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Column: How Ireland helped bring wine to the world

Think wine is relatively new to Ireland? That’s understandable – but you’re very wrong, writes Susan Boyle.

Susan Boyle

Susan Boyle is the creator of A Wine Goose Chase at ABSOLUT Fringe 2012.

AT A WINE tasting recently, I over heard someone say they were around when wine first came to Ireland! It didn’t surprise me. There is an impression that there was no wine or wine drinking culture in Ireland before Blue Nun and Mateus Rose arrived on these shores.

The past 200 years or so haven’t been Ireland’s finest wine days.  There were other things to worry about, like surviving famine and forging a shiny new republic. It wasn’t until commercial wine companies began marketing to Ireland in the 1960s that most people re-acquired a taste for wine. The astonishing truth is Ireland has 2,000 years of wine history, which is often overlooked.

The Celts can be credited with first bringing wine to Ireland. Shards of wine-stained pottery have been found dating back to Celtic times. It is thought that their stone carvings in Newgrange were inspired by designs copied from Greek wine pots.  They were renowned for their culture of feasting.  Their ways were adopted quickly. The Celts were boat builders and set about established good trade routes between Ireland and continental Europe. By the time Christianity came to Ireland, the Irish were already knowledgeable wine drinkers – and now they had religious reasons to drink wine!

But as anyone who’s looked out a window this summer can tell, Ireland doesn’t have a grape growing climate.  To ensure a steady supply of wine to Ireland,  the Irish had to become part of the wine trade from the roots up.

Patron saints

Ireland had a sophisticated monastic education system.  Monks were schooled aspects of farming and crop cultivation along side scripture and penmanship. Many of them travelled to Europe and established vineyards. Some of the most successful even ended up as wine saints! St Fiachra is the patron saint of gardeners, a skill honed in the vineyards of France. The wine growing region named after him is the most densely planted commune in the country.  St Killian planted vineyards in the Main Valley in Germany where he is the patron saint of winegrowers. St Fridolin is the patron St of Alsace and established the wine industry in Switzerland.

Ancient Ireland was awash with wine: Irish people were making wine in other parts of Europe and shipping it back home.  But, the golden age of Ireland and wine was yet to come!

In the 17th century a Dutch engineer drained much of the swampy land in Bordeaux, revealing some of the most perfect wine growing terroir in the world. At the same time, members of more than 200 Irish families, fleeing political turmoil in Ireland, settled in Bordeaux and transformed the wine industry. These people are known as the ‘Wine Geese’. In Bordeaux their legacy is; fourteen chateaux, ten streets, two wine communes and one public monument bearing Irish names. These Bordeaux wines have influenced wine making across the globe.

Moreover, it’s a pretty safe bet that wherever wine is being made, there’s an Irish hand in it.  An Irish man wrote the first account of vines and wine making in North America. There are Irish winemakers in Australia, South Africa, and South America.

It’s extraordinary that people from a damp little Island that can’t even grow grapes have had such a influence on the global wine industry. The Irish are a tenacious people;  farmers at heart. If you can grow potatoes, why not grow vines? And as grapes need 100 days of sunshine to ripen, it must be much more pleasant to be a farmer where it sunny, than where it is wet!

Susan Boyle stages A Wine Goose Chase at La Ruelle Wine Bar (just off Dawson St, Dublin 2) as part of ABSOLUT Fringe 2012. For further details visit fringefest.com or phone 1850 374 643.

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Susan Boyle

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