Irish Wine Travel, Part 1: Our Visit to Lusca Vineyards in Ireland

Lusca Vineyards in Ireland

Lusca Vineyards in Ireland

This Sunday we’ll be celebrating our Irish heritage at the event, When Irish Wines are Smiling, up in Rutherford.

Although it’s billed as an Irish wine tasting, the wine being poured is from U.S. winemakers of Irish descent.

There’s a long tradition of Irish emigrants (known as “wine geese“) starting up wine making ventures all over the world, and subsequently wineries with a distinct Irish heritage can be found from France (Chateau Lynch Bages) to Napa (Sullivan Vineyards) to Australia (Jas Hennessy & Co.).

As we gear up for that event, we figured it was time to taste some of the REAL Irish wine that we brought back with us from the Emerald Isle. When Brian and I were planning our trip to Ireland last summer, I became obsessed with tracking down wineries, vineyards, and winemakers. I’d heard rumors that there were a few brave souls attempting to grow grapes in Ireland’s hostile climate (rain, clouds, cold, little sun) and I made it my mission to find them.

Armed with the handy reference guide, The Wines of Britain and Ireland, I tried to make contact with the owners of the 5 vineyards listed. We managed to visit 2 of them (it’s unclear if the others even exist anymore), bringing back wine from both.

David Llewellyn at Lusca Vineyards

David Llewellyn at Lusca Vineyards

Last weekend we tasted 2 selections from David Llewellyn’s Lusca Vineyard, located in the countryside of Lusk, just north of Dublin.

David started working with vineyards 10 years ago and was originally “bitten by the bug” while working with a vine grower in Germany.

In Spring 2003 he planted vines and apples on his current property in Lusk. Although he has some traditional, open-air vines which are “not very productive,” the majority of David’s vineyards are housed in tunnels. Some of the challenges he faces include grapes that rarely ripen (in open air) and crop-destroying wasps that will decimate the vineyard if they discover ripening fruit. The first commercial release from Lusca Vineyard was the 2005 vintage.

Although his wine making venture is notable, it’s a tiny fraction of David’s overall farming business, as he has quite a reputation for his apples, apple juice and cider. Last year he only made several hundred bottles of wine, which he sells at Farmer’s Markets, in a few restaurants, and directly to customers. In the near future one will also be able to purchase Lusca wines from David’s soon-to-be-launched website Fruit and Vine.

Grapes on the Vine at Lusca Vineyards, Ireland

Grapes on the Vine at Lusca Vineyards, Ireland

It was amazing for us to see the sheer numbers of grape varietals that he squeezed into his tunnels in Lusk.

David is growing Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewürztraminer, Schoenburger, New York Muscat, Pinot Noir, and Dunkelfelder under cover. According to David, these vines are “summer-protected with over-row polythene cloche.”

His open-air vines include Rondo, Regent, Phoenix, and Madeleine Angevine grapes and David has successfully produced wine from these vineyards as well (a 2006 red wine).

The wines of his that we sampled last weekend were a refreshing, lemony 2006 Lusca Sauvignon Blanc and a 2007 Lusca Cabernet/Merlot. Both were produced from grapes grown under cover and they were very limited production (80 bottles of the Sauvignon Blanc and 250 bottles of the Cabernet/Merlot were made). They were both pleasant to drink and we even enjoyed the chilled Sauvignon Blanc a day later, which Brian described as crisp and acidic, with light pear flavors.

We were so impressed by David’s passion for winemaking and he’s truly a renegade in Ireland. Since he isn’t part of a winemaking community and is making such small quantities of wine, he has to be creative about ways to save on labor and expense. For example, he has one wine label and simply hand-writes the name of the wine and vintage on each bottle. He has his own crusher and press, but doesn’t make enough wine to justify using barrels (so he uses glass or plastic containers for storage and adds oak chips to his red wines).

Lusca Irish Wine

Lusca Irish Wine

David prided himself on the fact his grapes are grown organically and are disease-free without the use of fungicides. He also doesn’t filter his wines. He recognizes that there are nay-sayers who critique his method of growing, but he pointed out that every winemaker makes choices and he questioned whether or not using fungicide could also be considered “cheating.”

Since we’re focused entirely on Pinot Noir in our own winemaking endeavors, I asked him a bit about his efforts with that grape. He told us that he just has a few Pinot Noir vines, currently not enough to make wine from. His plan is to plant more Pinot Noir and is anticipating a harvest in 2011 for wine in 2012.

To get some more perspective on winemaking in Ireland, I talked to Stephen Skelton, author of The Wines of Britain and Ireland and UK Vineyards Guide 2010. According to Stephen, there are only 3 Irish vineyards listed in his current guide. He explained that some of the older vineyards in Ireland (rumor has it that some date to the 1950s) were just not productive enough. According to Stephen, “Basically Ireland is too cool and wet. They can grow some apples there, but its mainly Bramleys which are cookers and do not require that much sugar, and growing grapes outside would be difficult.”

He added that, “Tunnels are legitimate and there is nothing in the law that says wine grapes have to be grown outside. One of the best UK reds – Beenleigh – is made from Cab and Merlot grown in tunnels.”

Kudos to David Llellewyn for his commitment to making wine in Ireland. Although most people think it’s crazy to even try, I admire his perseverance and I’m always one to champion the underdog. I’m reminded of a comment that I read about Tool front man Maynard James Keenan’s Arizona wine making project (chronicled in the film “Blood into Wine”). Someone quipped, “why doesn’t he just make wine in Napa.” Well….isn’t that the point?