Beer, wine and cider tasting events

Deveney's beer festival

Click for details of Deveney’s festival, one of the events exploring Irish and international beers.

Wine, beer, cider and food are on the menu at all sorts of public events coming up all over Ireland – from highly structured tutored tastings and dinners through to the open wander-aboutery of fairs and festivals..

Many of them are great value, and give us consumers an invaluable opportunity to sample what’s out there. As well as being fun, you could think of it as tastebud gym.

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As of October 2012, I am no longer drinks columnist with the Irish Examiner Weekend. See the home page of this blog for more details. I’m leaving much of the info I posted here in case it might be helpful. Thank you.

 

█ Fri Aug 31 – Italian night in Cork

Curious Wines kick off their incredibly busy season of courses, dinners and tastings with an Italian night from 5pm to 9pm at The Bowery on Tuckey Street in Cork. It’s hosted by Francesco Riccardi of  Borgo Magredo, one of whose proseccos I reckon is one of the best-value bubblies around.

It’s a packed programme so for now here’s just the first month’s worth.

█ Thu Sept 6 – Australian Night with Peter Perrin (Bleasdale) at
Meades 126, Oliver Plunkett St., Cork. 7pm to 10pm. Admission free.
█ Fri Sept 21 – McLaren Vale with Scott Collett (Woodstock) at
Hayfield Manor, Cork. 7.30pm-9.30pm. Tickets €15.
█ Thu Oct 4 – Tapas Night w/ Ivan Acebes García, Castelo de Medina at
Cafe Gusto, Washington St., Cork.  7.30pm-9.00pm. Admission free.
I’ll add the rest and more details later.  And see curiouswines.ie.
 

█ Wed Sept 5 – Winemaker Dinner at Donnybrook Fair

César Morales Navia, the oenological manager of Emiliana in Chile is the latest in a pretty illustrious list of winemakers to host a dinner at The Restaurant at Donnybrook Fair at 89, Morehampton Road, Dublin 4. Emiliana produces some outstanding wines, principally the biodynamic Coyam which I’ve occasionally enjoyed down the years. With a well-established nous for making good wines, including a growing acreage under organic and biodynamic grapes, Emiliana’s reputation has been heading in one direction only. Check them out yourself at stockists including O’Briens and independents, or in pleasant company with a good dinner in Donnybrook, all presented by César.

It takes place on Wednesday September 5 at 7.45pm. Book (€60 a head or €100 for two) on 01-6144849, by email at restaurant@donnybrookfair.ie or online if you click here.

█ Sept 5 to 8 – McGuigan City Vineyard, Dublin

From Wednesday to Saturday, McGuigan Wines present their bold and imaginative City Vineyard project in Dublin. Open daily from noon to 7pm, it consists of dozens of living vines transplanted to a temporary perch in Meeting House Square, Temple Bar, Dublin 2.

Also there will be members of the McGuigan family who will present tastings of quite a wide range of their wines. The family’s been in wine business for decades — first under the Penfold’s marque but more recently under their own name, building to their present status as one of the big brands on the market. They’re imported by Barry & Fitzwilliam who mainly sell their Black Label range into independents, and also by Tesco which sells a more extensive range.

The city vineyard is similar to wine dinners: to wine firms, it’s an opportunity for deep marketing; to us, it’s an unusual (and in this instance, unique) opportunity for wine-related fun. If you haven’t gotten round to visiting real working wine lands, this could be a fun and interesting introduction — I reckon it would be particularly attractive to wine fans and gardeners.

It’s free, and you can just turn up. But make sure you check the conditions beforehand on this website. For one thing, no-one under 18 is allowed in, and that includes babes in arms or in buggies. You might brush the hair too as they may be filming for broadcast, and turning up implies consent to being filmed. Also, such is the persistence of the internet, there’s still some incorrect info around the place – the vineyard has been moved from the site originally mooted, across the river at the IFSC.

█ Aug 30 to Sept 9 – Irish Craft Beer Week
█ Sept 7 to Sept 9 – Irish Craft Beer Festival

After its brief turn around the IFSC, the annual Irish Craft Beer Festival returns to RDS in Dublin from September 7 to 9, 2012.

Beoir Chorca Dhuibhne

Beoir Chorca Dhuibhne, one of the breweries pouring good beers and ciders from cask, keg and bottle at the RDS.

This year, the bash in Dublin is the culmination of the first Craft Beer Week when participating pubs, off-licences and restaurants nationwide will have special offers, tastings and expert talks on Irish craft beer. The website below has details of both the week and the weekend festival.

At the RDS event, more than 20 of our craft breweries and cider producers will be showcasing beers and ciders for you to taste. They’re joined this year for the first time by some guest breweries from out foreign — a brilliant move in my opinion, as I think it’s vital for beer fans and brewers alike to keep comparing notes with the wider beer world as we reinvent the traditions we nearly lost.

The whole effect at the RDS is a bit like an Irish take on a Bierhalle, complete with live music and artisan food stalls. At the time of writing, the Irish contingent comprises O’Hara’s, Dungarvan, White Gypsy, Eight Degrees, Trouble, Franciscan Well, Porter House, Dingle and Beoir Chorca Dhuibhne aka West Kerry Brewery. There may be more.

The festival returns to the RDS again this year.

Guest breweries include Sierra Nevada and Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale. And the night before the festival proper, there will be a beer and food pairing event exploring the character of Irish beers and the food they go best with.
Festival tickets start at €10 per day and you can get them at participating pubs and shops or at Ticketmaster.
Tickets for the beer and food pairing evening on September 6 are available directly from info@IrishCraftBeerFestival.com.
 For more information on both the Irish Craft Beer Festival and Irish Craft Beer Week, see their website at IrishCraftBeerFestival.com.

█ Sun Sept 9 – Clare comes to East Cork

At 6pm on Sunday September 9 at Ballymaloe, Winemaker Dave Palmer, Skillogalee Wines, Clare Valley, South Australia, and Birgitta Curtin, Burren Smokehouse, Co Clare come together to present their respective wine and food under the title ‘It’s a long way from Clare to here – A Taste of Clare in East Cork’.  Get tickets (€18) and more information from 021 4652531,  colm@ballymaloe.ie or www.ballymaloe.ie.  Other events there include…

[] Sun Sept 16, 4.30pm – New Zealand winemakers Larry McKenna, Escarpment Wines, Martinborough & John Hancock, Trinity Hill Wines, Hawkes Bay present a tutored tasting of their wines (€15).
[] Thurs, Sept 27 Margaret River experience – surfing on Shanagarry Strand and cricket with the East Cork Cricket Club, followed by wine tasting and food with Australian winemaker David Hohnen, Ted Berner’s Wildside fire-cooking, and music. €35 all in.

As of October 2012, I am no longer drinks columnist with the Irish Examiner Weekend. See the home page of this blog for more details. I’m leaving much of the info I posted here in case it might be helpful. Thank you.

 

█ Sept 13 to 22* – Oktoberfest Beag, Cork

Kudos to whoever came up with the name. The annual event at the former Beamish & Crawford Brewery on South Main Street in Cork centres on Paulaner, one of the six Munich breweries which host the original Oktoberfest in their home city. And compared to that blow-out, it is small (‘beag’ in Irish). But it’s not to be sneezed at either, being eight days of, well, beer, food and drindl-und-lederhosen-themed entertainment.

It’s €11 in, including booking fee, but you also have the option of reserving seats (which must be taken up by 7pm). For instance, the Gold ticket for €26 gets you in, two drink vouchers, a substantial dish and guaranteed seating. You need a minimum of six people to book a table.

We here in Ireland and Britain tend to associate the great German breweries with just one or two styles (such as hefe and kristall) but they typically make a whole spectrum including seasonal one-off brews. Happily, the choice in off-licences has been flowering. And events like Oktoberfest Beag provide a unique opportunity to try out a wider range. As of now, as well of course as wine and soft drinks, the website only mentions the special Paulaner Oktoberfest Bier, and Paulaner Weissebier. By the latter I presume they mean the one we’re most familiar with, the naturally-cloudy Hefe Weissbier Naturtrüb.  I expect though that Oktoberfest Beag will in fact run out a wider selection of Paulaner’s dozen or so brews. If so, don’t pass up the opportunity!

* The festival runs from Sept 13 to 22 with the exception of Tues and Wed Sept 18 and 19, when it’s closed. Opening hours are 5pm to 10pm each day, apart from both Saturdays when it opens an hour earlier. For more information, phone 0867248284 (9.30am to 5pm), email reservations@oktoberfestbeag.ie and see oktoberfestbeag.ie.

█ Sept 15 – Deveney’s Beer festival

Deveney’s are clearly trying to put me off the scent. Their fourth annual craft beer festival has a new name, new venue and new date – but I’m on to them, the rascals. It takes place this year at Pembroke Square in Dundrum Town Centre on Saturday September 15 from 2.30pm to 10pm. It’s ticket-only and, naturally, over-18s only. But you knew that.

One of the early adopters promoting Irish and world craft beers on a large scale, they promise to have hundreds of craft beers from around the world on offer in the garden marquee, live music, and beer-friendly food from some of the best restaurants in the area including Siam Thai, Harvey Nichols, Cortina’s Mexican, Wagamama and, of course, The Port House. Tickets (€20) include a festival tankard; three beer vouchers and a festival booklet. Book now at www.beerfestival.ie or their blog; by phone on 01-2984288; or in 3-D by dropping into Deveney’s of Dundrum at 31, Main Street, Dundrum, D16.

You can also get tickets at these off-licences and wine shops – Redmond’s of Ranelagh; Deveney’s of Rathmines; Jus de Vin Portmarnock; The Corkscrew; McHugh’s on Malahide Road; The Vintry, Rathgar and Martin’s of Fairview.

█  Fri Sept 21– Beer club in Cork

Paddy Cullen at the No 21 Off-Licence on Coburg Street (at the foot of St Patrick’s Hill) in Cork is still mulling over which beers to sample at the next meeting of the No 21 Beer Club at 7pm on Sept 21.
To give you an idea of what they do, last time round it was a tutored tasting led by Phil Tavey of distributor Four Corners of six beers from the USA (Brooklyn Brewery and Magic Hat) and Scotland (Brewdog).

Get more info and make your own suggestions in store or by emailing Paddy at no21offlicence@gmail.com or on Twitter at @no21cork.

As of October 2012, I am no longer drinks columnist with the Irish Examiner Weekend. See the home page of this blog for more details. I’m leaving much of the info I posted here in case it might be helpful. Thank you.

█ Sat Sept 22 – Wine fundamentals in Cork

L’Atitude 51 wine café is kicking off a series of Wine Fundamentals sessions in its beautiful  upstairs room overlooking the River Lee on four successive Saturday afternoons from September 22 at 3.30pm. The price per session is €25, or book all four for €90. You don’t need any prior knowledge to take part. Full details are in a PDF on their new website at  www.latitude51.ie, phone 021-2390219, email them at info@latitude51.ie or just drop in to l’Atitude 51, 1 Union Quay, Cork.

█ Wed Sept 26 – Glassware comparative tasting

The size and shape of your glass has an enormous influence on your wine. Really. There’s more about that over on this post including the reasons I’m more than happy with one range of glasses costing only a fiver a go. But if you can stretch to €60, I think you’ll enjoy and benefit from a glassware comparative tasting hosted by Riedel from 6.30pm at The Miele Gallery, Citywest, Dublin 24. The ticket price (€60 from Mitchells on 01 6125540 or www.mitchellandson.com) includes a Riedel Vinum tasting set which normally costs about €96 apparently. 

█ Weekend beer fest

This weekend (Friday to Sunday August 24 to 26, 2012) an Irish Craft Beerfest takes place in Doolin, Co Clare. Participants include Carlow Brewing; Dungarvan; Eight Degrees; Franciscan Well; Stonewell Cider; Trouble Brewing; White Gypsy. Tickets €5 at the door. Larks and antics a-baa. For more, see their website at www.irishcraftbeerfestival.com.

Whipping the herring

As of October 2012, I am no longer drinks columnist with the Irish Examiner Weekend. If that’s why you’re here, please see the home page of this blog for more details. Thank you.

ONCE upon a time, the butchers’ apprentices in parts of Ireland would mark Easter Sunday — and the end of a slack month of Lenten no-meat misery — with music, mirth and wild celebrations. Drink may have been taken too. A fiesta always comes after a fast of course, but I imagine there would have been an added cause for celebration for people whose livelihood depended on the consumption of meat. The picture here records the tradition in Cork in the mid-18th century. The centrepiece of the festivities involved attaching a herring to the top of a long pole which was then paraded around the city walls, affording the local urchins (basically me, 250 years ago) an opportunity to flake the bejaysus out of it like some piscine piñata.

“Whipping The Herring…” at the Crawford gallery.

This tiny but delightful painting, Whipping The Herring Out of Town (c1760) is by Nathanial Grogan, and it’s in the collection of the Crawford Art Gallery on Emmet Place in Cork. The picture was featured in the exhibition at the Crawford, A Question of Attribution: The Arcadian Landscapes of Nathaniel Grogan and John Butts which ended on April 7, 2012. To the best of my knowledge, it’s on permanent display in the gallery. Well it’s always there any time I look, on my way around the contemporary exhibitions, or on my way to check in on the Penrose collection. Go take a look.

I warn you, Whipping the Herring… is tiny. Arguably, you’ll see more detail in the excellently-photographed pic on the Crawford’s site and in their catalogue, which you can buy. But then, no matter how slick a recording is, you just can’t beat a live gig. So if you find yourself in Cork, please do go see it.

The picture is so vivid you can almost hear the racket. I love the detail. Walking while playing the fiddle at the head of a parade is no mean feat. One old fella who should know better is drawing back his cudgel to take a good swipe at the fish. I imagine the child with his back to us is about to burst into tears, terrified by the crazy, noisy procession bearing down on him. The woman at the lower left, who seems to have been upended by a runaway dog (and is that a pig running alongside?) is pure Beryl Cook, legs akimbo. The same beasts are being pursued by a man in a natty red coat who seems to be convulsed with mirth and horror at the same time. Think of all of them the next time you see some fella, wearing a traffic cone on his head, cavorting in the Berwick fountain on the Grand Parade at midnight.

All of this contained in a picture smaller than the sleeve of a 10-inch EP.

Despite the energy and chaos, the arched building you see in the background is an accurate representation of the city’s south gate, which survives only in the name of South Gate Bridge. The first picture of the bridge on that Cork City Library link is also by Nat Grogan – a much more sober daytime illustration, complete with one of his signature flourishes, a romantic John Hinde-style overhanging tree, on the right hand side.

Apart from the river and the bridge, it doesn’t look much like today’s view. To orient yourself in that picture, you’re looking East from the intersection of Proby’s Quay, Crosse’s Green and French’s Quay — with St Fin Barre’s Cathedral behind you, Elizabeth Fort to your right, and George’s Quay and the Quay Co-Op further down the river. To your left is the site of the former Beamish & Crawford brewery which is tipped to be redeveloped as a concert venue.

The spot depicted in the painting is close to two historic sites – the thriving port city of Cork’s Viking era which was trading internationally 1,000 years ago, and which was only discovered during archaeological excavations from 2003 to 2005, and Sir Henry’s nightclub. Yes, I will post a pic from the same spot when I get round to taking it.

The Irish tradition depicted by Grogan reminds me of a Spanish custom which still takes place each year at the start of Lent. Around 1810, Goya recorded on canvas the Burial Of The Sardine parade in Madrid. The Wikipedia entry here includes a photo of the painting. Well worth a look.

You can find out more about Grogan and his picture of Cork’s whipping the herring tradition here on www.crawfordartgallery.ie. ♦

As of October 2012, I am no longer drinks columnist with the Irish Examiner Weekend. See the home page of this blog for more details. I’m leaving much of the info I posted here in case it might be helpful. Thank you.

Edit: I added a few lines about Whipping The Herring to a post about a wine and beer tasting before Easter this year (2012). The tradition deserves a bit more attention, so I’m re-posting an expanded version above. For this weekend’s post about Elbow Lane Angel Stout, click here https://blakecreedon.wordpress.com/2012/06/21/cheers-for-a-cracking-new-stout/

Reeling in the years 2012

As of October 2012, I am no longer drinks columnist with the Irish Examiner Weekend. See the home page of this blog for more details. Thank you.

IF you haven’t already seen it, I’d recommend you download and read The misuse of alcohol and other drugs, a report released this week by the Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children.

As the name suggests, it has a wide focus. Among its recommendations are stricter controls on prescription drugs, and funding for drug and alcohol rehabilitation schemes. But as you’d expect from a wine blogger, my main focus is on the parts of the report dealing with alcohol.

Alcohol consumption in Ireland has gone up by 231% since 1960. Source: http://stats.oecd.org/Index.aspx

Some of the recommendations have hit the headlines but it’s really worth reading the full report as it delivers a more rounded sense of the submissions the committee heard, lays out some key evidence, provides useful graphics which can help our understanding of the issues, and contains comprehensive references/links to further relevant stats, audio etc.

Retailers

One of the most controversial recommendations (11) suggests the government should consider an “outright ban on the sale of alcohol in certain outlets”.

But the more specific proposal in this regard is (10) for legislation to “ban the presentation and sale of alcoholic products alongside groceries, confectionary and fuel”.

This is the ‘garages-and-supermarkets’ bit you may have heard about in the news.

While on the face of it, this may look like an enormously radical change, it’s little more than a reversion to the situation that prevailed a few decades ago. The recommendation doesn’t suggest firms operating supermarkets shouldn’t run off-licences, and in practical terms it could mean little more than alcohol being hived off into an area separate from the groceries in supermarkets. This is pretty reasonable really, giving alcohol its proper place as a speciality rather than normalised as a shopping trolley staple.

However I think the 12th recommendation — “that the Government prohibit the practice of retail deliveries of alcoholic products directly to consumers’ homes” — may be a mistake. I believe it’s inspired at least in part by the shocking images from a sting operation in August 2010 on RTÉ’s Prime Time.

That film showed how four off-licences and two supermarkets had sent round alcohol to people who certainly looked like under-18s without checking for identification. The practice is also being targeted by Garda undercover sting operations.

However it’s important to distinguish between such a dial-up booze taxi and the activities of online stores occasionally mentioned in this column which take orders by credit or debit card and deliver wine and beer days later. I see little connection between the online wine stores mentioned on this blog and the booze taxi scandal. Is this because those online wine shops appeal to middle-class folk like me? Captured by the posh? Moi? Don’t think so. No, really. No, it’s because factors including price and the time lag between order and delivery are likely to make them far less appealing to underage drinkers. I’m not convinced anything would be achieved by banning them that wouldn’t be done better by ensuring they’re regulated.

A majority of the committee commended the government’s plan to indroduce minimum pricing, with a minority proposing tax increases, the proceeds to be ring-fenced for alcohol addiction services. The committee also backed a recommendation by the chairman Jerry Buttimer TD to end VAT refunds on below-cost sales. It came as a surprise to many including me that the state was, I presume unintentionally, subsidising some retailers’ sales.

The Nanny State

Inevitably, some of the committee’s recommendations, and the outlook expressed here, will be ridiculed as advocating ‘the nanny state’: folks being coddled and controlled by big brother. Well fine. Let’s look at the world from that perspective…

The Nanny Sector

Instead of the nanny state we have the nanny sector. The retail and drinks lobbies have persuaded the state to privatise much of its policy on how alcohol is advertised and sold, along with winning concessions on matters such as store size and opening hours. And then there’s the advertising and sponsorship. The ‘nannying’ we get from state bodies such as safefood.ie shrinks to infinitesimal dimensions when compared with the wall of communication funded by the powerful, largely self-regulated, alcohol industry. It’s been building its brands by advertising to impressionable young people. For many children and teens, some of the most exciting, engaging experiences are coming to them with alcohol stapled on.  The afternoon movies over Christmas on UTV were sponsored by an alcoholic cider. Matches at the most recent soccer World Cup were bookended by comedy sketches advertising a beer. The very name of Europe’s premier rugby competition is a brand of beer.

Here’s the committee’s recommendation (4)

that the Government explore the option of a ban on all retail advertising relating to the discounting of alcoholic products, a ban on the advertisement of alcoholic products on television before 9PM, and any advertisement of alcohol products on social networking websites (these bans to be given legislative standing).

In what way is this nannying? What will be missing from your life if you see fewer advertisements for drink?

If such advertising weren’t so powerful, they wouldn’t be spending so much money on it. Young people also can’t help but notice the ubiquitous availability of alcohol as part of the weekly shop — which helps normalise drink as a somehow inevitable part of grown-up life.

What happens next?

The report is now being considered by junior Health Minister Roisin Shortall. But she doesn’t get to sit on the couch and just read the report. Not by a long chalk. Don’t forget that various interested parties will be lobbying hard right now, now that change is in the air. The obvious lobbying battle line (alcohol-industry-versus-regulation) is likely to be blurred, and the hardest skirmishes may well be fought by the various sectors of that industry trying to ensure they don’t lose advantage to the others. From their persepective, it’s all about access to markets. The one justification you won’t hear for such opposition is ‘because we profit from it’.

If I knew how, I’d add a countdown clock to this blog. It’d be interesting to see, starting from the publicaton date of the committee’s report, how many days til we read press reports about the disastrous impact alcohol regulation would have on employment.

If I do get round to it, my countdown clock will be accompanied by a wry visual metaphor– a picture of a telegraph operator protesting against the advent of fax, email, SMS and social media and their effect on jobs in that now obsolete medium. 

Here’s an idea: Public policy in areas fundamental to our wellbeing such as health, education, crime, justice and welfare – should never depend how many jobs are in it.

To anyone workng in the alcohol or retail fields who feels I am being glib about the prospects for your business or your job, please be assured that is not the case. Take it from someone working in the print media: things change. It may even be for the better. And anyway, the liberalised regime of retailing and promoting alcohol in this country right now is an recent invention. I don’t recall anyone in the 1990s protesting that their sons or daughters (perhaps you) couldn’t get a job in the alcohol industry just because the local garage wasn’t allowed stock it, or your local sports club wasn’t allowed promote it. One day soon we will regard the ubiquitous alcohol policy as a flash in the pan – as brief and unwise as prohibition.  

Read the industry submissions included in the report and you’ll get a sense of the lobbying. For instance, the National Off-Licence Association is promoting measures which will make it more difficult for supermarkets to mop up market share. The supermarkets in turn — who need no lessons in lobbying from anyone — will be fighting to water down any proposals which impact on their business. I presume  other interest groups such as online wine traders are getting together right now to contact the minister. And on it goes. And it’s in that melee that policy will be formed.

Reeling In The Years

I’m hardly alone in suffering occasional pangs of embarrassment-by-proxy while watching Reeling In The Years on TV. You get that sharp pain when you spot among the video clips from yesteryear the often bizarre clothing, regrettable haircuts, ashtrays in the maternity wards, and members of our ruling class in mullets and kipper ties talking up the property bubble. The blithe reassurances that, yes, it was a good idea to hand our power to churches and companies and forego democratic oversight and regulation of them. And there’s us voting for them. What the hell were we thinking?

Well here’s a handy hint. If you’re wondering about the wisdom of anything from a political policy to a haircut — now, today — just cast your mind forward and imagine how it would look featured ten or twenty years hence on Reeling In The Years 2012.

With regard to alcohol, I figure there’s a good chance we’ll be pretty embarrassed. The way we drink, and especially the way we allow the industry to behave in 2012, will look wildly inappropriate when we look back at it a decade hence. With the lucidity of hindsight, we’ll look back in wonder at the way we handed over power to a small few stakeholders in the alcohol and retail industries, and it’ll all look utterly mad. Here’s a snippet of what we’re likely to say…

“Self-regulation? Given the lessons we’d already learnt from what that kind of power did to the financial industry? What the hell were we thinking?”

We ought to commend this Oireachteas committee, and any governement with the courage to drive on with the broad thrust of its report. As I mentioned above, there will be powerful groups who make their money from alcohol lobbying the minister. So who’s missing from her table? Most of us, really — disenfranchised by our silence, left reading page after page of court reports about alcohol-related violence and accidents. Because right now. whether we like it or not, that’s what’s ‘normal’.

The advertising, availability and display of alcohol aren’t the only factors contributing to the abuse of alcohol. But they are among the few in our direct political control. That’s our power which, for a generaton, we’ve ceded to private firms for profit. If you welcome the partial rolling back of ubiquitous alcohol and alcohol advertising, and taking power back from sectoral interests, you might consider contacting your TD or the minister to give them your backing.  ♦

As of October 2012, I am no longer drinks columnist with the Irish Examiner Weekend. See the home page of this blog for more details. Thank you.

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The skeptical wine lover

See below for a link to Tim Minchin's White Wine In The Sun.

I WAS delighted to raise a glass recently in honour of Cork Skeptics‘ first birthday. Part of the worldwide skeptics (or sceptics) movement promoting critical thinking, they meet monthly at Blackrock Castle Observatory and kindly invited me to their December event to present a talk, ‘Suck It And See’.

That title is intended to suggest that our best understanding of wine comes from our own senses, unmediated by a host of other voices from advertising through to the opinions of independent wine columnists and bloggers like me. The subheading, ‘everything we think we know about wine is wrong’ is a deliberately provocative overstatement…  But it can be a useful motto to adopt, leaving you refreshed, open-minded, and prepared for a delightful new journey into wonderful wine.

I said then I’d post links to some of the key issues I covered that evening. Here they are. Yes it’s a very long post (and it’s likely to get longer). But firstly, this isn’t a hurrah-here’s-a-wine-you-might-like kind of post and many of the points do need all that background and context. Secondly, this (plus the posts I link to) really comprise a compliation albubm plus extended remixes. I’ve mentioned almost all of the points, in one form or another, in my column in the Irish Examiner and on this blog.

Comments, questions and challenges are of course always welcome —but particularly to this post, and to the links on it.

Some background

The psychology and physiology of misunderstanding is a rich field, ranging from Richard Dawkins pointing out our difficulty in grasping evolutionary time, through to the exploration of the issues on Dr Brian Hughes’ blog. I don’t think anyone’s suggesting we should (or could) shake off our all-too-human perceptual shortcomings which seem to be a hardwired component of our makeup. But we can acknowledge and understand, and thereby work around, them. The components of misunderstanding — such as unwarranted or unquestioning faith in authority figures; misattribution; mistaking coincidence for causality — these are lenses which can interrupt or distort our understanding of the world around us. And, specifically in relation to wine, they can distort our perception of quality and value.

Poster by Alan Barrett

Cork Skeptics

There’s a second chapter to all this: the sometimes well-meaning and mistaken, but often deliberate, manipulation of our wobbly perception by others. Some newspapers profitably agitate readers with nonsensical stories which you could broadly divide into yay (something will improve your health) and boo (something will damage your health). Such stories are often entirely incorrect, or at least so misreported and decontextualised as to be even worse than lies — true-but-misleading. The same media also often presents specious made-up stuff from press releases as fact when reason suggests they know better.

And it’s not just the media. Among the matters previously covered on this blog are, for instance, the way retailers’ sales can distort our perception of value; how heavy, carefully-positioned marketing spend keeps upmarket wines such as Champagne high in our affections; and research suggesting we’re positively influenced by higher prices; a refreshing dose of reality from an unexpected source acknowledging the glut on world markets which suggests that broadly speaking the price of many wines may be artificially high. And here is an occasionally-updated post you may find useful for reference purposes — a list of the most common wine myths you may encounter regarding the likes of organic wine, sulphites and more.

The foregoing plus the following new links set out to illustrate some of our perceptual limitations and how they can be manipulated. And the underlying point of all this? I adore wine and want to help clear away some of the guff that surrounds it so we can drink better, and better value, in 2012. Happy New Year!

Start here

Dr Ben Goldacre is one of the most prominent debunkers of media pseudoscience. On August 7, 2009, in the wake of the swine flu panic, he appeared on BBC Radio 4’s satirical news/comedy programme The Now Show. In less than six minutes – along with the show’s anchors, Laura Shavin, Steve Punt and Hugh Dennis – he delivers a tour de force of what you could call fact-based comedy, filleting the travesty that is much of popular media science reporting.

Dr Ben Goldacre

Click to hear Dr Ben Goldacre's tour de force on a BBC Radio 4 comedy show.

It’s not all fun and games, and you may be angered by some of the evidence he provides of borderline psychotic media irresponsibility. Ultimately, the clip is an excellent piece of public service focusing well-deserved derision on the crap we let the media get away with.

The audio clip here on YouTube doesn’t even mention wine. But go on. It really is the best place to start. Follow that link and rejoin me here when you’re done.

Roll up! Roll up! Getcha magic beans!

Everyone from Sense About Science to the National Consumer Agency keeps reminding us that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably isn’t. True that is. Given that it’s panto season I might add that anyone who’s been to see Jack And The Beanstalk will know magic beans don’t work or, at best, are an expensive rip-off.
Click here to read my post on a palpably ridiculous comedy spoof dead-serious articles in two newspapers about a magic bean machine that will make your wine better. Really. It’s tempting to comment that ‘you couldn’t make this stuff up’. But they do.

Those wines are rubbish. But ours are fab. And good for you.

The belief that there is some kind of class system of wine wholesalers and retailers is, I believe, one of the worst and most persistent wine myths.

Wineupmanship: Pay us more than you have to, and look happy about it.

This is suggested to me by, for instance, wine fans practically apologising for buying wine in a supermarket or corner shop rather than a specialist wine store — even though they’re quite often buying better, or at least the same, as they would in a wine specialist. This impression is based on anecdotal evidence and at a later date I’ll look around for harder evidence of it.

While I percieve this bias being projected by us consumers, I suspect some wine traders may well practice wineupmanship, taking advantage of this misperception about the quality of their wares. For now though here’s an extreme example of wineupmanship you might enjoy.

Media boo!

The Channel 4 wine scandal

As a counterpart to media yay! (nonsense ranging from generic wine-is-good-for-you yarns to the magic bean machine press release above) the feral end of the media business loves media boo! stories too.

Dispatches, the investigative current affairs television strand on Britain’s Channel 4, has a reputation for tackling important issues head-on including, for instance, going undercover at a residential care home to expose abuses. On September 5, 2008, it broadcast a documentary named What’s in your wine? which set out to expose a scandal that we consumers ought to know about.

Click to view Channel 4's Dispatches programme on wine, presented by Jane Moore.

The programme does indeed point towards some issues which should cause us sceptical consumers concern. But it is so thoroughly compromised that it’s worse than useless. I do recommend viewing the programme, and I’d welcome your comments below. At a later date I intend putting up here a timeline answering each point raised by the programme. Some, such as the litter-strewn Champagne vineyard, do cause me concern. But the programme-makers have as many questions to answer as do the winemakers.

For now, let’s look at some of the broad issues that undermine it, starting with the promises made in the Channel 4 press release which should raise eyebrows even before you see a single frame of the documentary.

With wine consumption in the UK hitting record levels, Jane Moore investigates the many different substances — including fish and dairy products — that can be used to produce wine but which rarely appear on the label of the average bottle.

Anyone who has attended the most basic wine course will chuckle at this paragraph. Because they will know that since time immemorial, naturally-occurring compounds derived from sources such as fish (isinglass), egg (albumen) and clay (bentonite) have been used to refine and filter wines. Big deal. But those with enough interest and time on their hands to sign up for Wine 101 amount to a tiny minority of the wine-drinking population. And this TV programme which purports to inform and educate the public is achieving precisely the opposite, scaring people unnecessarily by couching widely-available uncontroversial facts in terms normally reserved for startling revelations.

Let’s try a more calm approach.

One of the great benefits of EU membership has been the introduction of standardised mandatory labelling on food and other packaging. I think the labelling information on wine could be much better: Processes such as chaptalisation (adding sugar) and the use of fining agents should be disclosed. And in particular, I think the presence of that most misunderstood of additives, sulphites / sulfites, should be disclosed by means of a parts-per-million measure rather than just blankly as “contains sulphites” (see the ‘Contains Sulphites’ entry in Wine Myths for more). Isn’t that a reasonable proposition? A wine buyer for the Co-Op retail chain makes similar positive suggestions in the programme. But, embedded as they are in the shriekingly fearful tone of the programme, such reasonable points may be misinterpreted as suggesting there’s some sort of wine conspiracy going on. Let’s go back to that statement from Channel 4.

The health benefits of the occasional glass of red wine are widely acknowledged but Dispatches reveals how a great deal of the wine we consume is enhanced, sweetened or flavoured, creating a drink that one critic describes as no better than, ‘an alcoholic cola’.

“Widely acknowledged” eh? Actually, the health benefits of an occasional glass of wine have never been demonstrated. And nor has the opposite contention. Again I refer you to the Wine Myths post. That sort of assertion is understandable at the water cooler. But this TV programme purports to have expertise in divining the truth about wine and informing us of it, and really should stick to the evidence rather than parading this wilfully ignorant OMGism.

The ‘alcoholic cola’ bit is a quote from veteran wine writer Malcolm Gluck. Which brings me to two aspects of the editing which oversell and undermine the film.
Selective editing. The film includes soundbites from two luminaries — former Guardian wine critic Malcolm Gluck and winemaker Randall Grahm. There are brief clips of both, their tone broadly condemnatory of much modern winemaking practice. But each soundbite is bracketed by voiceover from Jane Moore which seems to be levelling more serious charges. Further, we don’t get to hear the full interviews with either. Indeed, not once are we allowed hear the questions that elicited those quotes — not a major problem in a light entertainment show. But hardly best practice in a groundbreaking current affairs programme.

What did they really say? In full I mean. And what questions and prompts were put to them? Any chance Channel 4 would put the raw video online?

I believe their quotes were deliberately taken out of context, that the broad thrust of their comments was not to suggest that any, or even many, wines contain dangerous nasties, but rather to distinguish between the upmarket wines they might advocate, and more popularly-priced ones. It’s perfectly reasonable for them to profess that the latter are not good quality or that they’d prefer not to drink them. But that’s a world away from the panicky feeling induced by the frantic tone set by the two framing devices — Jane Moore’s commentary, and that wretched soundtrack.

[By the way – Apart from one accessibly-priced mourvèdre, I have never bought wines made by Randall Graham. I’ve tasted a few down the years and they did indeed rock, but they are way outside my price bracket. To give you an indication, here’s a link to the nearest stockist of their wines I could find.]

Manipulative audio. Have you ever trawled YouTube for funny movie mashups? You should. Amateur auteurs take clips of popular movie and television hits, edit them together and post them as faux trailers for strange new imagined hybrid movies. Among the most popular are Sesame Street muddled up with Mean Streets (there’s a lot of swearing and violence in that one so you may want to avoid showing it when children are around) and classic horror The Shining as a romantic comedy. They’re a lot of fun – and they’re also terrific examples of how easy it is to manipulate meaning, and the viewer’s emotions, with a soundtrack.

If it weren’t so grossly misleading the public, the Dispatches wine programme would be almost as funny as those mashups. The film is accompanied throughout by a soundscape which is, frankly, distressing. Such manipulation has no place in any reasonable assessment of the issues involved.

But my ‘favourite’ sequence in the whole show is the startling revelation [cue spooky music; odd camera angles] made by a SCIENTIST [man in white coat; test tubes] about the level of residual sugar in various Champagnes and sparkling wines…

Good God, what a reveal! High fives all round the production office! We nailed Big Wine, eh?

Problem is, it’s not a revelation. The sugar levels in various wines including those bubblies are widely available; none of the ‘tests’ fouund any discrepancies from the stated levels; and not only does the process leading to that sugar’s presence in sparklers have a name (‘dosage’), but if you visit any winery making a champenoise sparkling wine, they will actually show the process to you as they proudly demonstrate the intricate business they have to set about to make this fascinating and often delicious wine style.

This programme has to be the most most cynical confection of weaselly, misleading crap about wine I’ve ever had the displeasure to endure. But there’s a positive message for us — we shouldn’t believe stuff just because it’s on telly, in a newspaper, or on a blog including this one: if they don’t provide clear evidence, what they’re saying is quite likely to be untrue or misleading.

And finally…

I’ll add more links as they crop up. For now though, let’s leave the topic as we began it, with comedy, sort-of. There’s a wave of top-class comics such as Dara Ó Briain who riff on and ridicule pseudoscience to devastating effect. Among the foremost is Tim Minchin, whose appearance at Cork Opera House this year was promoted by Cork Skeptics.

The Australian comic’s appeal to both our reason and to our funnybone is certainly reflected in this song, White Wine In The Sun. But it’s also a moving paen to the Christmas spirit, and an expression of love to those closest to us — and enjoying good wine in their company. I think that’s what wine should be all about. ♦

A carrot for Rudolph, a bottle for Santy

Click to browse 27 of Ireland's craft beers

WHAT are you leaving out for Santy? The kettle plus a teabag is a good option, as is a warming drop of port. But there’s never been a better time to choose a slice of cake and a bottle of good beer for the great man’s brief pit-stop. A growing number of bottle shops are stocking a wide variety of good Irish stouts and ales — and if you look harder you’ll find a handful of excellent, rich, limited edition winter warmers which seem particularly apt for this time of year. I detail two of them below.

I’d add to that list an all-year-round brew, the terrific savoury Porterhouse Oyster Stout (33ml / ABV 5.2% / around €1.90) which I think is perfect for when you want just a single bottle. Stockists include Drinkstore.ie online or in their store in Stoneybatter, Deveney’s of Dundrum, and Celtic Whiskey ShopHere’s a mouthwatering glimpse of Irish beers available to buy online at Drinkstore.

A hamper of Eight Degrees beer and glasses at Bradley's

Some stores are putting together ready-made hampers and some, including Deveney’s of Dundrum and my nearest beer-a-rama, Bradley’s on North Main Street in Cork, can deliver them too. Each stocks an enormous range of beers from hereabouts. If you’ve time, why not drop in and put together a mixed case yourself? You could pick one theme to explore – for instance all WISE pale ales. Or stouts. One tip though: include at least two of each. It’s always far more interesting if you’re able to revisit one that took your fancy, or pass on the second bottle to someone you think might appreciate it.
Here are two winter beers I’d recommend (These are revised versions of my beer-of-the-week reviews originally published in the Irish Examiner Weekend).

Eight Degrees Brewing
A Winter’s Ale

7.5% ABV / 330ml / about €2.50
eightdegrees.ie

In this assuredly rich and warming seasonal brew, the  Mitchelstown-based brewers have lifted a rich, earthy ale with orange, cloves and spiky star anise from Green Saffron.

Eight Degrees A Winter's Ale

Eight Degrees' A Winter's Ale

Eight Degrees off-licence stockists

Cork Bradleys Off License, North Main Street, Cork
Number 21, Patricks Hill, Cork
Reidys Supervalu, Mitchelstown, Co Cork
Centra, Mitchelstown, Co Cork
Costcutter, Amber Garage, Fermoy, Co Cork
Brookes Supervalu, Youghal, Co Cork
Donegal Dicey Reillys Bar & Off licence, Ballyshannon, Donegal
Dublin OBriens off-licences
Celtic Whisky Shop, 27/28 Dawson Street, D2
Deveneys Dundrum, 31 Main Street, Dundrum, D14
Deveneys Rathmines, 16 Upper Rathmines, D6
D Six Off licence, 163 Harold’s Cross Road, D6
Drinkstore.ie, 87 Manor St, D7
Martins Offlicence, 11 Marino Mart, Fairview, D3
McHughs Offlicence, 57 Kilbarrack Rd, D5
McHughs Offlicence, 25e Malahide Rd, Dublin
Mortons, 15-17 Dunville St, Ranelagh, D6
Next Door, 23-25 Sundrive Road, Kimmage, D12
Next Door, Old Swords Road, Santry , D9
Next Door, 294/298 Harolds Cross Road, D6
Redmonds of Ranelagh, 25 Ranelagh, D6
Galway Cases Wine Warehouse, Tuam Rd
McCambridges of Galway, Shop St
Laois Egans Offlicence, Peppers Court, Portlaoise
Limerick Desmonds Next Door, Raheen, Limerick
Waterford Number Five Off license, 5 Tyrone Rd, Lismore Park, Waterford City
Ardkeen Quality Food Store, Dunmore Road, Waterford
Wicklow Hollands Fine Wines, 78/ 80 Main Street, Bray, Co. Wicklow.

Dungarvan Brewing Company
Coffee and Oatmeal Stout 2011

4.5% ABV / 500ml / €2.99
dungarvanbrewingcompany.com

I’m hardly the only beer fan to gingerly sniff at beers with added extras, as I’ve encountered some pretty OTT numbers dominated, rather than supported by, flavours such as vanilla. But in this one, the natural savoury flavour palette of stout is augmented with a lick of coffee, and its texture boosted by the addition of creamy oats. Both additions are subtle and assured, and the whole effect is a gorgeous, rich middleweight stout.

Dungarvan Coffee and Oatmeal Stout

Dungarvan Coffee and Oatmeal Stout

Dungarvan Brewing Company off-licence stockists


Cork
Bradley’s Off Licence
McGovern’s Ballyvolane
Abbott Alehouse
Barry’s Off Licence Midleton
Dublin
Redmond’s of Ranelagh
Drinkstore, Stoneybatter
Deveney’s Dundrum
McHugh’s Malahide Road and Kilbarrack
Sweeney’s Glasnevin
Baggot St Wines
Martins of Fairview
Dungarvan Tommy Power’s
Twomey’s Eurospar
Limerick
Desmond’s of Limerick
Waterford
World Wide Wines
Wicklow
Hollands of Bray.  ♦

How to use a wine tasting

THIS picture sums up what faces us in the wine shop, off-licence, or big weekly-shop supermarket — a dizzying array of wines, a whole heap of mixed messages, and precious little categorisation of it beyond price, colour, and country of origin.

So which one, if any, to buy? The most obvious answer is arguably as unhelpful as the question, because there’s a veritable cacophony of opinion out there, from tips offered by bloggers and columnists like me, through the recommendations of friends and colleagues, to the suggestions made by the people who make and market wine, all happy to suggest what you might drink…

There’s a far better answer out there, and I can assure you it’s a lot more fun.

The single greatest favour we wine fans can do for ourselves is to stop depending on the suggestions of others, and instead to learn how to make a fair guess about what’s being offered by different grapes, regions, and styles in all those bottles.

If you feel a bit lost in the world of wine, there’s a lot to be said for signing up for an introductory wine course, especially one that abides by the standards of WSET. But, with or without such grounding, the single best way to get great value, and buy the best wines you can afford, is to taste lots of wines.

Tasting lots of wines side-by-side will help you snout out a few specific bottles you like at the tasting event. But it’s also an exciting journey into what are arguably our least explored senses — taste and smell. Dive in, and you could end up with something far more valuable than any hot tip: an active, merrily sceptical attitude offering you independence from other voices, including mine and those of wine businesses alike.

Time to stop listening to the voices and learn to trust your tastebuds.

What follows is a guide to navigating open-ended freestyle tastings (essentially the same type as those held for trade and press). I’ll follow up later with shorter posts on wine dinners and tutored tastings.

One of the tables at a tasting in Avignon. The point of a wine tasting is to ignore what I and the people selling the wines say – taste them all yourself!

Please note: As of October 2012, I am no longer drinks columnist with the Irish Examiner Weekend. See the home page of this blog for more details. Thank you.

Wine tastings and wine fairs

THIS is what I mean when I say ‘wine-tasting’: Not a gathering of fusty oul men peering at posh clarets over their pince-nez, and murmuring their verdict on them. Nor a roomful of red-carpet party people sipping and nibbling at some glittering launch. But something far better than either — an open-ended freestyle test-drive opportunity where we can try out dozens or even hundreds of wines.

They’re most commonly organised by retailers (such as O’Donovan’s Cork Wine Fair, or Lohan’s in Galway) or by trade representatives such as the Spanish Embassy’s commercial office which is behind the big event in Cork recently.

There will usually be a small fee (say €20) which often goes to charity. If a retailer is organising it, they may be set up to take orders on the night, often with a special disount. And some retailers make the entry fee redeemable against orders. But there will never be an obligation to buy: The businesses organising proper open-ended wine tastings are doing so to showcase their wares in the hope we’ll like what we find and buy them at some future date. It’s a bit like a test-drive opportunity.

The tasting will usually take place in a biggish hotel room or conference centre. In general, on arrival you’ll be armed with a glass and a catalogue and left to your own devices. Each table is typically laid out with open bottles, a water jug and a spittoon, and is manned by someone from the firm that sells those wines.

Joe Karwig with some of his wines during a food fair in Carrigaline Co Cork.

Use the tasting

Think back to the picture at the top of the page. You know that frustrating feeling in a wine shop or supermarket when you’re faced with a whole wall of wines? And you wish you knew what each was like? Or can’t remember which bottle was the one you enjoyed before? Well the big wine tasting is like that — except the bottles are all open for you to try.
Many people treat wine tastings as a fun social event, dropping anchor for a chat armed with a glass of something nice. Yes, that does sound like fun. But, to me, that’d be like going to a concert and putting on your headset to listen to your own playlist. Don’t waste the opportunity: among those open bottles may well be some stunning great value wines. Let’s go find them…

It’s only rarely all those wines are open at the same time for us to compare – don’t pass up the opportunity. Picture: Paul Sherwood (www.sherwood.ie).

Use the catalogue

The catalogue (anything from a few photocopied sheets through to a lavishly-printed bound booklet) ought to spell out the full name and vintage of each wine, and its price. And there’ll be space for notes. Don’t be shy about using this, with any notation you feel like.

For instance, you could put a big asterisk or exclamation mark near the wines that stand out, bearing price in mind, at each table. Do that and you’ll end up with an instant shortlist of candidates for your attention and your money. You could then go back and try, say, the three asterisked cabernets, one after the other, and that way settle on one or two of them for future reference. The first time you do this you may be astonished to discover that one of the less expensive bottles is the one you prefer. Or that you love a bottle of a wine style you ‘hate’.

The more tastings you go to, the less surprised you will be about either phenomenon. Firstly, the price/quality relationship in wine is a very wobbly line. And secondly, we base our outlook on minority interest grapes and styles on only a few encounters, and may be surprised to discover how well we chime with them when we give them a proper go. Yes it’s a revelation. That penny will only drop when you properly open up your senses by actively tasting, free of any commentary from me or the salespeople.

Use the spittoons

The impulse to swallow food and drink is pretty powerful. In general, unless something tastes disgusting, down it goes. If you’re going to navigate wine tastings (as opposed to wine dinners or, um, drinking wine) you really have to unlearn that impulse and learn to spit. Obviously if you’re drinking the samples, you’ll end up langers half way through the tasting and may as well write off the opportunity to discover some great wines. What a waste.

Please note: As of October 2012, I am no longer drinks columnist with the Irish Examiner Weekend. See the home page of this blog for more details. Thank you.

If you haven’t tried it before, why not practice spitting into a basin or sink at home? Sniff it. Sip it. Pause to taste it. And then spit it out. Spelling out all this may seem pointlessly gumpish but spitting out wine (or tea or whatever) runs so profoundly contrary to our instinct that we do have to consciously do it.

So a wine-tasting is as dry as Tehran? Not quite. Often, what people do is hold off on swallowing until the end and then enjoy drinking a glass or two of their favourite discoveries. Often as not though, the drink of choice is a beer. Having been subjected to a sustained assault of high acidity, tannin and alcohol, there’s nothing your tongue would love better than to be bathed in a soft, delicious, 4% or 5% ale or lager or stout. Yum.

Use the water

Most people wouldn’t bother rinsing the glass between, say, two sauv blancs. But if you’re changing style, it’s no harm to give the glass a quick scoosh from the jugs of water on each table. Similarly, there’s far too much fuss about cleansing the palate: if we were incapable of tasting one flavour after another, hardly anyone on earth would know what rhubarb crumble tasted like. But given all that acidity and alcohol, a refreshing glass of water now and again can help keep your senses on track, especially if and when you’re switching from red to white. But even better, and true to the spirit of this post, why not listen to what your body is saying? When you need water, drink some.

Big open wine tastings tend to fill up. Get there early and whiz round to get a proper sense of what wines are out there. And then chill with a glass or two.

Use the information

Some of the wines may be accompanied by brochures with information both hard (for instance the area under vines, yields, the technical specifications of each wine etc) and soft (comprising anything from text about the winemakers’ passion for making wine, through to photos of the vineyard, and a biography of the winery dog).

Information isn’t a burden, and I wouldn’t turn any away. However, when there’s a choice between tasting further wines, and pausing to read up on one particular range, you’re better served by moving on. Ultimately, the only two things that matter are what’s in the bottom of your glass on a Saturday night many weeks hence, and what you’ve paid for it in the wine shop. The memory of the accompanying brochure will be worth zero, so your taste testing ought to be in the driving seat. Anyway, most wineries these days have websites with much of the same sort of information so you can always follow that up at your leisure.

The same goes for conversations you can fall into with the people manning the tables. These invaluable people will usually know all there is to be known about the wines they sell, and are happy to talk about them, or indeed about anything. While it’s great to be able to check details, remember that there are likely to be similar wines and similar stories at most of the other tables. Keep going and get the big picture.

(While we’re on the topic, here’s a hat-tip to the people who present wines at tastings. By time we meet them, they’ve been standing for hours on end, presumably keeping a good front out. They may well have been hefting heavy cases of wine and other paraphernalia into the venue since early morning, all the while wearing a suit. And often, the public tasting comes tacked on at the end of many hours of a media / trade tasting, so they’ve been on their feet since morning.)

Yes this is a long post but it’s possible I didn’t anticipate some questions you may have. Post a response here and I’ll get back to you. ♦

Buying wine online

Buying wine online


HERE’s a list of Ireland’s best wine websites and below are some  general guidelines to getting good wine delivered to your door in time for Christmas day. You should of course bear in mind all the usual caveats when shopping at an online wine retailer. The criteria I’d suggest you consider include…

1. The quality and value of the range of wines it sells;
2. Comprehensive information on each wine, including useful notes;
3. Free or reasonably priced delivery;
4. A range of styles sufficiently substantial to cope with different needs or occasions;
5. Ease of use of the site;
6. Fun and/or useful extras such as blogs, links and more information about wine.

There is also one overriding hygiene factor: clear and accurate information on price, delivery, terms and conditions made clear to the shopper before s/he starts the purchasing process. If any of those issues are in question, forget about it.

Specifically, any wine website worth looking at should be…

VERSATILE: Most sites offer two ways to buy: You can choose one of their pre-picked selections, or you can put together your own mixed cases will-nilly.

INFORMATIVE:It’ll list every wine’s full name, vintage and regional designation. It ought to have a little bit of further information about the wine’s producer and the region.

UNAMBIGUOUS: One of the things you should check immediately – that the site has unambiguous information about
1 minimum order
2 delivery charge, if any.*

3 extra costs, if any.
*The first two points can be related, as often delivery is free if you order over a certain value or volume.
The third point is ultra-important. There should be no extra costs, end of story.
*

AUTHORITATIVE: If there are notes about the wines, ask yourself if someone has actually tasted the wine and tried to communicate something of its character. Or is it just vaguely positive-sounding blurb.

UP TO DATE: It’s quite possible that a site promising “sizzling bargains for summer 2007” might be selling top class wines at good prices. But really you’d have more confidence in the ones that have accurate up-to-date information.

I’d be highly sceptical of any site that pops in a cost such as insurance on top of the list price. In particular, watch out for VAT. It is an offence for a retailer to advertise consumer goods without its VAT component.

Yet one site, http://www.throughthegrapevine.ie, (which should not be confused with the estimable http://www.onthegrapevine.ie) promotes itself as supplying individual customers, providing wedding wines etc. However, it does not include VAT in its list prices, that component being added in later in the purchase process. Some people (yes I mean me) get a bit fuzzy about numbers when they go into three figures and I can imagine a less-than-alert wine buyer innocently clicking ‘buy’ without realising his or her wines have gotten a whole lot dearer.
How can this site justify this? Well it also sells business-to-business and as such is entitled to show ex-VAT prices. But by rights they should emulate those flyers from Dell which clearly show both prices for business and private customers.

Through The Grapevine may not be doing anything illegal but really it is a bit cheesy to say the least and you don’t need people like that in your life. Puh.

El Coto Crianza

El Coto Crianza

Oh and apart from all that, the corporate or private shopper may do better elsewhere anyway. Last time I compared, Through The Grapevine listed El Coto De Rioja Crianza 2004/05 as €120 for a 6-bottle case. Add in €25.80  in VAT and the total comes to €145.80, meaning you’re stumping up over €24 every time you brandish your corkscrew. A high-end premium wine then? Break it out for special occasions?

Well hang on, look up another site,  www.karwigwines.ie, and there it is, El Coto Crianza [not to be confused with the Gran Reserva] the same wine for €14.15 a bottle straight up, VAT included. Delivery is free if you buy the right quantity. And even if you’re buying less than that, the €9.50 delivery charge is swallowed up by the 5% case discount  or the 10% discount on orders worth more than €200.

The point is — tame your credulity and shop around. If you’ve any comments or questions, please add a comment below. ♦

AUTHORITATIVE

Tasty food and drinks events

Slow Food is hosting a wild food festival in co Wicklow.

December 2 – Immigrant support groups’ wine tasting

NASC and Cois Tine are getting together to present an evening of delicious wine and food  from 6.30pm on Friday December 2 at Cois Tine, beside St Mary’s Dominican church on Pope’s Quay, Cork.
Michal Lewandowski will present a selection of wines (courtesy of O’Donovan’s off-licences) accompanied by grub from (drool) three fine food specialists in the English Market — On The Pig’s Back, Heaven’s Cake and Iago.

Tickets are €19.10 – a fee that wasn’t picked at random: that’s the weekly allowance asylum-seekers receive.

[] Cois Tine (pronounced kush tinn-eh, it’s an Irish language term meaning ‘by the fireside’ chosen to signify hospitality) is a Christian multicultural organisation working to promote “the integration of people from all communities, cultures and faiths”. It works primarily with asylum-seekers and refugees, particularly those of African origin. See www.coistine.ie for more.
[] Nasc (it’s an Irish word meaning ‘link’) is The Irish Immigrant Support Board. It links immigrants to their rights, and works across a wide variety of fronts including combating racism, promoting the Cork City Integration Strategy through to direct provision of services.  See www.nascireland.org for more.

December 2 & 3 – Curious Wines Christmas Wine Fair, Cork

THE Christmas Wine Fair at Curious Wines on the Kinsale road in Cork takes place from 4pm to 8pm on Friday, and from noon until 6pm on Saturday, with more than 100 wines open for tasting, along with tasty gourmet food. Tickets cost €10, and all proceeds go to Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind. Phone 1800-991844 or click here www.curiouswines.ie for more details.

This is precisely the sort of tasting I keep urging wine fans to check into. Yes, it’s a commercial showcase of one particular retailer’s range. But it’s also the sole opportunity you will get to dive in and sample any or all of this wide range of wines, free of commentary, advertising, and the suggestions of bloggers and columnists. And if you don’t often dip into such tastings, you may find some useful tips in my post suggesting how to get best use out of open wine tastings.

December 6 – Stickies and fortifieds at Hayfield Manor, Cork
December 7Stickies and fortifieds at Ely IFSC, Dublin

THERE’s any number of lesser-visited wine styles I’d urge everyone to check out. Off-dry riesling. Dry riesling. Portuguese wines (all of them).  Loire reds and whites.  Sometimes it feels like a hopeless mission to persuade people to try out dessert wines or port. Understandable really. After all, what more do you want towards the end of a good dinner than more of the same — a good white or red that you’ve been enjoying?

But discover how a dinner can be turned into a banquet — with tiny glasses of cold botrytis semillon as a beautiful foil to hot bitter coffee, or a rich round spicy port  on the couch — and you’ll never look back.

If you’d like some inspiration, there’s an event next week at venues in Dublin and Cork — Ely bar & brasserie, IFSC, and Hayfield Manor Hotel respectively — that you shouldn’t miss. Courtesy of Wine Australia Ireland, they’re hosting a tutored tasting presented by winemaker Chris Pfeiffer whose Rutherglen Muscat has featured in my column a few times. He’ll present a top line-up of Australian stickies and fortifieds, accompanied by nibbles. The tastings in both venues cost €20 per person and begins at 7pm.

For the Cork tasting, book on ireland@wineaustralia.com or 065-7077264.
For the Dublin event, book on wineclub@elywinebar.com or  01-676 8986.
And if you want any further information on either, contact John at the Wine Australia contact details above.

December 8Martin’s Christmas Crackers Tasting
(Note change of date)

Martin Moran MW (who presents movies and booze on Newstalk with Sean Moncrieff) has put together an event that sounds practical and inspirational in equal measure. He’s trawled the shelves of the major supermarkets and put together a shortlist of approximately 25 wines chosen to compliment seasonal foods and parties.
But as Martin explains on his site, there’s more to it than that and if you want it, he can customise your choices and give you advice on hundreds more wines from the supermarkets’ ranges.

It all takes place at Darc Space Gallery, 26 North Great Georges Street, Dublin 1 from 6.30pm to 8.30pm. Tickets cost €10, or €15 for two.

December 8Red Nose portfolio tasting, Clonmel

ON Thursday, December 8, Rudolph the Red Nose Wine Shop Red Nose Wine is hosting a portfolio tasting  from 8pm at Hickey’s Cafe, Westgate, Clonmel.   Tickets are €15, or free if you buy a €50 voucher – a handy money-saving idea. Click on www.rednosewine.com for details.  Last time I checked in, Gary was putting a list of the wines opening on Facebook – and says he’s open to suggestions from customers of further bottles to add to the tasting. Check it out!  ♦

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November 15 – Beer and food in Cork

EACH Tuesday in November, The Cornstore in Cornmarket Street, Cork is playing host to beer and food pairing events matching menu with beers such as Birra Moretti, Paulaner and Tiger, in association with Heineken Ireland. At each event a beer and food expert will be on hand to take you through the tasting of beers from around the world and how they match with the food on a specially designed menu. A three-course set menu with beer tasting is €24.95, it kicks off at 7.30pm and you can find out more on 021-4274777.

November 17 – Cases Wine Warehouse Christmas Wine* Fair

The great big annual wine* fair at Cases Wine Warehouse on the Tuam Road, Galway takes place from 6.30pm to 10pm on Thursday November 17. There will be about 120 wines open for tasting on the night, and there’ll be tasty food provided by Cava restaurant. Other antics include Cases annual blind tasting competition and live music….
*Kudos to Cases for putting good beer centre stage, as they’ve announced the tasting includes a range of delicious beers from Irish artisan beweries including Galway Hooker, O’Hara’s, Dungarvan Brewing and 8 Degrees from Mitchelstown. Tickets, €20, (with all proceeds going to Self Help Africa) from Cases on 091-764 701 or at info@cases.ie.

November 17 to 19 – Simply Wines tastings

SIMPLY WINES is probably best known as an online store but you can shop in person there too, and if you’re in the parish I’d strongly suggest you check out their wine fair. They’re holding it over three days with extended opening hours (until 9pm on both the Thursday and Friday, and until 7pm on the Saturday) to showcase more than 80 wines in their range.

You’ll find Simply Wines at Unit 2, Ballyogan Business Park, Ballyogan Road, D18, just around the corner from The Park retail centre, Carrickmines. There’s more details about the wine tasting opportunity here, and a map and stuff here.

And now for something completely different…

November 19 & 20 – Wild & Slow, Macreddin, Co Wicklow

This is big. The BrookLodge Hotel, Macreddin Village, Co Wicklow, is the HQ for a busy weekend of food inspiration from 11am to 8pm on Saturday and Sunday November 19 and 20. In addition to the food on sale from the stalls, there is a programme of wild-food workshops, tastings, talks and demonstrations around Macreddin presented by Slow Food and sponsored by Fáilte Ireland and Bord Bia.

Harvesting hedgerows – what is available for free, where to look for it, and when it is best harvested.
Photo safari in the National Park – a strenuous hike in and around Wicklow, to stalk and photograph the resident wild deer herd and game birds.
Handling and plucking game – a masterclass with licensed game dealer Mick Healy, including a visit to the Wild Irish Game premises in nearby Glenmalure valley.
Game tasting workshop – Taste pheasant that’s been hung for one, two and three weeks cooked for parallel tasting by Ross Lewis of Chapter One.
Game tasting workshop – Tim Daly from BrookLodge presents a sensoray evalutation of three wild meats, rabbit, hare and venison.
Matching game with wines – Martina Delaney, sommelier at l’Ecrivain  will host a workshop pairing gamey wines with these traditional meats.
Wild fish workshop – Mick Murphy, licensed traditional snap-net fisherman explores issues of seasonality and sustainability and fisheries management.
♦ Herbalists Freda Wolfe & Clodagh Mulvey on foraging from among more than 400 plant species used in mainstream medicine and alternative therapies alike.
♦ The gamekeeper’s year – Keith Wooldridge, the retired head gamekeeper of Ballinacor Estate will talk you through the year from preparations in spring through to winter shoots, with an emphasis on habitat and environmental management.

For more, see
http://wildandslow.com
www.slowfoodireland.com

November 24Cork Wine Fair

THE 11th Cork Wine Fair, organised by O’Donvans Off-Licences, takes place on Thursday November 24 from 4pm to 9pm at the Clarion Hotel, Lapps Quay, Cork. About 400 wines as well as beers and spirits will be open for tasting, and there will also be samples of gourmet foods. Two masterclasses, led by two of Ireland’s leading experts, will take place in a side room during the show, featuring the wines of Australia (John McDonnell) and New Zealand (Jean Smullen). All proceeds from tickets (€10) go to the Simon Community in Cork. Booking/enquiries at any of O’Donovan’s 16 stores in Cork city and county or phone 021 4296060.

Heineken Ireland is bringing beer and food tasting to top restaurants in Dublin and Cork. Ely Bar and Brasserie, Siam Thai and Roly’s Bistro in Dublin and The Cornstore in Cork will give food lovers and beer fans the chance to come together and sample the natural pairing of beer and food with beers from around the world like Birra Moretti, Paulaner and Tiger. At each event a beer and food expert will be on hand to take you through the tasting of beers from around the world and how they match with the food on a specially designed menu. So whether you’re a beer lover or have never even thought of drinking a beer with your food, there is a beer for you that will add a new dimension to the food you know and love.

Delicious events

Bodegas Conde de Valdemar & good Irish food at O'Connell's

Bill Casey is one of the six top-class Irish food producers in O'Connells Donnybrook on Tuesday. Click pic to visit their site and see more below.

I’M leaving this post here as it may be useful as an aide-memoire or whatever. But the events here are in the past tense which is why they’re in grey.

THE calendar of public dinners and tastings is pretty hectic at this time of year. Wine dinners and tutored tastings can be great fun, and are often terrific value.

For me though, the occasional big open tastings tick both of those boxes (fun and good value) but also offer us consumers an invaluable sense of what’s out there and whether it’s good value or not. So if you’re going to wine fairs like Lohan’s, this  detailed description of how open wine tastings work, along with suggestions on how to navigate them, may be useful. The other new stuff is my latest column over at the Irish Examiner, about some cracking value wines at SuperValu   plus, because it’s well worth repeating, the old caveat about wine sales.

See below for some great forthcoming dinners and tastings. First though, a quick look back, at the antics over the weekend just past. Festivals of Irish craft brews aren’t new, but the weekend’s All-Ireland Beer Festival at the RDS  was a bit like a founding AGM. A glance at the event’s website will give you a sense of the scale of it. About forty or so beers and ciders plus a handful of whiskies were being poured by their makers, who ranged from old hands O’Hara’s of Carlow through well-established businesses such as Porterhouse,  to new kids on the block, Dungarvan and Eight Degrees.

Although my main interest is always in bottled beers and ciders for home consumption, dipping into the draught product is always a welcome eye-opener, and I tried quie a few of both.

I loved the fruity, spicy Metalman Pale Ale from the cask, am as delighted as Meatloaf by three of the four bottled ciders made by Tempted? and fell head over heels in love with the chocolatey bottled Cúl Dorcha porter from Beoir Chorca Dhuibhne aka West Kerry Brewery. I’ll follow up on these, complete with stockists etc, here and in my beer & cider columnlet in the Irish Examiner in the near future.

<— There are links to all three over there.

The Beoir Chorca Dhuibhne / West Kerry Brewery stand at the All-Ireland Beerfest.

I usually take pictures at tastings etc only as a memo for myself – sometimes the layout of a hall or a tasting table is a useful synaesthetic memory-jogger especially at big tasting events. There was no such need at Beerfest, but I did snap a handful including the one above – a reminder of the beautifully-presented beers at the West Kerry Brewery stand. If ever there’s a competition for the worst photo ever taken, this is my entry. Still though.

█  September 27 2011 – Food producers & winemakers in O’Connell’s of Donnybrook
Wow. Even alongside some of the other rich pickings, this is likely to be an outstanding event. O’Connell’s have worked with several of their partner food producers and with wine importers Febvre to put together an enormously impressive and yet chilled-out food and wine evening. You will choose your starters in the style of a buffet – but you’ll be picking them up directly from the producers as follows…

Organic smoked salmon from Bill Casey Shanagarry Co Cork
Chorizo, Salamis and Cheese from Gubbeen
Organic Pork and Vegetables from Alan Pierce, Gold River Farm, Co Wicklow
Organic Chicken from Mary O’Regan, Enniscorthy, Co Wexford
Hereford Prime Steaks, Christy Broe, The Irish Hereford Prime Beef Society
Fresh fish from Shellfish de La Mer, Castletownbere, Co Cork

Then, the mains and desserts will be served to you at your table. And Carlos Martínez Bujanda from the top-class Bodegas Conde de Valdemar, Rioja, will be on hand to pour complimentary wines. There will also be a tasting flight of the winery’s wines at 20% off the normal price. Speaking of which, your final bill depends on what you order thereafter, including their €20.95 all-night early bird. That’s good value.

Kudos to O’Connells et al for the imagination to put together an event that’s both useful and exciting, and also so accessibly-priced. All the details are here on O’Connell’s website. Go book.

█  September 28 2011 – Latin American wines at The Merrion
The Merrion Wine Society’s second dinner this year is focused on wines from Latin America. The six-course dinner will be accompanied by wines from Chile, Argentina and Uruguay presented by Mary Dowey, wine editor of The Gloss. Book tickets (€90) now on 01-2755310 or email register@thegloss.ie.

Winequake, September 29

Well, we seem to have dodged the satellite falling from the sky, and the neutrino antics at CERN haven’t melted the space-time continuum just yet. But the laws of physics are under threat on Thursday September 29, when several really good events compete for our attention. I believe there may be more to follow but the first three confirmed are as follows…

█  September 29 2011 – Yalumba tasting and/or dinner in Co Cork
One of the best tutored tastings I’ve been at was conducted by Jane Ferrari. As she’d say herself, ultimately it’s what’s in the glass that matters most, and Yalumba does make terrific wines, from entry level to posh upmarket bottles. But the presentations that Jane brings round the world are themselves superb — informative and highly entertaining. This event is in two parts as follows
7pm
Jane will present a tutored tasting on various wines made by Yalumba (€10).

8.30pm Wine dinner, with each course paired with one of Yalumba’s wines, which Jane will introduce (€75). Book now on 021 4652531 by email to res@ballymaloe.ie and see http://www.ballymaloe.ie.

█  September 29 – Lohan’s Wine Fair Salthill Co Galway
Taste more than 100 wines as well as international beers, whiskeys and spirits, speciality cheeses, cakes and canapés at Lohan’s big annual wine fair – and as if that weren’t enough, there’s entertinment laid on too.
As ever, the entire proceeds go directly to local charities – Croí which supports families affected by heart disease and raises awareness of the issue; and Cystic Fibrosis, the most common life-threatening genetically-inherited disease in Ireland which has the highest incidence of it in the world.
Tickets (€20) are available from Lohan’s Bar & Restaurant, 232-234 Upper Salthill, Galway, 091-522696, or email goodtimes@lohans.ie and see www.lohans.ie.

█  September 29 – Wilson & Caviston in Greystones Co Wicklow
St Patrick’ Parish Centre in Greystones, Co Wicklow, is the venue for what promises to be a highly entertaining evening in a good cause featuring John Wilson, wines from Mitchell & Son, and food from Caviston’s – with all proceeds going to the Parish Fund. Tickets are €15 and are available from the parish office on 01-2010648.

█  October 21 – Mas De Daumas Gassac in Ballymaloe
Two importer/retailers, Curious Wines in Cork and Red Nose Wine in Clonmel, are co-hosting a two-part event with this top-class idiosyncratic winery in Ballymaloe, Shanagarry, Co Cork.
7pm — There’s a tutored tasting including a vertical comparison of different vintages of Mas De Daumas Gassac Rouge led by Samuel Guibert in The Grainstore theatre at Ballymaloe. Tickets, €15, from either retailer as above, or from Ballymaloe.
9pm — Four-course dinner at Ballymaloe House accompanied by wines of Mas De Daumas Gassac. €85 per head. Email colm@ballymaloe.ie to book for either or both events, or phone Ballymaloe House on 021-4652531.

♦ Other forthcoming attractions include
Dingle Food & Wine Festival – October 1 and 2. http://dinglefood.com
Cork Wine Fair – November 24
Taste of Christmas, Dublin – November 25.

♦ I’ll be adding more items here as they crop up, so please check in again.
To add an event, email me – firstname. lastname @examiner.ie – using my name of course. And please don’t wait til you have the details finalised: As soon as you know who / what / when / where, please let us all know.

] Family of Four & Grenache 23 [] Nofla SIP 7 gold star wards 2 [] Pio Cesare Donnybrook September 28.  [] Portugal 24/10 []

Barbecue Weekend

THE weather out here on the Atlantic is always unpredictable. But it’s best to travel in hope, so it’s barbecue time in the Irish Examiner this weekend.  Michelle Darmody has five delightful dishes straight of the BBQ, and I’ve got a handful of bottles to go along with them.

Just like my food and wine pairings last week, I’d suggest today’s ones as inspiration rather than prescriptions.

In reality, any number of whites, rosés and reds will do fine with whatever’s on your plate. Some of the most delicious dishes being served up right now in wine countries are quite likely to include what we commonly regard as “mismatches” such as, for instance,  a squid and boiled spuds accompanied by a robust red. Treat wine-matching as an opportunity to let your ingredients shine, and not an exam to fret about.

As well as a handful of wines, I’m tipping a highly unusual beer for the barbie – Innis & Gunn Original. This tawny-coloured beer is oak-aged in Bourbon casks, which leaves it with beautiful tinges of vanilla and orange zest. I think it could be a cracker alongside sizzling chilli-inflected seafood, chicken or vegetable skewers.

(It’s the beer equivalent of wines I tag wth a scribbled “NFE” (not for everyone) in tasting notes. This is a broad eclectic category of less common wine styles such as off-dry, or highly armoatic grapes such as gewürz or even viognier.)

Finally, here are two broad suggestions for you + wine + barbie.

Chill out

You can get a bit swoony from a few hour’s sunshine in its own right. Add alcohol and you can go totally doolally. Rather than tucking into the wine and then switching over to water, why not  add ice and water — still or sparkling — to turn your glassful into a long cool refreshing drink. While chilled-out white even has a name, spritzer, we seldom think of doing so with red. But why not? After all, water is the biggest component in that glass of red, so it’s not like you’re breaching some principle by bigging it up a bit. And some robust reds will thank you for being toned down a bit.

Cool down

As long as you don’t let it freeze, which can damage a wine, don’t worry about overcooling your whites. Whether outdoors at the barbie or in your dining room, it’ll be zooming up in temperature in the glass anyway. And it’s not just whites and rosés either — although I know it horrifys some people, there’s a growing band of wine fans, myself included, who enjoy their reds a little chilled. Like chocolate straight from the fridge, the flavours open up as it melts in your mouth.   ♦

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