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The Sweetest Thing

First published in The Irish Times, 18th December, 2015

How often do you complain about the cost of wine? I have a regular moan, but there is one time where I feel the producer seldom receives a fair price. Naturally-made sweet wines are the most costly and complicated to make, yet hardly ever receive a price commensurate with the effort and risk involved. This is one occasion where I am usually happy to pay a premium.

To make a sweet wine, you can add brandy to a fermenting must, as they do with fortified wines. Or you can simply stop the fermentation by chilling the wine. The alternative is to leave the grapes on the vine. As the sugars increase over time, the water content, and therefore the eventual yield, decreases. That is in a good year.

If the producer is unlucky, he or she may lose part of all of the crop to bad weather. As the harvest typically takes place in November, December or even January, the risk is far greater than with conventional wines. At times, growers make several “tries” or passes through the vineyard, picking only selected bunches of over-ripe grapes. This too is hideously expensive.

There are several styles within this non-fortified camp; some grapes become infected with noble rot or botrytis cinerea, a mould that attacks the grapes, miraculously decreasing the water content while lending a unique flavour, variously described as honeyed, beeswax, orange peel, or marmalade to the wine. In some regions, conditions for botrytis do not occur and producers simply leave the grapes on the vine, allowing them to dry out and shrivel. This method, known as passerillage, can only be practised in regions where autumn conditions are favourable, notably in southwest France. Ice wine is made by allowing grapes to freeze on the vine. The water content remains frozen, while the sugars and other dissolved solids are not. Therefore the juice is highly concentrated and exceptionally high in sugar. Production is limited to a few select areas, Germany and Canada being the two major producers.

There really is no excuse not to drink these wonderful wines. I try to avoid what I call body-builder wines: dessert wines that are incredibly sweet and unctuous. They may have impressive levels of sugar but I find they cloy after a few sips. I prefer lighter, less sweet wines with good levels of refreshing acidity. The French excel at these. Sauternes may be the best-known, but I believe the Loire valley and Chenin Blanc may well make the finest, most balanced and long-lived sweet wines of all. I am also a great fan of Jurançon and the other sweet wines of southwest France, two of which feature below. Further east, Alsace, Germany, Austria and Hungary all make superb dessert wines.

What to do with these treasures? They are perfect with all sorts of fruit pastries, including raspberry, strawberry and apple tarts, tarte tatin, bakewell pudding and pear tarts, including those with frangipan. You could also try one out with lighter fruit salads or crème brulée.I do not have a sweet tooth so I sometimes have a glass (or two) as my liquid dessert, or I drink them with blue cheeses. Roquefort, with its saltiness, is perfect. Of the Irish cheeses I think Crozier is probably the best match, but I am experimenting with my new favourite cheese, the delicious Young Buck cheese from Co Down.If you haven’t tried it, please do. You can mix savoury and sweet with simple but delicious matches such as blue cheese and pears, or blue cheese with walnuts. Those who indulge in foie gras will know that sweet wine is one of the great partners. Lastly if you are the sole dessert wine drinker in the house, don’t worry. Once opened, a bottle or half-bottle will keep for a week or more in the fridge so you can enjoy a small glass night after night – the perfect Christmas treat.

Wilson on Wine 2016 by John Wilson is now available to buy from irishtimesbooks


DSCF6188Ch de la Motte 2012, Pacherenc du Vic Bilh (Organic) 12.5%,
€21.95 per 50cl bottle
Lovely tangy sweet fruits with orange peel and pears
Stockists: Cases Wine Warehouse, Galway,

DSCF6207Grains Nobles de la Truffière 2011, Monbazillac, 12.5%
€22.95 per 50cl bottle
Rich, textured and honeyed with butterscotch and peaches, balanced nicely by the subtle acidity
Stockists: Wicklow Wine Company, Wicklow

DSCF6202Domaine Ogereau 2014 Coteaux du Layon Saint Lambert,12.5%,
In an ideal world you would keep it for 10 years, but the young fresh pure honey and pear fruits are pretty irresistible right now
Stockists: Terroirs, Donnybrook

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Rhubarb Tart IPA, James Brown Brews

DSCF6221This seems more of a crumble than a tart, but lets not be too picky. James Brown is not the first to make a rhubarb beer, but I haven’t seen any other Irish craft brewer produce one before.
He used 300kgs of rhubarb and 28kgs of hops hoping to create something fairly big and memorable. The result is an interesting beer, light, belying its 7 per cent alcohol, tangy and lightly fruity with a cleansing tart sourness from the rhubarb. There is a nice biscuit character and an attractive hoppy touch. When I talked to James, he was very busy with his day job as assistant manager in one of the O’Briens off-licences. He did say his next batch will be tweaked a little to give a little more rhubarb kick. In the meantime, this is well worth trying out.

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The Wines to Pair with your Christmas Dinner

First published in the Irish Times, 12th December, 2015

Today, wines to match the recipes from our all-star team of chefs. Do not get stressed trying to find the perfect wine to match your Christmas dinner. Almost any wine tastes fine when sharing nicely-cooked food with good friends or family. If the host is hyperventilating, the rest of the table are unlikely to enjoy themselves. That said, it can be fun to try out different combinations, and a good food and wine match will make both taste so much better.

Scallops, brown butter and mandarin
This looks absolutely delicious. Here we need something with nice plump fruit and hopefully a touch of orange zest to match the mandarin. Grüner veltliner sounds brilliant as does a medium-bodied chardonnay, an albariño from Spain or the fiano below.

Suggestions:I am a big fan of Birgit Eichinger’s Hasel grüner veltliner (€19, independents). The Michele Biancardi fiano (€16.95 has the fruit to match the scallops; those on a budget could look at the Exquisite Collection Rías Baixas from Aldi (€9.49).

Clare Island salmon, crab, pickled vegetables and apple balsamic vinegar
You could stick with the above suggestions here but the sweet/sour pickle should go very nicely with a German riesling. Riesling has floral aromas, which sounds good with cherry blossom, and is also one of the best matches for crab, so that would seal it for me.

Suggestions:The award-winning Penfold’s Koonunga Hill Autumn riesling (€18.99 from O’Briens and independents) or the exotic Wagner-Stempel riesling (€19.95, independents).

Confit duck leg spring roll with pickled red cabbage, yoghurt and cumin
This has a whole lot going on in terms of flavour and spice. Duck goes really well with pinot noir so this is a bit of a no brainer. The spice and mild pickled cabbage (strong vinegar flavours do not go well with any wine) would suggest steering clear of Burgundy and heading to the New World; Chile, Oregon, California or New Zealand are all possibilities. I really enjoyed the Windy Peak pinot noir recently (€15.99 in independents) but it might be a little too light for the duck. If you want to start off with a white, the riesling or the grüner veltliner suggested above should work nicely.

Suggestions: In an ideal world a bottle of Drouhin Oregon Pinot Noir (€37), but reality might dictate the Secano Pinot Noir (€14.29), both from M&S.

Turkey with buttered roots
Pinot noir would be an option here again. It goes well with turkey and with the sweet notes of the buttered vegetables. If you fancy something with a bit more power, grenache-based wines from the Rhône or Australia would do nicely too. I include one of my favourites below. However, if you really want to push the boat out, I would go to Italy and the excellent Villa di Capezzana, as it has none of those drying tannins that can clash with turkey.

Suggestions:See below for two main course options. If you are having a large crowd, the Cepa Lebrel rioja reserva 2010 (€8.99) or the lighter unoaked Cepa Lebrel Joven (€6.99), both from Lidl are worth considering.

Poached pear on pain d’épices with vanilla cream
I might try this myself for Christmas day. It looks truly lovely, simple to assemble on the day and light enough after a big meal. It will also go perfectly with some of my favourite dessert wines. I feature three next week, but in the meantime…
Suggestions: You could try out the elegant Baumard Coteaux du Layon (€13.50, independents) or the delicious Bernkasteler Doctor Riesling Auslese Dr H Thanisch (a bargain €20 from Jus de Vin, Portmarnock).


Pazo SenoransPazo de Señorans 2013, Rías Baixas, 12.5%, €22.99
Delightful succulent pear fruits cut through with refreshing citrus, finishing long and dry. Perfect with scallops and other seafood.
Stockists: O’Briens

DSCF6216Ch. Pesquie Les Terrasses 2012, Ventoux, 14.5%, €18.95
Delicious, warming, supple wine packed with strawberry fruits and light spice.
Stockists: Jus de Vine, Portmarnock; 64wine, Glenageary; La Touche, Greystones; Donnybrook Fair; One Pery Square, Limerick.

Villa di CapezzanaVilla di Capezzana 2011, Carmignano, 15%, €34.99
Seductive soft ripe cherry fruits with a savoury, spicy touch. A lovely combination of elegance and richness.
Stockists: 64wine; Jus de Vine; Green Man Wines; Fallon & Byrne; Redmond’s; Searsons; Michael’s Wines.

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Take it Home December 16th: Dunbrody IPA and Clos des Alisiers Macon

Dunbrody Irish Pale Ale
Last week the Arthurstown brewery joined the ever-lengthening list of craft breweries in this country. Based in the Dunbrody House Estate, this is the brainchild of celebrity chef Kevin Dundon, owner of Dunbrody, local farmer and B&B owner Tosh Crosbie, local businessman Eamon Murphy and marketeer Niamh Ní Dhónaill. The story goes that Arthurstown had no pub, so ‘The Local’ bar was built in the grounds of Dunbrody. Kevin and his mates were enjoying a pint there one evening when someone came up with the idea of brewing their own beer.

The brewery has the capacity to produce eight thousand litres a week. The brewer is Kieran Bird, a local, or at least ‘five or six miles down the road’ he says. They produce the Kings Bay beers for SuperValu as well as Dunbrody Irish Pale Ale and Irish Red Ale. The latter are aimed at restaurants and specialist off-licences, the former as introductory beers for newbie craft beer converts. All of the base malts are grown locally, and Kieran is very happy with the soft water supplied by an ancient well on the grounds of Dunbrody. I’ll be brewing the stout in the New Year, and we are starting to think about other seasonal beers,’ says Kieran, ‘maybe a lager with strawberries to go with the other famous local produce, maybe a pumpkin ale or a lighter Kölsch for the spring. We will see.’ The Dunbrody Pale Ale is light, crisp and refreshing with a subtle citrus finish.

Closerie des Alisiers Mâcon-Milly-Lamartine 2014


Most of us will have supped a glass of Mâcon-Lugny at some stage in our drinking lives. It appears on almost every restaurant wine list and on the shelves of almost every supermarket. It comes in various labels and in various styles but the vast majority (some 13 million bottles) is made by the Caves de Lugny, the largest wine co-operative in France. Most of it is very quaffable if a little boring at times. There is much more to Mâcon though ; thirty odd other villages are allowed to add their name to that of Mâcon. So you will find Mâcon-Uchizy, Mâcon-Vergisson or Mâcon-Davayé. There is even a Mâcon-Chardonnay, from the town of Chardonnay. These are often made by small quality-minded producers who make amazingly good wines at very reasonable prices. Such as the Mâcon above. Fresh and pure, with lovely plump apple fruits, this is a steal at €14.95. Available from Whelehan’s Wines in Loughlinstown.

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Stonewell Tawny 15%

From the Irish Times, Take it Home, Wednesday 9th December 2015

DSCF6209It’s not a cider, it’s not a beer, and it certainly isn’t a port. Daniel Emerson of Stonewell Cider likes to play around a little – witness his appetising Esterre sparkling cider and low alcohol Tobairín. The Stonewell Tawny is something else: fermented with the help of some sugar to an impressive port-like 15 per cent, it is then dry hopped, as in a beer, at the end. The result is quite extraordinary, but in a good way. There is a burst of apple spiked with spice and ripples of butterscotch. Sort of like a liquid alcoholic apple pie.

It’s all part of Stonewell’s plan to get us to drink cider in a more refined manner. “A well-produced cider can stand shoulder to shoulder with good wine,” says Daniel Emerson of Stonewell. “The reaction has been extremely positive, I haven’t heard one negative comment so far. It won a prestigious Pomme d’Or award at the Frankfurt Apfelwein Welweit earlier this year.”

Beautifully packaged, I can see this ending up in the stockings of many beer, cider and general booze lovers. My bottle went very well with several cheeses and I suspect it will go nicely with many desserts over Christmas. It sells for around €20.

Image 1

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I had a lot of fun earlier this year making my own gin, tonic water and flavoured vodkas, so I decided to try out a few homemade festive drinks to present to deserving friends this Christmas.
Sloe gin and other fruit-soaked spirits can be particularly tasty: we currently have a batch of damsons in a mix of vodka and gin; both fruits and liquid are delicious. These take a month or more to make, so it’s too late to start now in time for Christmas. Don’t worry though: plenty of speedier options are available. Buy some nice bottles, design a few cool labels and you will have instant presents for your loved ones.

Last-minute drink options include Limoncello (which takes 2-3 weeks, so you should just have enough time) and Amaretto. Some very complicated recipes include dried apricot kernels and lengthy ageing, but others use almond essence. My version, with almond essence and sugar, was fine and instant, although I am not an Amaretto expert. The three recipes on these pages were easy to make and proved popular in my mini-tasting.

Alternatively, you could give someone the means to make their own drink. Deveney’s, Dundrum and are offering a range of Brooklyn Brew Shop beer-making kits priced at €50, containing everything you need to make your own craft beer.

Wilson on Wine 2016 by John Wilson is now available to buy from irishtimesbooks



500ml vodka
1 cinnamon stick
a few slices of fresh ginger
1 clove
2 pears, cored and cut into chunks

This sounded nice. I began tasting after a few days, but I wanted a vodka with plenty of pear flavour, so I removed the cinnamon and left it for 10 days. It still needed something so I added a slug of whiskey which really helped.

Recipes: Time to make, bake and give

Put all of the ingredients into a jar or bowl. Cover or seal and put in a cool place. Once you are happy with your flavours, strain through a double muslin cloth into a clean bottle. A very pleasant winter drink.


350ml Irish whiskey
250ml single cream
300g condensed milk (sweetened)
a few drops of vanilla extract
3 teaspoons chocolate sauce
1 teaspoon instant coffee

Bailey’s, the original Irish Cream Liqueur, is one of the best-selling liqueurs in the world. It has been copied by many, but I always assumed that mixing cream and whiskey was a complicated process best left to the professionals.

The internet is coming down with recipes. They all seem simple; just put whiskey, cream and a few flavourings into a blender and whizz for 20 seconds.

Most recipes include condensed milk and vanilla essence; some add chocolate syrup, instant coffee, almond essence, eggs and even melted chocolate.

You can experiment by starting with a base of whiskey and cream. Adding condensed milk adds sweetness (this is not a diet-friendly drink) and texture.

I left out the almond essence, but chocolate sauce and vanilla extract are essential. I find most cream liqueurs too sweet, so I used only about 300g of condensed milk, rather than the recommended 400g. The results were delicious.

Simply combine all ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth.

Pour into bottles and keep in the fridge. Apparently it keeps for two months.


Bottle of vodka
300g dried fruits (mix of raisins, sultanas, currants)
70g caster sugar
2 cinnamon sticks
2 cloves
a few good grates of nutmeg
2 teaspoons mixed spice
zest of one orange, finely grated
zest of an unwaxed lemon, finely grated

I was intrigued by a number of spiced vodkas, and this Christmas pudding vodka in particular. What could be more festive?

Mix all of the above in a bowl, or put into a jar. Place in fridge or somewhere cool for three days, then start to taste. Some recipes call for two weeks, but I found three days plenty.

Strain through a double layer of muslin into clean bottles. It comes out a warm brown colour.


DSCF6194Ch. du Bascou 2010, Saint Mont, 14%, €18.95
Lovely firm muscular blackcurrant fruits, with hints of leather and chocolate. With a steak or duck breast.
Stockists: Cases Wine Warehouse, Galway.

DSCF6162Canon La Chapelle 2011, Canon-Fronsac,13%, €19.50
An impeccably mannered Bordeaux with elegant ripe plum fruits and refined tannins on the finish.
Stockists: Terroirs, Donnybrook

DSCF6197Pago de los Capellanes 2014, Ribera del Duero Joven,13.5%, €21.95
A delightful combination of ripe plum fruits with a touch of oak. Smooth, velvety and very sophisticated.
Stockists: Mitchell & Son, Sandycove, Chq and Avoca, Kilmacanogue.

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New Zealand Pinot Noir

First published in The Irish Times 31st October, 2015

New Zealand is one of the very few countries that can claim to have conquered that difficult and quarrelsome grape, Pinot Noir. Two of the finest producers from that country visited Ireland in recent weeks.

The Ata Rangi vineyards were planted in 1980 by Clive Paton, his wife, Phyl, and sister Alison. At the age of 28, he sold his dairy herd and set about growing grapes. He had attended a meeting at which soil scientist Dr Derek Milne suggested that Martinborough, just down the road from his farm, had the potential for viticulture. He jokes that he knew the land was stony as he used to graze his knees every time he played rugby there (Paton scored a try against the touring 1977 Lions, and his grandfather was an All Black).

Martinborough is a small town, laid out in the shape of a Union Jack by its founder, Irishman John Martin, in the 19th century, on the North Island, an hour’s drive from the capital, Wellington. The deep gravel soils provide excellent drainage. Spring is cool, with an ever-present danger of frost, but the region benefits from strong winds (good for keeping disease away) dry autumn weather and very high diurnal fluctuation. The wider region, known as Wairarapa, now has more than 50 wineries.

Ata Rangi was the first to use the famous “gumboot” clone of Pinot Noir. The story goes that an anonymous New Zealand winemaker was travelling through Burgundy in the 1970s and took a cutting from the greatest Pinot Noir vineyard in the world, La Romanée Conti. He tried to smuggle it back into New Zealand in a gumboot. However it was confiscated by an alert customs official, Malcolm Abel, in Wellington airport. As Abel was interested in viticulture, he put it into quarantine and then planted it a few years later. He passed on some of its progeny to his friend Clive Paton; this clone now makes up most of the oldest vines in Ata Rangi, where it is said to produce wines with a fine silky tannins and dark brooding savoury fruits. Certainly this describes Ata Rangi Pinot to a tee. The wines, which can age brilliantly, are elegant and velvety.

Englishman Nigel Greening worked in the advertising business before falling in love with Pinot Noir. A self-confessed Pinot addict, he is one of the most articulate producers, thoughtful, knowledgeable about Pinot the world over, and Burgundy in particular. In 2000, he bought Felton Road in the far south of the South Island, and, with winemaker Blair Walter, has brought Felton Road to the very top of the Pinot tree. “It is probably one of the easiest places in the world to grow Pinot,” says Greening. They have aimed for a less muscular style in recent years. “We have moved to an earlier picking, just when the greenness goes; our wines are fresher and lighter.”

They now cultivate biodynamically, and are almost “closed gate”, producing enough food for 25 people and rarely going to the supermarket. “I have never been a fan of the Harry Potter end of biodynamics, burying cow horns and all that. Old-fashioned farming is my aim. I like the idea that our soil gets better every year and not worse,” he says.

Felton Road Pinots are completely different in style to Ata Rangi. They are vibrant and exuberant with good acidity and pure dark fruits whereas Ata Rangi is elegant and soft with subtle savoury flavours. Both rank amongst the best, not just in New Zealand, but in the world. Sadly these wines are not cheap, but then good Pinot Noir rarely is. I include one less expensive wine.

I would also recommend seeking out Dry River in Martinborough, Rippon in Central Otago, Bell Hill, Pyramid and Pegasus in Waipara, sadly unavailable here for the moment. You can find Two Paddocks, owned by actor Sam Neil, and Escarpment, made by “Mr Pinot”, Larry McKenna, both of which are excellent. Pinot Noir, by the way, goes very well with game, turkey and goose if you are looking for seasonal pairings.

Brancott-Estate-Marlborough-Pinot-Noir2Brancott Estate Pinot Noir 2012, Marlborough

Light red cherry fruits with green herbs and a pleasant meatiness.

Stockists: Widely available including Tesco and other multiples.

ImageFelton Road Bannockburn Pinot Noir 2014, Central Otago

Violet aromas, fresh black cherries and damsons with lovely acidity. Supple, soft and ready to go.

Stockists:; The Vineyard Ormeau Rd; The Lighthouse, Whiteabbey; Grange, Co Down; Emersons Armagh.

DSCF6150Ata Rangi Pinot Noir 2013, Martinborough
13.5% €63.99

A stunning wine with structure and power, combined with perfectly ripe dark cherry fruits. A keeper.

Stockists: The Corkscrew, Dublin 2; O’Briens; On the Grapevine, Dalkey;; Green Man Wines, Terenure.

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Viva the New España

First published in The irish Times 24th October, 2015

How times have changed. In the not too distant past, many consumers saw European wines as outdated, unreliable and impossible to understand. They voted with their wallets, heading straight for the New World section of their wine shop or supermarket.

Now our tastes appear to be changing. For the past five years or more, much of the excitement in the wine world has been centred on Europe. The classic regions in France, Spain and Italy still feature strongly, but in each of these countries, it is the lesser-known or completely unheard of areas that have swung into fashion. Add in other smaller producer countries such as Portugal, Germany, Greece and the former Yugoslavia, and it makes for a heady mix of fascinating wines.

Each September, the Spanish Commercial Office holds a trade tasting in Dublin. It is one of the best-attended events all year, and with good reason, generally featuring a huge range of wines.

My only complaint would be that there were far too many for anyone to cover in a day, but there is certainly never any shortage of interest.

In a side-room, we were treated to a master class on the wines of the Canaries, which included some truly fascinating wines – see La Solana, below. Holidaymakers in these islands should certainly try some of the local produce before moving on to any other wines.

Spain has the largest vineyard in the world, with almost a million hectares of vines. Because of lower yields, they are not the world’s largest producer – that honour falls to either Italy or France, depending on the vintage. Arguably the biggest change in Spain over the past 25 years has been the introduction of irrigation (once banned), which has allowed production to increase despite a 30 per cent reduction in vineyard surface. It has also given hitherto moribund uneconomic regions a new lease of life.

In very broad brushstrokes, you can divide Spanish wine into three sectors, each a strip running east-west across the country. The north has a cooler, more humid climate and produces the best white wines and the lightest, most elegant reds. Across the centre, the baking hot summers tend to produce richer, more full-bodied red wines. The far south is best-known for producing great fortified wines.

These are only very rough guides: areas such as Ribera del Duero in the north can produce fairly full-blooded reds and the Mediterranean regions in the centre offer some elegant reds, including the Mustiguillo below.

Proximity to cooling coastal winds or increased altitude make for a diverse and fascinating mix of climates. Modern viticultural and winemaking practices may tend to blur what once were distinctive styles, but Spain seems to offer a wonderful diversity of styles. Not all is perfect; there are still plenty of over-oaked and over-extracted wines, but even the more full-bodied wines, perfect for winter drinking, are more balanced than was the case previously.

The most exciting move over the last few years has been the re-emergence of indigenous varieties. Where once Spanish winemakers revered Cabernet, Merlot and Chardonnay, alongside their native Tempranillo, Garnacha, Carineña and Monastrell, now the talk is all about Bobal, Listán Negro, Menciá, Graciano, Godello, Xarel-lo and many, many more.

So this week, no Rioja and no foreign grape varieties. Instead three wines from very different regions. The Mustiguillo, made primarily from the Bobal grape, comes from the mountains above Valencia. The La Solana is made from 100 per cent Listán Negro, a variety widely grown on the island of Tenerife, but not found anywhere else.

Emporda is a small but much talked-about region in the far north-east of Catalonia. The wines share the same rich, full-bodied character of the wines of Roussillon just over the border in France. The Verdera Negre, made from Carineña and Garnacha, offers amazing value.

Wilson on Wine 2016: The wines to drink this year by John Wilson is now available to buy for €12.99 from and in bookshops

DSCF6146Verdera Negre 2013, Viña Empordália, Empordá

Medium to full-bodied with rich blackcurrants and plums, and a rounded finish.

Stockists: Sheridan’s Cheesemongers; Ashe’s, Lettercollum Kitchen Project.

Image 1La Solana 2012, Suertes del Marqués, Valle de la Orotava,

Cool dark fruits, dark chocolate with a refreshing acidity. Gorgeous wine.

Stockists: 64wine, Glasthule; Clontarf Wines; Baggot Street Wines; Blackrock Cellars; Michael’s, Deerpark; Redmonds, Ranelagh; Black Pig, Donnybrook.

Image 9Mestizaje Tinto 2014, Bodega Mustiguillo, Pago El Terrerazo

Refreshing supple raspberry and red cherry fruits with a well-integrated spiciness.

Stockists: Deveney’s, Dundrum; Sweeney’s, Glasnevin; D-Six, Harold’s Cross;
Wicklow Wine Company.

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Take two Malbecs: France v Argentina

From the Irish Times, Saturday 17th October, 2015

The two wineries are some 11,000km apart, and the wines could not be more different, but they have one thing in common; Malbec, currently one of the most fashionable grapes.

Cahors in France has just over 4,000 hectares of Malbec; Argentina has 31,000. By coincidence, winemakers from both places recently visited Ireland in the same week.

Cahors is a very pleasant city, an hour’s drive north of Toulouse, famous for the magnificent Valentré bridge. It is surrounded on three sides by the river Lot. The river meanders westwards to the wine region, where the steep serpentine slopes offer a myriad of soils and meso-climates. The lower sandier slopes are said to produce softer, fruitier wines, the limestone plateau at the top makes wine with a firmer more tannic structure.

Martine Jouffreau and Yves Hermann of Clos de Gamot have been together for 38 years and look the typical contented rural French couple with a keen interest in food and rugby. Their daughter, a nurse, lives in Dublin. The estate belonged to Martine’s grandfather who planted vines a 100 years ago that go into a special wine, Cuvée Centenaires, produced only in the best years.

I am very fond of the Clos de Gamot, a wine that represents everything that is great about Cahors. There are other wines too.

Hermann works with 100 per cent Malbec (although he did admit to growing a tiny amount of Sauvignon and Chardonnay). “Our wines are very different to Argentina,” says Hermann. “We don’t like marketing and we make Cahors, not Malbec. In fact, we call it Côt or Auxerrois. For a good wine you need acidity. Our terroir always gives a freshness. It stays with the wine, even at 50-years-old.”

People often talk of the black wine of Cahors; this actually refers to an old method of concentrating the wine before blending it with those of other regions, notably Bordeaux.

Basic Cahors can be a little thin and rustic, but there have been huge improvements in recent years. These days Cahors is more likely to be nicely aromatic, peppery and dry, with savoury plum fruits. It is not a big gutsy wine, but very satisfying. It needs to be drunk with food.

If Cahors has an aesthetic austerity, Argentinian Malbec is perfumed and vibrant, with rich succulent softly-textured dark fruits, backed up with plenty of power. It is hardly surprising this style of Malbec has become popular the world over, and in the US in particular. It is a great partner for another Argentine speciality, barbecued steak.

The Chakana estate was founded in 2002 by the Pelizzatti family, who originally came from Valtelina in Italy. I met up with the very affable Gabriel Bloise, head of operations at Chakana.

“Our style of wine is changing; we are using less new oak, and less oak overall. We trying to produce more elegant wines,” he says.

Chakana is based in Luján de Cuyo just south of Mendoza where it has 150 hectares of vines. A few years ago, it expanded into the Uco Valley further south. The Uco is one of the most talked-about regions of Argentina, partly as a tourist destination, but also for producing wines with intense colour and aroma, higher acidity and more succulent fruits.

Chakana is putting together an origin–based series of wines that will reflect the different regions where it owns vines. It has also made decisive moves towards organic viticulture. “There is no other way to produce wine,” says Bloise. “Within a year, we saw a huge change in the quality of our grapes. We were very scared at first – weeds and oidium were supposed to be a problem, but they weren’t. Now we don’t have a plan or solution for every disease; we have a super master plan!”

DSCF6128Clos des Gamots 2008, Cahors

Lifted aromas, soft maturing ripe plums with good acidity and a solid savoury tannic core. Lovely wine.

Stockists: The Wicklow Wine Company, Wicklow

Dona Paul EstateDoña Paula Estate Malbec 2014, Uco Valley, Mendoza

Very nicely balanced Malbec with perfumed floral aromas and plump ripe dark fruits.

Stockists: widely available including Tesco, SuperValu and O’Briens.

DSCF6135Chakana Estate Selection 2013, Mendoza

Rich meaty dark fruits with a nice fresh character and good length. With beef.

Stockists: Donnybrook Fair; Gibneys; Hole in the Wall; The Corkscrew; No 21, Cork; Thomas Woodberry.

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The Call of Duty; the forthcoming budget

Over the last few months, the Irish Wine Association and other groups have made a persuasive argument for a decrease in the excise duty on wine. We pay an extortionate €3.19 excise duty on every bottle of wine we buy. Add 23 per cent VAT to the price and the Government takes more than half the money you spend on a €10 bottle of wine.

Sparkling wine, for some reason, is double that. Aldi and Lidl currently both have one for sale at €10.49; the duty and VAT make up an incredible €8.34 of that. Can they be making a profit?

Sadly, there is one thing I am fairly sure about; there will be no decrease in excise duty on wine in the forthcoming budget. The Minister for Finance has made it perfectly clear in the past that he sees wine drinkers as middle class and wine a foreign luxury and therefore not worthy of his attention. I don’t believe wine should be penalised over other alcoholic drinks but at the moment it certainly is. The best we can hope for is that things stay as they are.

I do hope he has listened to the blossoming craft cider industry and harmonised the excise duty on cider with that of beer. Of all the nascent artisan drinks this must have the greatest potential to bring employment to parts of rural Ireland.

But other than that I expect that there will be no further changes. The Minister will be assisted by the growing calls for action on alcohol abuse. The entire drinks business needs to take our problems with alcohol consumption seriously. While the trade is very keen to point out that countries such as Spain, France and Italy have virtually no tax on wine and other drinks, the drinking culture in those countries is very different.

It seems that Northern European countries, genetically, culturally or simply because of the cold weather, have a propensity to drink more and to excess. Teenagers prinking before heading out for an evening has been well-documented, but our youth is not the only group who abuse alcohol. It permeates every sector of our society and we need to find ways to control it.

It breaks my heart to accept it, but if part of the solution means high taxes, that is something we should be prepared to accept. It seems strange though that one arm of the Government is proposing measures to limit alcohol consumption while others are applauding the opening of new distilleries and breweries around the country.

High rates of duty are certainly not the sole answer. The proposed minimum pricing seems to be the most sensible way forward as it targets those who buy large quantities of cheap alcohol. It would still hit hard-pressed couples who enjoy a bottle of wine once or twice a week over dinner.

A ban on below-cost selling would help too, whatever the European Union has to say. The larger retailers are well aware that drink is a major pull for shoppers and are quite happy to sell at cost or below (and claim back the difference in VAT) to increase footfall. It will be interesting to see how the multiples react to minimum pricing. Theoretically, it should allow them to improve the quality of their wines. If they simply increase the price of existing lines, the public will not be impressed.

There is still a large group of people who abuse alcohol in the pubs, clubs and restaurants around the country, and the high cost does not seem to affect them. Although the new wine shops and off-licences have been a boon for the wine lover, perhaps we need to limit the number of outlets that can sell alcohol for consumption both on and off the premises. For instance, I find it incongruous that a garage can sell wine at the same time as petrol.

This week: three quality wines to enjoy in moderation.

Domaine de PellehautDomaine de Pellehaut Harmonie de Gascogne 2014
Vibrant herby rich peach fruits and a touch of honey. For sipping before dinner with friends or at a party.
Mitchell & Son; Deveney’s; Thyme Out, Dalkey; Myles Doyle, Gorey.

Image 10Vitiano Rosso 2013, Falesco IGP Umbria

Fragrant, elegant wine with supple rounded dark fruits and an easy finish.
Stockists: Vanilla Grape, Kenmare; On The Grapevine, Dalkey;
Number 21, Cork; Callans, Dundalk;

DSCF6125Wagner Stempel Spatburgunder 2013, Rheinhessen

Utterly seductive wine with silky light red cherry fruits.

Martin’s; Blackrock Cellar; Green Man Wines; Morton’s Galway;
Mitchell & Son; Redmonds; Sweeney’s; 64 Wine; Searsons.

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