Rarely will you see someone ordering a glass of red in an Irish pub, where for the most part, traditional whiskey or iconic Guinness still predominates.
This is partially because many people associate going to the pub with having a pint. But lockdowns around the world have led to a rising global demand for wine, a positive trend for Ireland's relatively few vineyards, which have long been producing grapes despite the island's challenging climate.
Thanks to the Gulf Stream, Ireland enjoys lush flora, particularly along the coastline, and a warm and humid climate, which makes it far from ideal for producing wine.
However, a couple of winemakers have discovered some grape varieties that are surprisingly well suited for this environment. One of them is German winegrower Thomas Walk, owner of Ireland’s largest vineyard, which is located in County Cork in the south of the island.
Back in the day, he started growing vines as there were so few German varieties in the country – and also because wine was expensive on the island, he explains.
Coming from a southern German family of winemakers, Walk bought a property on the bay of Kinsale some 40 years ago. The town of Kinsale is known for its superb restaurants and holds a number of gourmet festivals every year.
Today, the Thomas Walk Vineyard has some 4,800 vines.
"Compared to the big wineries in Germany" – with an average farm size of just under 13ha and close to 100,000 vines – "it's really not that big," he says modestly.For Ireland, however, it is huge.
Other Irish wineries, such as Wicklow Way Wines south of Dublin, David Llewellyn's Orchard in Lusk, David Dennison's Viking Wines in Waterford and Bunratty Mead in County Clare, are even smaller.
During the pandemic, wine sales in Ireland rose by 12% and yet locally produced wine is still rare, with most wine in the shops being imported from Chile, Spain and Australia.
Some say that Ireland has a long-standing tradition of grape cultivation. The Celts attempted to grow vines and produce wine as early as the 5th century, according to archaeologists, while other sources claim that vines were first introduced to the island in the 12th century.
The oldest wine in Walk's cellar is from 1989.
"That was also the first successful harvest. We only open one of the bottles on special occasions," he says. This is understandable – after all, it took Walk some time and a lot of nerve before he could even get a yield from his vines.
Over several years, the veteran winemaker experimented with 12 different grape varieties – from Mueller-Thurgau to Pinot Noir and Riesling – until he found the right one.
"The Mueller-Thurgau grew like crazy, but didn't bear any fruit. The white varieties all didn't work for us, so it had to be a red."
Eventually, they found success in 1985 with Rondo, a grape that was relatively little-known at the time and which produces a ruby-red, full-bodied wine, and, crucially, proved highly resistant to fungus in the warm, humid environment.
"We were the first to grow this variety in the British Isles, and now Rondo is found elsewhere in Ireland and also in England," Walk says proudly.
As in many industries, sustainability plays an increasingly important role in the wine-making business. Walk, like many Irish winemakers, sells organic wines and says he's glad he doesn't have to use pesticides, fungicides or herbicides. Instead, he lets the vines grow high so that grasses and plants can flourish underneath.
During a walk through the vineyard, Walk stops to inspect a couple of vines: "It's going to be a good crop this year," he says.
Once processed, the wine is stored in large barrels in an extension of the main house.
"Bottling and corking is a community project every time. Children, grandchildren and friends come and help," Walk says.
While it always depends on the harvest, Walk's vineyard can produce several hundred bottles of wine a year, many of which are exported to his native Germany, though Walk has a growing client base in Ireland, many of them restaurants.
"It's still something new to see an Irish wine on the menu," he says. – dpa