IRISH WINE. WHAT?????????
Irish men are like fine wine, according to Irish women. They all start out like grapes, and it is the women’s job to stomp on them and keep them in the dark until they mature into something you’d want to have dinner with. Well, David Llewellyn is an Irish farmer who is doing some of the stomping. He has been helping Ireland break into the international wine market. Although his output is still small, he is showing what is possible on this wet and cloudy little island.
David Llewellyn didn’t start out as a farmer. But since working with a winemaker in Germany in the 1980s, he became fascinated with the beauty of grapevines and the ancient noble art of winemaking. He started growing vines and making wine as a hobby. From his earlier days of experimenting with different vine varieties in the Irish climate, and trying to create palatable wine from their fruits, he began propagating vines for sale to gardeners, and eventually decided to plant a small vineyard for the purpose of growing grapes to produce Irish wine for sale.
In 2002 David planted his vineyard, using quite a few different varieties of both wine and table/dessert grapes. He has whittled the dessert grapes down to a couple of varieties which grow well and produce the most delicious grapes. Says David, “We have also whittled down the wine varieties to a few which work well for us and produce consistently good wine. We call our wine Lusca, Gaelic for Lusk, meaning ‘vault’ or ‘cave’. Our label bears an image of the historic Round Tower of Lusk, which our vineyard looks out upon, one mile to the east.”
The wine grapes consist mainly of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Dunkelfelder, and Rondo for the reds, and Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Schoenburger and Gewuerztraminer for the whites. At present they have a very tiny total production of around 350 bottles per year, and they hope to increase that to around 1000 bottles over the next few years.
All the vines are planted outdoors next to the orchard just outside the village of Lusk. Says David, “The later-ripening varieties benefit from a simple cloche-type structure of metal hoops which we have rigged up over the rows, whereby we are able to drape a protective polythene cover over the vines during the summer months. This protects the fruit and foliage from rain, thus avoiding diseases, and it raises the temperature under the covers which helps the late-ripening fruit to mature in our relatively cool summers. On the other hand the Rondo grape is hardy enough to ripen in the open in our climate, and is also very disease resistant, which means we don’t need to spray them with pesticides. The more sensitive varieties given the cloche protection also escape disease, so no need for sprays, because the foliage is kept dry while at the same time receiving good ventilation.”
The entire wine-making process is carried out in Lusk at the vineyard, from picking to pressing, fermenting, maturing and bottling. The wine is made exclusively from the grapes grown on the farm, and they do not buy in any grapes. They use a very simple traditional method for the vinification, without the use of high-tech filters and other equipment. The wine is allowed to clear naturally, and it is all bottled and labelled by hand. Says David, “All our wine is fermented to natural dryness and is finished dry in the bottle, without being back-sweetened at bottling as is common practice in modern large scale wineries. We bottle into elegant standard sized 750ml bottles, and also into matching 375ml half-bottles.”
So how hard was it to become an Irish Winemaker? It seems it was a long road. Says David, “Having studied horticulture both in Warrenstown Horticulture College and in University College Dublin since leaving school, and having gained experience in many aspects of the trade both in Ireland and in Germany, I set up my fruit growing enterprise in 1999. This interest in growing plants, particularly food plants, was something I had developed at an early stage as a child, and I eventually decided to pursue this as a career. However not coming from a farming background, and with my family not owning any land, it was difficult to set up a business which by nature requires land as the first prerequisite! So for the first few years, we managed by working and living on various rented premises, until in 2002, after years of looking out for a suitable plot of land, we finally managed to get a nice south-facing field of good soil just outside the village of Lusk.” Now Llewellyn’s Orchard is a small-holding in the fertile countryside of North County Dublin (known as The Kitchen Garden of Ireland), where they grow a range of fruits, and produce a selection of premium natural products from these fruits.
“The first thing we did was plant a shelter-belt of hawthorn, alder, poplar and sycamore trees around the perimeter of the field, plant an orchard of young apple trees which I had raised myself, and plant a small vineyard of vines which I had raised over the previous 2 years. We moved onto the site and lived in a mobile home while we raised our family and started to develop our little fruit farm. We moved into the mobile home with 2 kids; 5 years later by the time we had managed to build a house, we moved out of the mobile home with 4 kids! In 2010 we have been very fortunate to have had the opportunity to extend our holding in Lusk by an additional 3 acres.” And here is the good news. While not organic, it is fairly close. “Our fruit is not organic, but we grow it with the minimum use of any pesticides. In effect this actually means that we almost never use sprays, not even organically approved pesticides. For example, our apple orchard has never been sprayed since we planted it, and nor has our vineyard! If the crop were suddenly threatened with a potentially devastating pest or disease, then we would not rule out taking measures to protect the crop, just as I would go to the doctor if I had to get treatment for some serious illness!”
So what made David think he could master grape growing in Ireland, when two other Irish vineyards have failed in the past? He says, “I never assumed I could master grape-growing here, but what first seeded the notion in my brain, was while working in the south of Germany in 1986 on a vineyard, I noticed that some varieties of grapes ripened earlier than others, and I thought to myself, I wonder could a variety be found which ripens early enough to succeed in Ireland?” But now, David and Compnay produce about 300 bottles a year. He says, “However I have planted more vines in the past few years which will hopefully see me able to produce around 1000 bottles a year by about 2015. For me that would be huge, but by normal wine production standards that amount would be considered ultra ultra boutique! This spring I’m planting a small area of 70-year-old Cabernet Sauvignon vines which originated in Bordeaux! I’m hoping to harvest the first wine from these Autumn 2014.”
So what curious individual are buying this Irish wine? “I find it is a very wide range of people who buy the wine, mostly people who are genuinely open-minded and curious about the unusual nature of the wine, and about the fact that it has been grown in Ireland. Possibly the least likely person to buy my wine is a wine snob who thinks they know more about wine than they actually do, and who has never tasted, for example, a red wine from Germany or a white wine from England! People often buy a bottle of my wine as a present for a husband or a father who ‘already has everything’! The wine is relatively expensive, at around €30 per bottle, which is mostly due to the vastly higher element of man-hours involved in both growing the grapes and making the wine on such a small scale.”
So while this all sounds like a delicious exercise in an unusual and brave drink, there have been challenges. “The biggest challenge has been simply making the wine on such a small scale on a small enterprise already busy with growing other fruit crops and producing other high quality products on a small farm. There is a lot of effort involved, particularly when one is striving for integrity and quality in everything that is done.” However, there are great successes. “I have had requests for my wine from the UK, Europe and the US, but I regard as the biggest successes the occasions when people have paid a relatively big chunk of their hard-earned money to buy a bottle of my wine, and then they come back to buy it again. I think I’m sometimes hard on myself as to whether the wine is up to scratch, but when people come back and tell me they liked it, and actually want to buy more, that’s really reassuring and fulfilling.”
So are people surprised when they see Irish wine? “Of course they are! We’re only supposed to be able to grow grass and potatoes here in Ireland!”
If you would like to reserve wine which is not yet bottled, you can contact David Llewellyn here. Since some of the wines are at present made in very tiny annual amounts like 25 or 50 bottles, this could be a useful way to secure some for yourself before it is sold out.
In Ireland you can get Lusca wine from www.winesonthegreen.com, www.fallonandbyrne.com, www.drinkstore.ie, and www.terroirs.ie.
If you need the wine sent further afield, to the US for example, then contact www.winesonthegreen.com – they can send it to anywhere in the world
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