The wine industry is making significant changes.

The wine industry is making significant changes.Getty

This month, Ernie Whalley has been exploring some new Irish beverages and brings us significant news from the wine industry. The heartland of the wine world, Bordeaux, is implementing radical changes.

Home Grown

“Ever tasted that poy-tin?” asked the cockney on the adjacent sunbed. I corrected his pronunciation and admitted I had. “It’s potatoes, innit?” “Well, no, actually,” I said, “It’s not. It’s what you have to hand. You can distil alcohol from practically anything. Could be potatoes. Could be wheat, maize, whatever. Could be Grandad’s old long johns or back numbers of that Daily Mail you’re reading but might not taste very nice.” 

Last week I tasted Tipperary Distillery’s limited edition poitín, The Big Field, made from the Ahearn family’s own barley. A Gold Medallist at last year’s Irish Whiskey Awards, the clean finish and nuanced fragrance reminded me of top-notch grappa, which the 12.5% of me that is Italian loves to bits. I can see this drunk with a splash of tonic, as a cocktail component and, best of all, neat, as a contemplative fireside sip.

700 ml 47.5 ABV  €50 L.Mulligan Whiskey Shop 

Big News From Bordeaux

If there are still any climate change nay-sayers out there maybe they should take a look at what’s just happened in Bordeaux, heartland of the French wine industry. Last Friday morning, the Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur wine producers’ syndicate took, at their AGM, the unanimous decision to approve the use of seven new grape varieties. The initiative is an acknowledgement of and response to climate change. Grower Christophe Piat of Château Couronneau, put the reasons for the relation of the regulations succinctly, saying “Bordeaux is reaching the limits of what it can do within existing rules. ‘We can’t keep making Merlot at 16 degrees” (alcohol by volume).

Now you may say “What’s the big deal?” but, take it from me, this is radical stuff. In times past, whenever bureaucrats or whizz kids have suggested change the Boirdelais have dug their heels in.

The region has, since the inception of the Institut National des Appellations d’Origins (INAO) in 1935, maintained rigid control over wine production down to specifying the grape varieties that can be grown. The major players - cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, for reds; sauvignon blanc and sémillon for whites - are grapes associated with the region since vines were first planted there. 

Merlot, ripe for harvesting, bang in “the window” - taken in the second week of September 2008

Merlot, ripe for harvesting, bang in “the window” - taken in the second week of September 2008

READ MORE: Ernie Whalley On The Wine Glass Wardrobe

It took the prolonged heatwave that scorched France during the summer of 2003 to alert the industry to the putative effects of climate change. In that year, grapes were cooking on the vine. Critics gave the vintage the thumbs-down, finding wines with overripe fruit, low acidity and a short lifespan - vinous jam. 

In the following years, the industry’s boffins got down to studying the data. The forecast was dire - expect increasingly wet, stormy winters and hot, arid summers, as well as harvests that arrive well before the optimum ‘window’ (traditionally reckoned to be the month beginning September 10th).

New varieties

A decisive step was taken in 2009 when the INOA licensed the planting of 52 varieties sourced chiefly from warmer regions like Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece in an experimental vineyard in the Pessac-Léognan appellation. The programme was backed up in the ensuing years by comprehensive testing and analysis.

The new varieties approved at the syndicate’s AGM consist of four reds and three whites. Of the reds, arinarnoa first bred in Bordeaux in 1956, is a tannat/cabernet sauvignon cross; castets is a Bordeaux grape hitherto lost in the mist of time; marselan is a late ripening cabernet sauvignon/grenache cross. For me, the most exciting newcomer is touriga nacional, late-ripening, with good resistance to fungal disease and a grape I’ve rated since my first visit to The Douro in 1984. In its native Portugal, touriga nacional makes complex, full-bodied, luscious reds with considerable ageing potential. Of the whites, the aromatic petit manseng is a very late ripener; alvarinho (Portuguese spelling) is already well known to Irish consumers, who have taken the Galician version to their hearts; while liliorila, a baroque/chardonnay cross, opens up opportunities to make opulent, powerful whites - here’s looking at you, Burgundy. The holy grail is to find grapes with lower susceptibility to grey rot damage, with low sugar levels and good acidity.

Growers will be allowed to plant the new vine types on up to 5% of their vineyard area, and to add up to 10% of their production to final blends, all within existing controlled origin (AOC) rules. Planting rights for the new grape types – still subject to a final approval by INAO -  will last 10 years, with an option for one renewal. The first new vines should be planted during the 2020/2021 season.

Whiskey To Shiver Your Timbers

That Grace O’Malley was quite a gal. Fearless mariner, great negotiator with impressive political acumen, wife, mother, matriarch, kidnapper, our Gracie was clearly charismatic.  The Grace O’Malley brand is the brainchild of Mayo entrepreneur Stephen Cope who became smitten by the legend of the piratical protofeminist during a trip to Inishbofin over a decade ago. Currently, there are three ranges: the Crew range, a blend, retails at €39.99 RRP; the Navigator’s range of premium whiskies at €64.99 RRP.  Tasting, I detected traces of an emerging house style - these are full-on, assertive whiskeys,  with vanilla, mandarin zest and gingery spice on the nose. The rounded palate has overtones of russet apple and pear. Lastly, the super-luxury Captain’s Range comprises three 18 year-old single malts, finished in, respectively, cognac, port and amarone casks, of which, at the moment, only the amarone version is available, at a ‘reassuringly expensive’ €449. 

Celtic Whiskey Shop; L.Mulligan and other independents.

Author: Ernie Whalley

Ernie Whalley, Restaurant Critic for The Sunday Times and former editor of Food & Wine Magazine, grew up working in his aunts’ hotel kitchens. He wrote on food, wine and travel in the UK before settling in Ireland in 1987. In the 1990s, he ran his own Dublin café before joining Food & Wine in 1999. In 2002, he launched, Ireland’s first food and drink website.  In a long career, Ernie has given cookery lessons as “One Man & his Hob”; written for innumerable publications worldwide and appeared on radio and TV food & drink programmes. Judging stints include The Cordon Bleu World Food and Drink Media Awards, the Bocuse d’Or and wine competitions in five countries. In 2018, he was inducted into the Food & Wine Magazine Hall of Fame.

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