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The best fine Christmas wines you can buy in supermarkets

First published in The Irish Times, Saturday 9th December, 2017

Some are sedate, refined affairs with polite conversation. Others are huge, loud, clan gatherings, semi-organised chaos with a horde of noisy children and even noisier adults. If your Christmas dinner falls into the latter category, then it is quite likely that your wine selection will be based on quantity rather than quality. This is not the best time to roll out that expensive bottle you squirrelled away for a special occasion. If you do open it, chances are that cousin Ronan down the other end of the table will knock most of it back while you are carving the turkey or finishing off the sprouts.

However, this does not mean buying caseloads of the cheapest possible wine. Spend €1 or €2 more and your guests will notice the difference, and thank you for it. There are plenty of very drinkable wines at anything from €8-€15. Today I’m doing a round-up of the multiples. I generally go for a bottle of fizz to gets things going (with nibbles to provide soakage) followed by a medium-bodied white and  red wine. Remember to provide interesting adult soft drinks for those who don’t drink alcohol.

To start off, Prosecco is hugely popular and unlikely to offend. I have featured the SuperValu Grifón (€9) before, or alternatively the Aldi Cremant de Jura is an outstanding bargain for €11.99. I would also recommend their beautifully packaged rich Astelia Chardonnay (€10.99) and either the smooth, elegant Rioja Reserva (€10.99) or the uber-ripe, hearty Exquisite South Australian Shiraz (€8.79). SuperValu have a very attractive offer of a six-bottle case containing two organic Spanish red wines, both of which would go very well with turkey, for €40.

Tesco’s Finest Prosecco Valdobiadenne (€17.99) may stretch the budget but is worth the premium, while its Picpoul de Pinet (€12) will make a nice change to Pinot Grigio or Sauvignon Blanc. For a budget red, it is hard to look further than their Finest Limestone Coast Shiraz, mentioned here before but a bargain for €9.

From O’Briens the ever -popular Protocolo (€9.95) is hard to resist, but I was bowled over by the Garnacha featured below. For white wines the new Duffour Côtes de Gascogne (€9.99) is great value, or the Yalumba Organic Viognier (€13.95) will go nicely with starter and main course. For sparkling wine, the Rizzardi Prosecco Frizzante for €12.50 will certainly get the party started.

Shoppers at Dunnes Stores should head for the Viognier below, and for red wine, to the fruit-filled El Circulo Rioja Crianza(€10.50) or the warming, spicy Visan La Souco (€11.50). Spar, Eurospar and Londis all have the smart, richly textured, buttery Couveys Chardonnay (€10.99) and soft, ripe Eugenio Bustos Malbec below from Argentina.

Tesco finest Prosecco Valdobbiadene

Tesco Finest Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore NV

11.5%, €17.99
Frothy ripe pear fruits, balanced very nicely by crisp lemon zest. Great on its own, with nibbles, or even alongside fishy starters.
Stockists: Tesco

LM_SOLAS_VIOGNIER_BLC_DETOURELaurent Miquel Solas Viognier 2016
13%, €12.50
A very seductive wine bursting with exotic fruits, luscious peaches and subtle toasted almonds. This would go down a treat with lightly spicy prawns and other shellfish, as well as turkey.
Stockists: Dunnes Stores

EBustos MB sc

Eugenio Bustos Malbec 2016, Mendoza, Argentina
12.5%, €9.99
A lighter, juicier style of Malbec with ripe plum and loganberry fruits overlaid with vanilla and spice. With turkey, ham and spiced beef.
Stockists: Eurospar, Spar, Mace & Londis.

TANDEM IMNMUNE

Tandem Inmune Garnacha 2015, Velle de Yeri, Navarra
14%, €14.95
A very moreish ripe bouncy red wine with herby aromas and vivid, pure black fruits. A real crowd-pleaser to drink alongside turkey and ham.
Stockists: O’Briens

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The best new Irish whiskeys to buy this Christmas

First published in The Irish Times, Saturday 2nd December, 2017

It is hard to believe, given the vast array of bottles on display at Dublin Airport and other outlets, but there are still only half-a-dozen distilleries actually producing whiskey in this country. The rest buy in mature stocks and further age, finish, blend or otherwise leave their unique mark on the final product. Some are excellent, others ordinary, and price is not always a good indicator of quality. Certainly there appears to be an appetite for €100-plus offerings. This autumn we have a flurry of new releases from producers anxious to catch the important Christmas market. Interest in Irish whiskey is at an all-time high, crossing all ages and gender, so this could be the ideal present for that difficult friend or relative.

In September, Walsh Whiskey released the excellent Irishman’s Founder’s Reserve Florio Marsala Cask Finish (€70). If that is beyond your budget, Writer’s Tears Copper Pot (€45) is another, more  affordable star from the same source. The Dublin Whiskey Distillery sounds like a made-up name but claims a noble history. It was originally founded in 1830 by John Brannick, who served as master distiller at two of Dublin’s great distilleries before founding his own. DWD closed in 1940 but has now been revived by a group of Dublin businessmen. The Heritage Edition is a blend of whiskey from three different distilleries, aged for five to 10 years in Bourbon casks, primarily first fill.

Irish distilleries

Dingle was to the forefront of the new Irish distilleries, and therefore also one of the first to release whiskies produced in their own distillery last year. This autumn sees the release of four new small batch whiskies available in limited quantities. This includes the Dingle Single Malt (€65), aged in Bourbon, Oloroso and Pedro Ximenez Casks; the Dingle First Single Pot Still (€90), aged in Pedro Ximenez Casks; and the Dingle Single Malt (€78), aged in Port and Bourbon Casks, the last available exclusively from SuperValu.

Speaking of SuperValu, it recently expanded its whiskey range to include a number of exclusives. As well as the Dingle above, they now offer very limited quantities of two single-cask whiskies from Powers, both retailing at about €200. Aged for 15 years in cask, these are superb, rich, full-flavoured spirits, classically Powers in style. Elsewhere, the 2017 edition of Midleton Very Rare (€180) has been released, in a new very smart luxury bottle and wooden case, as has the Mitchell’s Green Spot Ch Montelena Whiskey, aged in Zinfandel barrels from Ch Montelena in California, a follow-on from their excellent Green Spot Ch Léoville-Barton.

Lastly, the Irish Whiskey Awards recently crowned Teelings The Revival IV as their favourite whiskey, with Jameson Black Barrel as the best in the sub-€60 category.

Dingle Single Malt Batch No.2 Irish Whiskey
46.5% (€65)

A very attractive medium to light-bodied whiskey with refined subtle citrus peel, vanilla and toasted nuts. Stockists: Dingle Whiskey Bar, The Loop, Dublin Airport, specialist off-licences and select SuperValu.

DWD Heritage Irish Whiskey
40% (€48)

A rich full-bodied whiskey with honey, milk chocolate, caramel and hints of Christmas cake spice. Stockists: Specialist off-licences and The Loop, Dublin Airport.

Mitchell’s Green Spot Pot Still Whiskey, Zinfandel finish.
46% (€69.95)

Full of warmth and character with delectable red fruits, pears, apples and toasted hazelnuts. An enticing, intriguing whiskey. Stockists: Mitchell & Sons, chq and Sandycove, and specialist off-licences.

The Revival IV, Teelings 15 year-old Single Malt Irish Whiskey
46% (€120)

Finished in Muscat casks, this is a medium-bodied fruit-filled whiskey with peaches, lemon zest, candied orange and lemon, and subtle vanilla. Stockists: Specialist off-licences including the Celtic Whiskey Shop.

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Wine, women . . . and Mayo

Pharmacist and wine maker Róisín Curley

First published in The Irish Times, November 2017

Róisín Curley is a pharmacist, working in the family business in Ballyhaunis, Co Mayo. At the same time, she makes her own wines in Burgundy, one of the most prestigious French wine regions of all. “It began with a simple love of wine,” says Curley, “and a need to know more, which in turn led to the WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust) wine courses.” This is the standard path taken by many Irish wine lovers, but Curley took it a lot further. She studied for a masters (and was awarded a scholarship) in viticulture and oenology in Montpellier and Geisenheim Universities in France and Germany.

This was followed by a year at Château Latour in Bordeaux, comparing standard and organic viticulture for her thesis, and then a vintage in Château Grillet in the northern Rhône.

She chose Burgundy as her winemaking home through a series of coincidences. “It was never a dream,” she says, “because I never even thought I could dream about making wine in Burgundy. I am a huge fan, my favourite red grape is Pinot Noir and I love Chardonnay. But it was never my intention from the start to do what I am doing.” She had friends and contacts in Burgundy, and was introduced to the owner of a winemaking facility, who rents out space to small winemakers.

“It snowballed from there. All the time I was pinching myself; I never even tried to do this because I didn’t think it would be possible.”

“I don’t need to be in Beaune all the time. Obviously, I have to be there for the harvest and winemaking, but I have a space that is fully staffed, a whole support system that I can call on anytime I want.

“The toughest part is sourcing the grapes… no actually, to be honest, the toughest part is the French system and the fact that you are dealing with grapes and alcohol. It is so tightly regulated and difficult. The best way to find grapes is to meet the growers and make friends with them. My St. Romain is from guys I know really well. They farm organically too. I go to the vineyards, but they pick the grapes.”

Curley’s first releases are from 2015, hailed as a great vintage in Burgundy. However, 2016 was a different story. “My Beaune vineyard was destroyed by hail and frost; I made no wine.” She did make Saint Romain however. “2017 is fine, I have equal amounts of both, and even some Nuits Saint Georges. Burgundy is in huge demand at the moment and the last three vintages have been small. It is becoming harder and much more expensive to buy grapes. The price of my St. Romain has doubled in a few years.”

Curley’s first two releases, a white St. Romain and a red Beaune Clos des Rouards, both from the 2015 vintage, are excellent, superior to many more expensive wines from better-known producers in the region. Anyone interested in trying Ballyhaunis Burgundy will need to buy quickly; Curley made a mere 300 bottles of the white and 1,500 bottles of red.

Winemaker Sinéad Cabot
Winemaker Sinéad Cabot

Sinéad Cabot is another female Mayo winemaker. Newry-born, she landed in Westport via a few years in Dublin, where she and her husband Liam ran a bespoke wine shop in the IFSC. They moved their import and distribution wine business and fine wine company to the west, from where they now supply restaurants, hotels and retailers with a hand-picked range of wines – including their own.

“We work with smaller independent producers, often from less well-known regions. In the recession people went back to inexpensive wines – we had to adapt and change, but we still held on to as many interesting wines as possible. The ‘green shoots’ happened when those wines started to move again.”

In 2007, the couple bought a house with 1.5 hectares of vines in Kog, one of the best wine-producing regions in Slovenia, and began making wine. They are completing their seventh vintage. They do everything themselves – from pruning to harvesting and bottling.

Cabot becomes animated when talking about making wine. “Growing grapes and making wine is an emotional investment, I am fascinated by the whole enterprise.

“You have to prune every vine differently and try to understand it. This year was very hot and we thought we would harvest early but the last few weeks were cooler with some rain, so it all slowed down. You really want to get the juice into the cellar, but if the grapes don’t taste right you don’t pick, no matter what the numbers say. We work in a very natural way, we don’t add anything, so clean healthy grapes are essential.”

She is very happy with the newly bottled 2016 vintage and 2017 is already looking good in the cellar.

The wines, which go under the name Roka (Slovenian for ‘hand’) are very good, and have featured several times in The Irish Times. It is not just home team cheering though – last year the wines received a very high score of 17/20 from Jancis Robinson, one of the most well-regarded critics in the wine world.

Maureen O’Hara hails from Killala in north Mayo and returns regularly to catch up with family and friends. “I love going back,” she says. “The whole area is buzzing with the Atlantic Way, with new cycle routes, cafés, restaurants and pubs.” But these days, O’Hara works in Dublin, running Premier Wine Training.

Maureen O’Hara, founder of Premier Wine Training
Maureen O’Hara, founder of Premier Wine Training

“When I was growing up, you were either a guard or a teacher – I was too small to join the Gardaí so I was going to be a home-economics teacher. We had a B&B at home so I used to help with cooking. At the last minute, I decided to study marketing, the buzz word at the time.”

She gained a degree in business management from Trinity. “When I came out of college I started working with Britvic Orange, calling into pubs, then I moved on to a wine company, selling quarter bottles of wine.” The company sent O’Hara on a wine course, and she was hooked.

A 14-year stint in marketing with Findlaters followed. “I loved it, wine was special at that stage. You got a real thrill seeing someone ordering your wine in a restaurant. For most people, it was a treat. It was exciting – I travelled the world and learned from some great people.”

O’Hara moved on but saw the clouds coming when the recession hit. “I could see everyone downsizing so I got out of what I was doing and, having got the necessary qualifications, set up Premier Wine Training. I had been teaching part-time for 15-20 years and really got a kick out of it. I love standing up in front of people telling them the stories and explaining what great wine is all about.”

Wine has become so commonplace some people see it as just another product, anathema to O’Hara. “Wine is all about hand-selling a unique product with a genuine story. I love being part of that.”

THE WINES

Maison Curley Saint Romain 2015

Medium-bodied with peaches, subtle grilled nuts and lanolin, balanced perfectly by precise, clean, refreshing citrus acidity, lingering very nicely in the mouth. Superb white Burgundy.

€52.99 from Jus de Vine, Portmarnock; 64 Wine, Glasthule; Whelehan’s Wines, Loughlinstown; Donnybrook Fair.

Maison Curley Beaune Clos des Rouards 2015

Attractive fragrant aromas, with silky smooth dark cherry fruits, with good concentration and structure. Delicious ripe, elegant wine that will keep a few years, but dangerously drinkable right now.

€48.99 from Jus de Vine, Portmarnock; 64 Wine, Glasthule; Whelehan’s Wines, Loughlinstown; Donnybrook Fair.

Roka Furmint 2016, Stajerska, Slovenia

Crisp acidity balances the light peach fruits and musky spicy ginger. Delicious, refreshing, racy wine.

€16.95 from Cabot and Co, Westport (www.cabotandco.com); Grapevine, Dalkey; 64 Wine, Glasthule; McCambridges, Galway; No 1 Pery Square Limerick.

Roka Blaufränkisch 2016, Stajerska, Slovenia

An explosion of juicy dark blackcurrants and morello cherries with a reviving acidity and a hint of spice.

€16.95 from Cabot and Co, Westport (www.cabotandco.com): Grapevine, Dalkey; 64 Wine Glasthule; Tartare Café & Wine Bar, Galway; No 1 Pery Square Limerick.

See premierwinetraining.com for details of Maureen O’Hara’s wine courses.

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Grenache – the perfect winter wine

First published in The Irish Times, Saturday 25th November, 2016

I gave a candlelit tasting to a wine club in Cork recently, post-Ophelia and pre-David. The subdued lighting was enforced, as Fleming’s Hotel had been without electric power for several days. It was a lot of fun, helped I suspect by the intimate atmosphere. The wines, all Beaujolais, were great, but I cannot help thinking  that on such a miserable windswept wet evening, we should really have been drinking Grenache. Grenache (or Garnacha as it is known in it’s native Spain) deserves to be far better known. Big, rich and rounded, with sweet strawberry fruits, these are crowd-pleasing food-friendly wines that are perfect for cold-weather drinking.

 Thin skinned and full of sugar, ripe Garnacha grapes make for powerful, heart-warming wines, usually with soft-easy-drinking fruit and a very low tannin count.

You can drink it without food, but as it often has a generous level of alcohol – 14-15% is normal – it really is a dinner wine. If you are wondering what wine to serve this Christmas, Garnacha would not be a bad choice; it goes very well with turkey and all of the trimmings too. It is also a happy companion to pub-grub – burgers, steak and kidney pie, ribs, sausages and mash, as well as most stews and casseroles. This would include a Provencal daube of beef, a Spanish lamb and bean stew, tagines and others, but it is a great partner for classic Irish lamb and beef casseroles.

 You will generally find Garnacha in warmer climates as it needs plenty of sun to ripen fully. Australia has some very old vineyards in the Barossa and McLaren vale; the Willunga below is made from 100 year-old vines.

Sardinia (where they call it Cannonau) also produces excellent warming wines. But the true home of Garnacha is Spain and France, where it is very widely grown, and often sold at rock-bottom prices. You won’t always see the name on a label, because in both countries, it is generally blended with other varieties. This includes high-quality regions, such as Rioja and Priorat in Spain, and Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Gigondas in France.

Bargain hunters will head for Côtes du Rhône, which  generally has at least 50% Grenache in its makeup, often more, and regions such as Campo de Borja and Calatayud in Spain. Most independent retailers and the multiples will offer both for €10-15. Keep an eye out for one of my favourites, Borsao Garnacha, (€13.95 Bradleys, Cork, Searsons and others) and the Flor de Anon Campo (€14.99, SuperValu), and Cruz de Piedra (€13.95, O’Briens). But possibly the best value of all are the many blends from the Rhône valley and Languedoc.

Tesco Old Vine Garnacha 2016, Campo de Borja

14%, €9

Layers of full-on warm ripe plum fruits a little vanilla and a smooth finish. Drink by itself but better with a lamb casserole.
Stockists: Tesco

Jean Claude Mas Grenache Noir IGP d’Oc

13.5%, €8.99

This has some very attractive smooth, rich black fruits and a nicely rounded finish. This would go nicely with chicken (and turkey) dishes.

Stockists: Aldi (for a selected period each year).

Willunga 100 McLaren Vale Grenache 2015, Australia

14,5%, €16.95

A heady mix of ripe strawberries, spice and dried herbs in a smooth full-bodied wine. A big smiling mouthful that will keep the winter blues away.
Stockists: O’Briens; Blackrock Cellar; Donnybrook Fair; Jus de Vine, Portmarnock; Martins, Fairview; wineonline.ie

La Bruja de Rozas 2015, Viños de Madrid, Commando G

14.5%, €23

 Grown on granite soils, this is a very different, wonderful full-bodied wine with fresh fragrant red cherry fruits and fine dry tannins on the finish.
Stockists: 64Wines; Green Man Wines; The Corkscrew; Clontarf Wines; Kellys, Clontarf

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Madly expensive or sold by the jug: the extremes of US wine

Image 5

First published in the Irish Times, Saturday, November 18th, 2017

US president Donald Trump doesn’t drink alcohol, which may explain a lot, but what wine will he serve to guests at his Thanksgiving dinner? Quite possibly his own, from the Trump Winery in Virginia which is run by his son Eric. I have never tasted the wines and I understand they are not available in Doonbeg, at his hotel in Co Clare, so we will have to look elsewhere for our Thanksgiving wines.

 As political commentators bemoan the lack of a middle ground in US politics, they are only reflecting what wine critics have been saying about American wine for years. To borrow another political term, it is not so much a squeezed middle but the absence of one. Wisdom has it that the US (for which read California) delivers very well at the top end, with a range of high-end wines, usually rich, powerful Napa Valley Cabernets, costing anything from €80-€300. The Golden State is also well represented at entry level with bucket loads of inexpensive jug wines that constitute a surprising 7 per cent of the Irish market. And between the two extremes? Very little up to now, with only a few wines less than €50, and virtually nothing in the key €10-€20 range. This may be about to change.

 On a trip to California earlier this year, a local sommelier lined up an amazing series of wines, featuring everything from Gamay to Ribolla Gialla, all in that elusive middle price range. The reason we haven’t often seen them here before is simple. California, with almost 40 million inhabitants, is happy to lap up all that is on offer.

 However, at €20, or a little more, you can find a decent range of wines in Ireland. Marks & Spencer probably has the best range of inexpensive American wines including New York, Oregon and California. The Underwood Pinot Noir for €20.50 is pretty good as is the Shiraz below. O’Briens have a new range of Californians on their shelves, and JNwine has always had a very good range from the US.

California and Oregon further north produce very good Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The best come in at around €50, hardly give-away, but certainly competitive against similar wines from elsewhere.

 The two Love wines below are from an urban winery in Berkeley, the home of alternative America. Two delicious liberal wines with which to celebrate Thanksgiving? I am sure we will be talking turkey again in the coming weeks, but if you are celebrating Thanksgiving Day, the traditional bird is a great way to show off your best red or white wines. Try to avoid anything too tannic, but a rich white wine, or a soft red of any kind will do very nicely, as will all of the wines below.

Murphy Goode Chardonnay 2015, California 13.5%, €17.95


Medium-bodied with plump ripe peach and pear fruits, and a hint of smoky oak. Perfect with turkey and pumpkin pie. Stockists: O’Briens

Marks & Spencer Paso Robles Shiraz 2015, California 14%, €15


Rich and rounded with smooth dark fruits and a touch of vanilla oak.
Stockists: Marks & Spencer

Love White 2015, Broc Cellars, Berkeley, California 13.5%, €25


Really enjoyable off-beat wine with luscious concentrated pinepapples, lemon and peaches. Stockists: Green Man Wines; The Corkscrew; 64 Wines.

Love Red 2015, Broc Cellars, Berkeley, California 13%, €27


Made from an eclectic blend of Carignan, Valdigue and Syrah. Juicy and lively with lots of liquorice and dark fruits too. Medium-bodied wine with real character and style. Stockists: Green Man Wines; The Corkscrew; 64 Wines.

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Rioja Reserva: Four fine frugal bottles for special occasions

First publisjed in The Irish Times, Saturday November 11th, 2017

Having a roast of lamb this weekend? Or turkey on Thanksgiving? Our favourite wine to go with celebratory dinners is Rioja, and not just any Rioja. In Ireland it must be a Rioja Reserva. However, they range in price from €9 to more than €50, so what should we buy?

It used to be simple. There were only three kinds of Rioja: Crianza, which had been aged in oak barrels and then in bottle for a little while; Reserva, which had gone though the same process but for a longer period; and Gran Reserva, which had spent a very long time in both barrel and bottle before being released. The theory was simple, too; Rioja came ready-aged, so there was no need to wait before drinking it. It was smooth, rounded and soft. And we loved it.

Things became more complicated as a generation of young Turks decided to make more modern, youthful international wines with plush, rich, dark fruits. Then, as those young Turks aged, a new generation came forward, making lighter, fresher wines, often made from single vineyards and frequently with low levels of sulphur. All of these producers simply put the word cosecha (vintage) on the back label. It was confusing for some, and that may be why a great many Irish consumers stuck to buying Reserva when they wanted something special. It has become our go-to wine when we want to splash out.

The term “reserva” simply means the wine has been aged for a minimum of one year in oak barrels, and at least 24 months in bottle. Start off with a great wine, age it quality oak, you should end up with a sublime, mature, smooth, complex wine. Poor-quality wine aged in poor-quality oak will only get worse.

Each of the multiples will have an inexpensive Rioja Reserva. Aldi and Lidl both have one at €8.99 – see below for the Lidl version, but both are perfectly drinkable. Tempting as cheap Reservas are, at less than €15, I would go for a Crianza instead; they tend to have a bit more fruit. At the moment the multiples seem to be promoting Cune Crianza at €10-€11 a bottle, which is good value, although it may have returned to €15 by the time you read this. The majority of the best-known Rioja Reservas are grouped around the €22-€25 mark, periodically marked down to about €15-€18.

Rioja Reserva is a great choice if you are looking for a wine to serve at a celebration. It is one of the food-friendliest wines, great with white and red meats. In Rioja, they love their lamb; chops grilled on a barbecue, cooked slowly with beans (their version of Irish stew, I guess), lamb shanks or simply a roast.

FOUR TO FORAGE FOR

Cepa Lebrel Rioja Reserva 13.5% €8.99

Light, smooth black cherry fruits overlaid with sweet vanilla.

Stockist: Lidl

Cune Rioja Crianza 2103 13.5%, €10-€11

Medium-bodied blackcurrant fruits, with spice and tobacco. Great value on promotion.

Stockists: Tesco, SuperValu, Dunnes Stores and others.

Conde Valdemar Rioja Reserva 2010 13.5%, €17.50

Enticing elegant smooth black cherry fruits with a spicy note. An award-winning Rioja Reserva.

Stockists: Widely available from independent off-licences.

Rafael López de Heredia, Viña Bosconia 2005 Rioja Reserva 13.5%, €31

Magnificent wine: red cherries, strawberries, an earthiness and lovely mineral backbone.

Stockists: World Wide Wines; Blackrock Cellars; Green Man Wines; 64 Wines.

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All-purpose red wines that will go with just about everything

First published in The Irish Times, Saturday November 4th, 2017

This week let’s take another look at what I call wet Wednesday wines; red wines, this being winter, that you don’t have to think about too much, but will cheer you up and make a midweek dinner taste that little bit better. Last Saturday I covered the multiples; today, our independent wine shops and off-licences.

The problem with independents is they are so, well, independent. Each has its own individual way of working and its own favourite wines that obviously work for its customers, too. It makes for a fascinating range of wines, usually hand-picked bottles with real character, but sadly too often not available anywhere else in the country.

Our independent wine shops have changed; while some off-licences remain resolutely traditional, many of the wine retailers now stock a much more quirky, eclectic range of wines. Quite a few of them morph into wine bars at certain times of the day or night as well.

For this week’s wines, I emailed 10 wine shops and off-licences around the country and then added in a few of my own current favourites. Most of the responses included a handful of Italian reds, a Nero d’Avola from Sicily, a Montepulciano d’Abruzzo or a Valpolicella. All of these tick boxes. If you ever find yourself in a restaurant not knowing what wine to pick, these are fairly reliable all-purpose reds that will cover just about everything on the menu. Every region of Italy has a local quaffing wine. In days past they were drunk instead of water, often at every meal. With modern wine-making, most taste a lot better than they did 20 years ago. If I ever opened a bistro or restaurant, all of these wines would be in the running for my house wines. They are fruity, crowd-pleasing wines that go perfectly with most dishes. Gabriel Cooney of Grapevine in Dalkey put it nicely when talking about his Poggerissi below: ‘it is a wine to drink when you can’t decide what you want: simple, approachable, great value and hits the spot every time’.

The wines below are all €12-€13, possibly more than you normally pay for your midweek wine. However, you should notice a big jump in quality compared to a bottle costing €8-€10. The winemaker is probably getting 50 per cent or more for a wine at this price.

SIYPS, which stands for sommeliers in your pockets, is a newly created online site where you can buy wines selected by a team of experienced sommeliers. Check out siyps.com. While on the subject of innovative wine retailers, a big shout-out for Dave Gallagher and his team in Green Man Wines in Terenure for their Best Wine Award from Georgina Campbell.

FOUR FINE WINTER WARMERS

Madregale 2016, Rosso Terre di Chieti 12.5%, €11.95


Light fresh juicy cherry fruits and light tannins. This is very good everyday drinking and great value for money; a great all-purpose wine to drink by itself, or with most foods. Tomato-based pasta dishes sounds good.

Stockists: Avoca; Blackrock Cellars; Fallon & Byrne; Le Caveau; Listons; MacGuinness Wines; Green Man Wines; World Wide Wines.

Ciello Rosso Nero d’Avola 2016, IGT Terre Siciliane 12.5%, €12.95


Light and fresh with delicious dark plum fruits and a supple finish. As with the Madregale, you could drink it by itself or with all sorts Of dishes; just avoid anything too robust. Pizza?

Stockists: Le Caveau; Baggot Street Wines; The Garden Shop (Ballymaloe); Blackrock Cellars; Bradleys; The Corkscrew; Fallon & Byrne; Listons; Green Man Wines; 64 Wines; World Wide Wines.

Poggerissi Rosso 2016, Rosso di Toscana 13%, €11.95


A lovely glassful of smooth supple juicy ripe cherry fruit. This is a real steal, a wine that has been one of my favourite wines for years. Another “house wine” that will go well with most white meats and lighter red meats, too. Creamy chicken and mushroom pie.

Grapevine; Liston’s; Poppy Seed and Morton’s, Galway; Cabot & Co, Westport.

Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2015 Le Salare, Fratelli Barba 12%, €12.95-€13.50


Another “house wine” in the Wilson household. I defy anyone to dislike this. Light refreshing toothsome pure dark plums, with subtle spice and a soft finish. Chicken or pork.

Stockists: Sheridans Cheesemongers (all shops); Lettercollum Kitchen Project; Clontarf Wines.

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Warming red wines for wet Wednesdays

First published in The Irish Times, Saturday 28th October, 2017

It is a dark, wet Wednesday evening, when the damp seems to creep in to every bone in your body. Your partner comes in looking weary after another hard day in the office. You know you don’t drink on a Wednesday, but this evening circumstances seem to dictate otherwise. The aromas of a freshly baked lasagne or a herb-scented warming stew seem to demand that you open a bottle of red wine. And so, over dinner, you have one glass, maybe two, of a simple, easy-drinking red, and the world seems a slightly better place.

We are not looking at wines that will have you searching for superlatives, but we do want a wine that tastes of something and will offer a little interest. Most really cheap wines are fine but boring. They taste as if they been manipulated by a team of winemakers to cover over any faults, leaving a medium-bodied, slightly sweet, rounded red wine with slightly confected fruit.  And they have. They are drinkable but bland and a little boring.

Sadly, post-financial crisis, most prices at the cellar door are beginning to increase a little. So whereas once you could find plenty of interesting wines at that magical €9.99, most seem to have crept up in price. This week I walked into four of our biggest retailers and bought a bottle of red wine in the €10-€13 range. It is impossible to keep up with the ever-changing prices in supermarkets, so some of these wines may cost less (or more ) by the time you read this. But all should be safely within the €10-€13 price bracket and maybe even less.

The Pinot Noir from SuperValu is light enough to drink alongside salmon or tuna, but would also go nicely with chicken and pork dishes. It featured as a party wine a few weeks back as well. The Chianti from Lidl has a little more body and would be more at home with lighter pasta dishes or pizza. You could match the Malbec with a steak but it would also drink well with lasagne or stew and other midweek dishes. The Cairanne is the most full-bodied and would be a good match for grilled lamb or beef.

On a related topic I wonder what will happen to supermarket wines if and when minimum pricing is brought in. If the selling price of a €6 bottle of wine is artificially increased to €8, will they continue to sell the same wine at an increased price and with a vastly inflated profit margin, or will they source a better wine?

In the meantime here are my wet Wednesday reds from the supermarkets. Next week, four bottles in the same price bracket from a few independent retailers.

Chianti Classico Riserva 2014, Fortezza dei Colli
14%, €10.99

Smooth easy red cherry fruits with a lift of acidity to keep it fresh, a hit of vanilla and a nice bite on the tail end. Perfect with lasagne.
Stockists: Lidl

Cairanne 2016, Domaine de La Belle Estelle
14.5%, €10.99


From the southern Rhône valley, a swarthy, powerful, meaty red wine with burly dark fruits sprinkled with spice. A genuine winter warmer.
Stockists: Aldi

Tesco Finest Argentina Malbec 2015
13.5% €12 (€9 on promotion)


Medium to full-bodied with perfumed, juicy dark fruits, all loganberry and plums with a very nicely rounded, soft finish.
Stockists: Tesco

Pinot Noir La Petite Perrière 2015, Saget, Vin de France
12.5%, €10.99 (€9 on promotion or three for €25)


A very friendly, medium-bodied red with soft, sweet, succulent dark cherry fruits, finishing with a flourish.
Stockists: SuperValu

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Where to find great value Prosecco

First published in The Irish Times, Saturday 21st October, 2017

Worried you might be getting a Prosecco smile? It has been a tough few months for our favourite sparkling wine, with dentists in the UK recently warning that the deadly combination of sweetness, acidity and fizz could lead to a row of rotten teeth and receding gums.

All sparkling wines, including Champagne, are high in acidity and most of them have a decent dose of sugar too. It is true that some Prosecco are sweeter, but possibly it is simply a victim of its success.

Prosecco has been going through a decade-long boom, taking market share from rosé, less expensive Champagne and other sparkling wines. We like it in cocktails, either as a Bellini or Aperol spritzer. But really, we love Prosecco because it is so easy to drink. Floral and full of ripe pear fruits, it is far more palatable than austere sparkling wines such as Champagne and Cava. It has become our favourite party drink, frothy, fruity and fun.

But the smartest trick Prosecco producers pulled was removing some of the fizz from their wine. Excise duty on a standard bottle of sparkling wine is a massive €7.80 a bottle including VAT, double that of a still wine. A frizzante Prosecco, which has less fizz, and comes in a screw cap or driven cork, is classified as a still wine, and so can be sold at a much cheaper price. A spumante has the full quota of bubbles and a mushroom-shaped cork enclosed in wire.

All Prosecco is made from the Glera grape and comes from a single region in north-west Italy. Entry level is labeled DOC, simply meaning it comes from that region. Bottles with DOCG on the label come from the smaller mountainous region of Conegliano Valdobbiadene (try saying that after a few glasses!) and should be of higher quality.

So where does the value lie with Prosecco? All of the multiples offer inexpensive versions. The SuperValu Grifon frizzante is super-cheap when promoted down to €9 a bottle and a real crowd-pleaser. The Tesco Finest Prosecco (€17.99) is fresh, fruity and not too sweet, and O’Briens have the very smart Rizzardi Spumante. The Aldi Extra Dry DOCG is inexpensive (€12.79) and great value for money. I hear Aldi will be selling magnums, and double magnums of Prosecco (which are great for parties) from November 4th onwards.

If you are genuinely worried about your teeth (remember the story appeared in August, when real news is in short supply) and your health, here are three tips: firstly don’t drink too much – fizzy drinks go to your head much quicker than still; nibble on food as you drink, and don’t brush your teeth for a few hours afterwards. Otherwise, enjoy.

Grifon Prosecco Frizzante DOC, NV
11.5%, €11.99 promoted down to €9

This is classic inexpensive Prosecco, lightly fizzy and full of canned pears and fruit-drops. Serve chilled solo as a party wine (add a few fresh raspberries for a splash of colour) or as a base in all sorts of cocktails. Stockists: SuperValu

Casa Belfi Prosecco Colfondo Frizzante NV
10.5%, €21

One for the hipsters amongst you. Made from biodynamically grown grapes this is an unfiltered, cloudy, bottle-fermented sulphur-free Prosecco. You drink the first half by itself, and the second cloudy part with food. Lightly fizzy, bone-dry, funky, fruity and delicious. Stockists: Le Caveau; Baggot Street Wines; Bradleys, Cork; Green Man Wines; 64 Wines; World Wide Wines, Waterford.

Rizzardi Prosecco Spumante Extra Dry NV
11%, €17.95

A distinctly superior Prosecco with a dash of style. Floral with mouth-watering succulent pear and apple fruits, balanced by cleansing lemon zest, finishing crisp and dry. Stockists: O’Briens

The alternative: Innocent Bystander Moscato 2017, Australia
5.5%, €13.99

The bottle shouts frivolous fun. The wine is dayglo pink, full of frothy bubbles and sweetish juicy grape and cherry fruits. Irresistible. Australia’s answer to Prosecco? Stockists: Mortons; Clontarf Wines; Drink Store; Redmonds; Martins; McHughs; Mitchells; O’Donovan’s; Red Island; Red Nose Wine; wineonline.ie

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‘The Graham Norton Shiraz, like his other wines, is very gluggable’

Are you old enough to remember falling in love with Aussie wine? With their easy-to-read varietal labels and easier to drink wines, they introduced an entire generation of Irish people to the joys of drinking wine. You no longer needed a degree in French or Italian and an extensive knowledge of geography to order a bottle of wine.

 For much of the 1990s and the following decade, sales increased every year until Australia became the best-selling country in Ireland, outstripping France, our traditional favourite. But then it all went a little sour. As the Australian dollar soared in value, and Australian wine producers turned their eyes to China, sales of their wines here took a battering. They were even overtaken by Chile as our most popular wine. Last year China overtook the United States as Australia’s biggest market, with sales worth some $520 million, so the Australians probably weren’t too worried.

 During the same period, the world moved away from those big fruit-filled wines that Australia excelled in, and began looking for something a little more subtle. Australia has a wide range of climates (it is the same size as Europe after all) and has always produced a diverse range of wines. In addition to Shiraz and Chardonnay, you could find low-alcohol, high quality Riesling from the Eden and Clare Valleys, and Semillon from the Hunter Valley. But over the past decade, the industry, one of the most dynamic in the world, began concentrating on other cooler climates and lesser-known grape varieties. They also began focusing on high quality wines for the premium market .

 Last month the Australian wine marketing body sent a deputation here to introduce their wines to a new generation of the wine trade. We were treated to a very impressive range of wines made from Petit Manseng, Marsanne, Arneis, Grüner Veltliner, Moscato, Dolcetto, and Touriga Nacional alongside some excellent Pinot Noir, Semillon, Riesling and sparkling wines. There was plenty of Shiraz and Chardonnay too, but they were lower in alcohol and more subtle in style, so if you still see Australian wines as a blunt instrument designed to cudgel you into submission, it is time to rethink.

Premium wine costs money to make, and sadly most of the wines were over €20 a bottle, and many were not (yet) available in Ireland. If you are a Pinot fan, the brilliant Gembrook Pinot Noir is available for €576 a case from Berry Brothers. But two of those listed below were included. The Tahbilk Marsanne is one of my favourite wines and brilliant value for money. Prosecco fans should certainly try out the ridiculously moreish frothy Innocent Bystander. The Graham Norton Shiraz, like his other wines, is very gluggable.

Bargain Bottle

Exquisite Collection Limestone Coast Chardonnay 2016, Australia

14%

€8.49

 Clean fresh textured red apple and pear fruits with a hint of spice.

 Stockists: Aldi

Choice Australians

Tahbilk Marsanne 2014, Nagambie Lakes  

13%

€16.70

 Expressive fresh pear, peach and tropical fruits. Crisp and dry with a lovely unique character all of its own.

 Stockists: Wines Direct, Mullingar & Arnott’s.

Innocent Bystander Moscato 2017

€13.99

5.5%

 Dayglo pink, bubbly and sweet with juicy grape and cherry fruits. Frivolous and fun.

 Stockists: Mortons, Clontarf Wines, Drink Store, Redmonds, Martins, McHughs, Mitchells, O’Donovan’s, Red Island, Red Nose Wine, Wineonline.ie

Graham Norton Shiraz 2015, South Australia

14.5%

€15

 Exuberant and showy – not unlike Norton himself, a big wine with heady ripe plums and spice.

 Stockists: Tesco, SuperValu, Centra.

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