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For St. Patrick's Day, wine with Irish spirit

For centuries, Emerald Isle expats have been making some of the world's finest wines. Jon Bonné considers the Wine Geese

St. Patrick’s Day arrives shortly, time to toast the luck of the Irish and the joys of Celtic heritage with a glass of … wine.

And why not? True, Ireland has a reputation for appreciating a proper pint of stout or a dram of whiskey. But Irish émigrés have played a pivotal role in the world’s wine trade since the early 1700s, decades before young Arthur Guinness signed a lease on a certain Dublin brewery.

“Their names and labels have become synonymous with fine wine throughout the world,” says Ted Murphy, author of “A Kingdom of Wine” (OnStream), a history of Ireland’s ties to wine published last year. “It’s quite a remarkable achievement.”

These ties can be found almost anywhere wine grapes are grown, from northern France to South America. Respected California wineries like Chateau Montelena and Murphy-Goode claim ties to Mother Ireland, as do some of Bordeaux’s most renowned negociants and wineries. At least 14 chateaus there are named for Irishmen, including such long-established properties as Lynch-Bages, founded by Michel Lynch, a French-born descendant of the Lynches of Galway. Their wine ties date back to the 14th century.

“You go into that winery and there’s pictures of the Lynches from Ireland,” says Kingsley Aikins, president and CEO of the American Ireland Fund in Boston. “You’re going back hundreds of years with this stuff.”

These well-documented ties have inspired a sort of informal brotherhood of Irish winemakers, known as the Wine Geese or Winegeese — complete with its own Irish-based order, founded in 1997, and a museum in County Cork. Aikins’ association runs an American counterpart, the WineGeese Society (membership starts at $1,000) whose events celebrate the Irish role in fine wine.

Leaving for EuropeThe Wine Geese hearken from the Wild Geese, Irish citizens who left their homeland after the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 and settled across Europe, often serving in continental armies.  Some who landed across the water turned their eyes to the burgeoning wine trade — notably in the entrepreneurial streets of Bordeaux, where as early as 1725 they found willing customers among their countrymen back home. Murphy estimates that in 1739-40, Ireland imported 4,400 tons of red Bordeaux wine, four times what the wine-loving English brought in.

“Ireland was drinking more claret than England,” he says. “In fact, we were drinking more claret than the rest of the British Isles put together.”

The list of Irish wine luminaries is impressive. In France, the roster includes not only the Lynches, but Mark Kirwan of Galway, who established Chateau Kirwan in Margaux and Bernard Phelan of Tipperary, who founded Chateau Phelan-Segur in St Estephe. (Phelan-Segur, like Kirwan and Lynch-Bages, have since been sold to non-Irish owners.)

There’s also the Barton family, whose Bordeaux roots stretch back to 1725, when Thomas Barton, like many foreigners, established a negociant firm outside the city walls. His grandson Hugh took a French partner named Daniel Guestier and formed Barton & Guestier, now one of France’s largest wine exporters. Hugh later purchased two chateaus and attached the family name. Léoville-Barton and Langoa-Barton should be familiar to many wine collectors.

Equally influential was Richard Hennessy of Cork, who so impressed his countrymen back home with the cognac he exported from France that his family set up its own distillery. The success of the Hennessy cognac business speaks for itself.

The list is just as long on these shores. James Concannon, born in the Aran Islands, settled in California’s Livermore Valley in 1883, one of the first wine pioneers in the area; his family has made wine there ever since. Napa stars like Mayacamas, Cakebread and Flora Springs all claim Irish ties. Mat Garretson of Paso Robles’ Garretson Wine Company labels his wines with Irish names, including a “Saothar” rosé (“classic work” in Irish) and a syrah called “The Craic” (“good times”). In Oregon, Belfast native David O’Reilly crafts wines under his own name as well as the Owen Roe label, a tribute to 17th-century Irish patriot Owen Roe O’Neill.

Long-established rootsThe Irish exodus to the southern hemisphere was sizable, which is why you’ll find wineries with Celtic ties in New Zealand, South Africa and, most extensively, Australia. Jim Barry, whose ancestors settled in the Clare Valley, has gained fame with his award-winning Armagh shiraz. The Margaret River region, in far southwestern Australia, is home to Leeuwin Estate, perhaps one of the world’s most remote wineries. Founder Denis Horgan not only got a winemaking hand from Robert Mondavi, but his great-grandfather, who fled County Cork after the potato famine, went on to become the first premier of Western Australia in the 1880s.

All this might have something to do with some very old roots for wine in Ireland, which stretch back two millennia or more. Descriptions of ancient Celtic feats — including, Murphy notes, writings of St. Patrick himself from 433 A.D. — include ample mention of wine.

The fascination has been rekindled of late. Irish businessman Tony Ryan, founder of Ryanair, purchased part of Bordeaux second-growth Chateau Lascombes in 2001, the same year businessman Lochlann Quinn bought Chateau Fieuzal in the Graves region. A year earlier, Belfast exporter Terry Cross bought Chateau de la Ligne.

And wine is again gaining favor across the Emerald Isle. According to the Wine Development Board of Ireland, sales of table wine leapt from 1.5 million cases in 1990 to 7 million in 2004, with Australian wines accounting for nearly one-quarter, while beer consumption has fallen off.

So the journey of the Wine Geese has come full circle: The diaspora of loyal Irishmen scattered across the continents provides drinking pleasure to residents of their ancestral homeland.

“We realized that obviously the Irish had an appreciation of the finer things in life,” says Denis Horgan, “and in particular the fruits of the vine.”

TASTING NOTESIt's not hard to find wine with Irish roots. Look through the family names listed at and you'll find plenty of options.  Here are five selections you might consider as a St. Patrick's Day alternative to all that watery, silly green beer.

O'Reilly's 2005 pinot gris Oregon ($13): David O'Reilly's family hails from County Cavan, and with the Irish wolfhound gracing the labels of his eponymous wines, it's hard to miss the Celtic ties. His latest vintage is quintessential Oregon pinot gris, rounded and fresh, with ripe white fruit flavors offset by a brightness in its core. O'Reilly's value-priced line also includes a chardonnay and pinot noir, and is consistently one of the best deals out of Oregon.

Abbey Vale 2004 “Vat 351” chardonnay Margaret River ($12, Aussie Imports): Margaret River seems to be a magnet for Irish-affiliated winemakers. Irish-educated Bill McKay and his wife Pam started this property in 1975 before selling it to its current Swedish owners. This unoaked style is crisp and straightforward, with grapefruit peel and a marked minerality. Its lines are clean and pleasing, though it finishes a bit hot.

Flora Springs 2004 chardonnay Napa Valley ($25): The Garvey family co-owns this well-known Napa winery. Its flagship chardonnay is a well-crafted example of the hefty, creamy California style, with scents of lemon meringue and melon, and a silky, soft finish.

Leeuwin Estate 2001 “Siblings” shiraz ($20, Old Bridge Cellars): Leeuwin founder Denis Horgan, a CPA by training, has family ties in County Cork. This shiraz, which the Horgans deserve credit for not rushing to market, is filled with intricate notes of salty game meat and brambly fruit. It's balanced and actually rather light on the tongue, despite weighing in at 14.5 percent alcohol. Not at all a typical jammy Aussie style, even if Horgan refers to himself as “an old Australian.” The Horgans offer an impressive range of wines, including a 2004 riesling filled with mineral and diesel notes that's amazingly crisp.

Chateau Phélan-Ségur 2001 St.-Estephe ($31, Diageo Chateau & Estate): Irishman Frank Phelan acquired this cru bourgeois estate in the 1800s, but former Champagne exec Xavier Gardinier purchased it in 1985. This standout from an underrated vintage, primarily Cabernet sauvignon with 30 percent merlot and 10 percent Cabernet franc, is filled with deep notes of dried cedar and herb, with hints of leather and soft cassis in the back. It's rounded and aromatic, though the tannins take hold at the end and leave the final impression. Stick to the '01 over the '02.