Dulwich Wine Society

Winegeese – wines of the Irish Diaspora

By Greville Havenhand

The port of Kinsale, in South West Ireland, is now mainly a picturesque yachting and fishing port, and likes to call itself the gourmet capital of Ireland, but it has a significant place in Irish history.  The battle of Kinsale in 1601changed the course of that history. The Irish under Hugh O’Donnell had called on Spanish aid to expel the English from the country but ill fortune and bad tactics led to a crushing defeat. Ireland was to be under English thrall for three centuries. In the ensuing years there followed the “Flight of the Earls” and a mass exodus of Irish for political or economic reasons. Kinsale remained an English/British garrison until the 1920s.  It is something of a surprise, therefore, to find a wine museum in the town’s Desmond Castle. What is not surprising is to find that one of the people behind the project was Ted Murphy, man of wine, writer, broadcaster, student of all things vinous, and Chairman of the “Winegeese Society of the Ireland Funds. “

These exiles from Ireland were often entered on ships’ manifests as Wild Geese to ensure their safe passage to the continent. Many of them entered the wine trade, and their influence continues. It is these who are known as “Winegeese. ”In Bordeaux there are fourteen Châteaux, ten streets, a wine commune and one public monument, all bearing Irish names. There are numerous Irish involved in wine making around the world, and to this day there are Irishmen making wine in France.

After the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century AD Irish missionaries went all over Europe to re-establish Christianity. At the same time they played a leading role propagating European viticulture. Many an Irish saint is honoured in the wine areas of France, Germany, Italy and Spain. In Germany St. Killian, who is reputed to have introduced the gospel and the grape to he Upper Maine Valley, is the patron saint of wine-growers. St. Martin of Tours, another Irish monk, is said to have discovered the Chenin Blanc Grape, and is credited with having discovered the advantages of vine pruning. (Although the Romans might dispute that.) There was a great history of wine drinking in Ireland. The Vikings arrived around the ninth century, establishing what are now some of the main cities. As well as being marauders and pirates, they were traders, and also established settlements in the wine regions of the Loire.  They imported wine to Ireland and had to pay an annual tribute to King Brian Boru of a ton of wine for every day of the year. A ton was the equivalent of 128 dozen present day bottles. No wonder the Irish have had a reputation of being able to drink.

There continued to be a great trade in wine to Ireland. For the year 1739-40 the Bordeaux records show that with the exception of a small amount to the Netherlands all the fine wines shipped went to Britain and Ireland. 1.00tuns (barrels) went to England, 2,000 to Scotland and 4,000 to Ireland.

In Bordeaux there are fourteen Châteaux, ten streets, one wine commune and one public monument bearing Irish names. The monument is in honour of Patrice McMahon, Marshall of France, and, incidentally, the only owner of a château in Burgundy to be honoured in Bordeaux. In 1877 his niece, Anne, married Comte Eugène de Lur Saluces, the proprietor of Château d’Yquem.

 It was in the eighteenth century that the merchants established themselves on the Quai de Chartrons in Bordeaux and most of these early merchants were Irish, sending the wine to their home country, with the ships returning with good Irish salted beef and butter.  In 1725 one Thomas Barton left County Fermanagh for Bordeaux in 1725. His name survives in Léoville-Barton and Barton et Guestier. More importantly his descendant Anthony Barton and his daughter Lilian run the eponymous château and also Château Langoa.  The great Château Latour was owned by members of the Barton family and another important  “winegeese” family, the Johnstons, in the early nineteenth century.

Another famous Irish name in Bordeaux is Lynch. The Lynch family were wine merchants in Galway as far back as the fourteenth century, but it was  Michel Lynch, who was born in Bordeaux in 1752 that made the name synonymous with wine. He was the son of a Bordeaux advocate, and grandson of an Irish colonel who had followed James II to France. His brother was a famous Mayor of Bordeaux, and although they were both politicians they were wealthy wine merchants and owned Château Lynch-Bages, along with Châteaux Maussas, Pontac Lynch, and DauzacLynch. Other Irish names perpetuated in Bordeaux are Kirwan, Clark and Lawton. There is still a Lawton with an interest in the firm Tastet et Lawton.

It was not only in the past that the Irish made their mark in Bordeaux. Today Château Lascombes (once owned by Nathaniel Johnston) is now part-owned by Irish businessman Dr.Tony Ryan, Château de La Ligne is owned by a Belfast man, Terry Cross and the winemaker at Châteaux du Tertre and Giscours is a Kilkenny man, David Fennelly.

Away from Bordeaux we have Cossart-Gordon in Madeira. William Cossart arrived in Funchal from Ireland in the early nineteenth century, and he and his nephew entered the wine trade, and the company for which they worked still bears their name. In Spain, which had long connections with Ireland, the Sherry firm of Pedro Domecq was founded by and Irish farmer called Patrick Murphy. Garvey is also an Irish founded Sherry house famous for San Patricio *St. Patrick).

As one would expect there was a large Irish input into American wine.  Another family of Murphys were prominent in the nineteenth century and James Concannon, who had vineyards in Livermore County. Having built his house and established his vineyard in the 1880s he went to France and brought back cuttings of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc from Château d’Yquem. That rootstock still bears fruit. He later persuaded the President of Mexico that viticulture was desirable. By 1904 he had imported millions of cuttings of French varieties and single-handedly revolutionised Mexican wine. The first vineyards in The Napa valley were planted by Samuel Brannan. Château Montlelen,a whose 1973 Chardonnay beat all its French competitors in the famous “Judgement of Paris” tasting in 1976 is run by Irish-American Jim Barrett.  Durney, Delaney Vineyards, Ravenswood, Limerick Lane Cellars, and countless more are a monument to the Irish.

In the Southern hemisphere the Barry family is one of Austarlia’s most respected wine families. Jim Barry’s  “The Armagh” is one of the country’s top wines. Maurice O’Shea, second generation Irish-Australian was the man who convinced the Australians (including the legendary Max Schubert of “Grange” fame) that they could make internationally competitive fine wines, and ones that would last. John Kirk of Clnakilla  McGuigan speaks for itself.left Ireland in 1968. Cullen Vineyards in Western Australia is run by another family with Irish origins as is nearby Xanadu and Lagan Estate. In New Zealand the late  Ernie Hunter from Belfast founded his eponymous winery and also in Marlborough James Healy from an old  Londonderry family owns Dog Point   Again the list is endless. In South Africa Hamilton Russell has Irish antecedents as does Coleraine Wines in the Paarl.