First published in The Irish Times, Saturday 8th June, 2019
One of the great Spanish success stories over the past few years has been Albariño, which now sits alongside Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc as one of our most popular white grapes.
In Spain, Albariño generally means the Rías Baixas region in Galicia. Over the Miño/Minho river in Portugal, Albariño becomes Alvarinho. Here in Ireland, Alvarinho wines have taken huge leaps forward in quality over the past few years. They are generally a little lighter than their Spanish counterparts but share that irresistible combination of plump, ripe pears and peaches and a cleansing citric acidity.
Can a wine be salty? Many of the wines from both sides of the Iberian border seem to have a delicious, distinctly saline quality, and some are grown very close to the sea. Try the Lagar de Costa from O’Briens (€16.95, a nice wine and great value for money), made from vines growing metres from the beach, to see what I mean.
Until recently, although I enjoyed Rías Baixas, I had rarely come across really great versions of the grape that were worth a premium. But over the past year I have come across some stunning wines. Most are from single vineyards, made using grapes plucked from very elderly vines. Sadly, most cost €20-€30 a bottle. Given that the first €5 you spend on a bottle of wine goes on tax, an extra €10-€15 buys you a lot of wine. In most cases you really will notice the difference between a €10 Rías Baixas and one at €20.
O’Briens has no fewer than 11 Albariños, ranging in price from €12.95 to €45, including the Lagar de Costa and a favourite of mine, Pazo de Señorans. Aldi has a very decent Exquisite Collection Rîas Baixas for €9.99 and the superior Albanta for €10.99. SuperValu has its exclusive Abeillo and Lola & Paco (both for €14.99). Dunnes Stores also has the Paco & Lola alongside three other Albariños. Marks & Spencer has both a Rîas Baixas (€13.30) and a tasty Vinho Verde for €11. Look out for the excellent Zarate (about €20) in independents.
From Portugal, the Celtic Whiskey Shop has four excellent wines, all from the winemaker Anselmo Mendes: the Muros Eshola (a blend including 20 per cent Alvarinho, amazing value at €14), the Muros Antigos below, the Contacto (€20) and the Muros de Milgaço (€27.50). JNwine.com has the Soalheiro wines – here it is worth paying €4 extra for the wine below.
Both Alvarinho and Albariño are the perfect match for all kinds of shellfish, as well as octopus and hake. I can think of few nicer things in life than a platter of shellfish served alongside a glass of good Albariño. You could certainly expand on this to include sushi, sashimi, grilled white fish and fresh goat’s cheese salads.
Muros Antigos Alvarinho 2018, Monção e Melgaço, Vinho Verde 13%, €18.50
This has it all at an unbeatable price: spring flowers, succulent yellow apples and pears, slightly pithy lemon zest and a long, dry finish. With summer salads featuring soft goat’s cheese, herbs and lemon. From Wines on the Green, Dublin 2, celticwhiskeyshop.com; Nolan’s, Dublin 3, nolans.ie; McCabes Wines, Dublin 18, mccabeswines.ie
Soalheiro Alvarinho 2018, Monção e Melgaço, Vinho Verde 12.5%, €21-€22
A very seductive blend of lemon zest and light tropical fruits – pineapples and mango, with a crisp dry finish. Light and nervy. With seafood or meze. From jnwine.com; Ely 64, Glasthule, Co Dublin, ely64.com; the Corkscrew, Dublin 2, thecorkscrew.ie; Lilac Wines, Dublin 3, lilacwines.ie
Leirana, Albarino, Forjas del Salnes 2018 12%, €24
Wonderful, subtle wine with plump ripe peach fruits, a touch of orange peel and lemon zest, and a wonderful saline edge. Dublin Bay prawns with home-made mayonnaise. From 1601 Off-licence, Kinsale, Co Cork; Ely 64, Glasthule, Co Dublin, ely64.com; Blackrock Cellar, Co Dublin, blackrockcellar.com; Bradleys Off-licence, Cork, bradleysofflicence.ie; Loose Canon, Dublin 2, loosecanon.ie; Green Man Wines, Dublin 6, greenmanwines.ie; Red Island Wine Co, Skerries, Co Dublin; Whelehan’s Wines, Dublin 18, whelehanswines.ie
Sesenta e Nove Arrobas 2017, Rías Baixas, Bodegas Albamar 13%, €34
The basic Albamar (€21-€22, independents) is a favourite but this is one of the best white wines I have tasted this year. Exquisite floral aromas of honeysuckle and white flowers. Luscious pears and zesty lemon, with a saline mineral core. Warm poached lobster with sinful quantities of garlic butter. From Ely 64, Glasthule, Co Dublin, ely64.com; Green Man Wines, Dublin 6, greenmanwines.ie
First published in the Irish Times, Saturday, 1st September, 2018
I don’t think I have ever written a bucket list or settled on a deathbed meal. I like too many things, and in any case everything depends on the people around you. With wine, the greatest vintage from the finest estate will never match a modest glass in good company.
I do know that my deathbed meal would include fish and shellfish, and lots of it. I live a few hundred metres from the sea and find it incredibly frustrating that I have to travel long distances to find decent fresh seafood – the greatest of which requires little or no adornment. Herbs and lemon or lime, mayonnaise or melted butter usually suffice.
Some years ago the highlight of my small but perfectly formed stag weekend was dinner at Chez Youen in Baltimore, in Co Cork, where we devoured an enormous platter of plain shellfish, multiple bottles of Muscadet, and sparkling wine from Mas de Daumas Gassac.
So before we move on to autumnal reds, a final feast of everything good that comes from the sea and the wines to go with them. There is something wonderfully perfect about a piece of spanking fresh fish and a glass of chilled white wine. (You can, of course, drink chilled light red wines, but I usually crack open a white.)
Crab would definitely feature in my meal, preferably cold, in a salad with mayonnaise, and mounds of herbs and citrus. As a child I was tasked with shelling freshly cooked crab for dinner. A few shards of shell merely proved its authenticity. Sadly I was too young to enjoy one of life’s great matches: crab and Riesling.
The crab would not be pasteurised and tasteless, its richness countered by the zip and freshness of the Riesling. Austria, Germany and Alsace, in northeastern France, all produce great Riesling, but today I choose Australia, a country that produces a lime-scented version that is heavenly with crab.
Mussels and Muscadet (or the delicious vinho verde below) might come before the crab, then fresh Atlantic prawns with a home-made lemon-garlic mayonnaise. I would find room for scallops, too, probably seared in butter. The prawns and scallops have a sweetness that goes perfectly with a creamy, fruit-filled Chardonnay. Then on to hake, which to my mind is superior to cod, salmon and all the basses and breams. The only fish that compare are turbot, John Dory and black sole. Chardonnay would do nicely again, or an Austrian Grüner Veltliner, or maybe an Albariño from Spain.
For most people the ultimate luxury is lobster. I prefer crab but will happily eat both. Recently, at a friend’s 50th, we ate lobster and drank Champagne – an indulgence that works so well. And only then would we start on the meat, followed by the cheese.
Bottles of the Week
Chardonnay 2016, Antech, IGP pays d’Oc 13%, €13.95
A medium-bodied, oak-free Chardonnay with attractive ripe exotic fruits – melon, peach and pineapple. Perfect with scallops and prawns. Stockists: Wines Direct, Mullingar, Co Westmeath, and Arnotts, Dublin, winesdirect.ie
Pequenos Rebentos Vinho Verde 2017 11.5%, €15.50
Delicious, fruit-filled, lip-smacking wine; fresh zingy lemon zest and green apples. Light enough to go perfectly with mussels and oysters, but also with hake or sea bass. Stockists: Listons Food Store, Dublin 2, listonsfoodstore.ie; the Wine Centre, Kilkenny, thewinecentre.ie; Kelly’s, Clontarf, Dublin 3, kellysofflicence.ie; Baggot Street Wines, Dublin 4, baggotstreetwines.com
Vickery Watervale Riesling 2017, Clare Valley, Australia 13%, €19.50
Floral, with a very seductive, refreshing, creamy palate full of lime zest and mouth-watering green fruits, finishing bone dry. Drink with crab. Stockists:jnwine.com
Granzamy Brut NV, Champagne 12.5%, €34.95 (€29.95 for September)
A stylish, lightly creamy Champagne with subtle red cherries and strawberries. With lobster for a real splurge, but this would also go nicely with oysters, and most seafood. Stockists: O’Briens, obrienswine.ie
First published in the Irish Times, Saturday April 30th
I had my first barbecue of the year a month ago; a whole chicken stuffed with garlic and lemon. It was simple but delicious, the skin crisp and burnished. You can cook on the barbecue throughout the year (I know people who use it for the Christmas turkey) but once the sun comes out it becomes a much more attractive method of cooking. The Irish barbie is no longer a few sausages and burgers incinerated on a grill. Not only do we cook everything from fish to vegetables, many now have proper smokers or at least woodchips to add smoky flavours to a charcoal-powered covered cooker.
I divide my barbecue wines into three categories. There is no getting away from the idea of matching a big, powerful red with barbecued red meat. Smoked or heavily marinated and spicy meat probably demands the biggest wines of all. For inspiration, look to sunny countries and how they match their wine and food. Shiraz from Australia, malbec from Argentina and zinfandel from California are all classic partners.
With fish and chicken a rich white wine or a rosé is called for. I probably do not pay rosés enough attention in this column. I could blame the weather but I have to admit I am not a big fan generally. There are some very pricey pinks from Provence and elsewhere, but I am not convinced they are worth the money.
However, rosés can be great with grilled or barbecued shellfish, fish and chicken, especially if those with an Asian or Middle-Eastern marinade or rub. They also go very well with all sorts of salads, so they are a good catch-all summer wine. If you want to stick with white wine, a chardonnay (lightly oaked wines and smoke) or a rich viognier are probably the best options. You could serve a light, chilled red wine, such as a pinot noir, with grilled salmon or tuna.
My final barbecue wine does not go with any of the food; it is the aperitif! Charcoal always takes far longer to get ready than you think, and some foods, chicken in particular, must be thoroughly cooked (my best friend is a digital thermometer), so make sure you have something to drink while waiting for the food to be ready.
Avoid big, alcoholic wines, or you and your guests will be sprawling long before the food is ready. A light, well-chilled refreshing white wine is ideal; a Mosel riesling Kabinett, if you are having nibbles, or you could think about a lightly chilled beaujolais or Loire cabernet, or again a rosé, as they tend to be light in alcohol. This week’s wines are not expensive. I save my best wines for other occasions.
Borsao Campo de Borja Selección 2014, Spain
A delicious fruit bomb of a wine; supple, juicy, ripe and very gluggable.
Stockists: Searsons, Monkstown
Exquisite Pinot Noir Rosé 2015, Marlborough, New Zealand
Light summery strawberry fruits with a dry finish. With fish and white meats.
Espigueiro Vinho Verde 2015, Portugal
Perfect summer sipping wine; light, crisp, and sprizty.
Cavas Novas Vinho Verde 2014, Portugal
Lively lemon and pear fruits with a touch of citrus pith. Lovely weight of fruit with a bit of depth, and a crisp dry finish. Drink as an aperitif or with lighter seafood dishes.
Oysters or mussels cooked with a drop of the same wine and plenty of parsley?
Arriving shortly in Ireland. Look out for it in independent wine shops.
Time was when most Vinho Verde was light, fizzy and sweet. Not any more; over the last five years, the region has transformed itself and now produces wines that compare favourably with Rías Baixas just over the border in Spain. Alvarinho is the most obvious comparison, but Arinto, Loureiro and Avesso can all produce fresh zippy wines with lovely mouth-watering plump fruits.