natural center for this, being a port city on the western coast of France, creating a bridge for trade between the famed wine region and Ireland. Today, at least 14 wineries have Irish names to go with their centuries-old Irish heritage. The Lynch family were Irish wine importers back to the 14th century, but it was Michel Lynch, born in Bordeaux who is the Lynch in “Lynch-Bages”. Another Irish family, Barton, is still seen in “Barton Guestier” and “Leoville-Barton”. The Bartons also owned Chateau Latour, along with another “Wild Geese” family, the Johnstons.
The influences and hands-on involvement went beyond Bordeaux. One well-known sherry house, Pedro Domecq was founded by an Irish farmer, Patrick Murphy and another, Garvey, makes a fino sherry called San Patricio. The Barry Family, one of the first families of Australian wine production, named their top-flight wine, The Armagh, after their Irish county of origin.
These all are just a handful of examples and then there are the influences in the United States too. When I think of Irish-American wine influences, I think of Limerick Lane Cellars, started and recently sold by Michael Collins (not THAT Michael Collins) and Concannon Vineyards in Livermore Valley, started in the 1880s. James Concannon went to France and brought back rootstock from Chateau d’Yquem (also with Irish roots) which still bear fruit today. He also traveled to Mexico at the beginning of the 20th century and helped revolutionize Mexican wine, long before the Fountains of Wayne sang about it. But it was Samuel Brannan, who in 1860, not only established the town of Calistoga but planted the first vines in Napa Valley. We don’t know however if he likened a wade in the famed mudbaths there to falling into a vat of Guinness.
There are other modern-day wine geese I encounter regularly in all corners of the trade, all very much up on their wine-related heritage, with names like Flanagan and Coyle and Higgins. Mitchell and Sons, the oldest family-owned wine and spirits merchant in Ireland, is still producing their house brand Spot Irish whiskies which are now available in the US since I originally wrote this.
Finally, Irish wit and folklore were not relegated to beer and whiskey. One whimsical legend was that fairies had a particular fondness for wine, so royalty would leave a keg out at night for them, and sure enough, by morning, it would have disappeared! George Bernard Shaw once said that “in wine tasting and wine talking, there is a great amount of humbug” (and I agree, but when asked about his own wine consumption said, “a mind the caliber of mine cannot derive its nutriment from cows!”
Maybe the wine being made in Ireland today isn’t quite so grand just yet, but the tradition of Irish toasts will always remain so…and here is one for today — may your laugh, your love and your wine be plenty, thus your happiness will be nothing less. Slainte!