Probe deep and you will find Irishmen at the root of most of this world’s revolutions, old and new.
The wine trade is no exception. We may not have the climate to grow our own vines, but we’ve done a colossal amount to spread their succulent grape juices across this world.
It started with our monks. Then we conquered France. After that, the New World was a walk in the park.
The Genesis of Wine
In 533AD, Muirchertach mac Ercae, High King of Ireland, was feasting with his nobles in the Summer Palace of Clettech by Newgrange, County Meath, when ‘a vengeful woman’ tiptoed into the night and set the premises on fire. The King threw himself into a nearby barrel of wine where he swiftly drowned.
Thus goes one of the first known stories of Ireland’s connection with the grapes of wrath. Enough Bronze Age goblets have emerged from the bogs to prove that wine has been a part of the Irish diet at least since Noah got so drunk on the stuff that he passed out in front of his kids. If you know your history, you’ll know Noah’s granddaughter Cessair was one of the first to settle in Ireland after the Great Flood. A brewer and an innkeeper were amongst her followers.
A Holy Drink
From the 6th century onwards, the monks of Ireland began to spread their wings and Christianise the barbarian hordes of Europe. As Jesus had discovered centuries earlier, the ability to produce good wine is a sure-fire way to win yourself a fan club. In the beginning, these missionaries made wine from the berries of the forests, perhaps adding a dash of honey. Then they started getting wise to the quality grapes of Gaul.
By the 9th century, the monks could wield a corkscrew like no other. St. Killian of Mullagh, Co. Cavan, is said to have introduced both gospel and grape to the Upper Maine Valley of Germany and is consequently hailed as the patron saint of winegrowers. His pal, Saint Disibod, another Irishman, ingeniously kick-started the vineyards of the Rhine when he plunged his staff into the ground and it started sprouting grapes.
The Wine-Geese in Bordeaux
In 1689, a mighty battle took place on the banks of the River Boyne with a result that secured management of Ireland for the victorious Protestants. Any Catholics who objected were advised to skip town. Over the next sixty years, an awful lot of them did. In 1691, the ‘Flight of the Wild Geese’ officially commenced when 14,000 Catholic soldiers and 10,000 women and children left for France.
Bordeaux, capital of the wine world today, became their spiritual home, with the Loire Valley and Cognac close behind. Almost immediately they immersed themselves in the wine trade. They exported wine to the home country; the ships returned laden with premium Irish beef and butter. In 1740, Ireland imported over 4,000 caskets of French wine; England imported just 1,000 in the same time frame.
Château Lynch-Bages was founded by Chevalier Michel Lynch whose Galway born grandfather, Colonel John Lynch, served at the Boyne and fled to Bordeaux in 1691. The Lynch tribe also ran Châteaux Maussas, Pontac Lynch, and Dauzac Lynch.
Hennessy’s, the popular French brandy, was established by Cork-born Richard Hennessy of Ballymacmoy near Mallow.
When Thomas Jefferson, America’s foremost wine connoisseur, visited Bordeaux in May 1787, he noted that the leading wine merchants on Bordeaux’s Quai des Chartrons were the Irish families of Gernon, Barton, Johnston, Foster, Skinner, Coppinger and MacCarthy. Jefferson, the US ambassador to France at this time, also visited the wine broking house of Tastet et Lawton. Its founder, Abraham Lawton, had emigrated from Skibbereen, County Cork in 1739, and was the most powerful man in the city. Lawton advised Jefferson on suitable wines for the presidential cellars of George Washington.
In 1725 Thomas Barton left County Fermanagh for Bordeaux. Known as ‘French Tom’, his name survives in Château Langoa-Barton, Château Léoville Barton and Barton et Guestier (B&G). In 1835, his grandson Hugh built the mansion of The K-Club (aka Straffan House) in County Kildare, where the 2006 Ryder Cup took place. Thomas’s Kildare-born descendant Anthony Barton is one of the most distinguished wine makers in Bordeaux . He was elected Man of the Year 2007 by Decanter magazine. Anthony’s daughter Lilian runs both Château Léoville-Barton and Château Langoa. Other descendants of French Tom include Robert Barton of the Treaty and Erskine Childers.
In the 1780s and 1790s, the highly-esteemed Château Margaux was run by Richard and Christopher Gernon from Gernonstown near Drogheda, Co. Louth. According to Forbes.com, a bottle of Château Margaux 1787 holds the record as the most expensive bottle of wine ever broken, insured at $225,000.
Richard Gernon’s daughter Mary was the second wife of John O’Byrne, a Bordeaux wine merchant with extensive vineyards at Mâcon La Hourngue. John O’Byrne was made a Chevalier by Louis XVI in 1770. Another member of the family was Richard O’Byrne, vicar of the Church of Saint Pierre de l’Etoile and parish priest of the Church of Chamadelle in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region of Bordeaux. His family founded the nearby Château Brande Bergere estate, north of Saint-Emilion, one of the highest points of the Bordeaux region. The O’Byrne’s are said to have had three vineyards in France at their peak.
The late Dr. Tony Ryan owned the Château Lascombes vineyard in France, which was founded by Nathaniel Johnston of Armagh.
‘Le Grosse-Cloche’, the most famous secular monument in Bordeaux, commemorates Patrice de Mac-Mahon, scion of a Limerick family who became Marshal of France and President of the French Republic in the 1870s.
The Butler family, also of Irish descent, run Château Crabitey in the town of Portets, a flagship wine-growing area in the Graves area, 35 km south of Bordeaux. Built in 1872, it started as an orphanage run by Franciscan nuns. In 1985, they hired Jean-Ralph de Butler (1929-2017), son of Gaston de Butler, to restore and extend the vineyards, and built a new winery. His Arnaud succeeded in 1998 and purchased the estate in full ten years later. The vineyard also produces Château de Trébiac.
Robert Delamain, an accomplished musician and organist in St Finbarr’s Cathedral, Cork, was involved in the setting up of the family Cognac firm. He built the house on Hop Island, so-named for as it was where he gave dancing instruction to the elite young ladies of Cork.
Other well-known ‘Irish Winegeese’ families include Kirwan, Clarke, Dillon and Phelan. Today, Bordeaux boasts fourteen chateaux, ten streets and two wine communes with distinctive Irish names.
Go West with your Wines
France was by no means the only beneficiary from Ireland’s growing passion for high quality wines and ports. Irish emigrants pioneered viticulture from Mexico to South Africa to the remote regions of Australia and New Zealand. Some of the first vineyards of California’s Napa Valley were planted by gold-mining millionaire Samuel Brannan, son of a Waterford emigrant.
The oldest commercial surviving winery in California was the San Jose winery in Santa Barbara, owned by James McCaffrey, one of the first Irish gold pioneers to reach California in 1849.
Other Californian wineries founded by the Irish include Durney, Delaney Vineyards, Ravenswood, the Limerick Lane Cellars, Murphy-Goode and Kenwood (owned by the Lee family). Kevin Murphy‘s DuMol Pinot Noir from Sonoma County is acclaimed by connoisseurs as one of the new stars of American wine while his neighbour Raymond Twomey Duncan named his celebrated Twomey Merlot after his mother who came from Cork.
Moving east to New York, the River Café in Brooklyn is the place to go to sample the best of Winegeese chateaux and wineries from around the world, selected with award-winning care by owner Michael ‘Buzzy’ O’Keefe, a board member of the University of Limerick Foundation.
The Chateau Montelena Winery in the Napa Valley is run by Irish-American lawyer Jim Barrett. At the famous ‘Judgment of Paris’ tasting in 1976, his 1973 Chardonnay beat all its French competitors. A bottle of that vintage is in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
Jim and Steve Allen, founders of the Sequoia Grove Vineyards in California’s Napa Valley, are great-grandsons of a Donegal man called O’Nyon who changed his name to Allen after his marriage to a lady called Olive. Jim Allen has two kegs of Guinness sent to his cellar every year from which all Irish visitors are obliged to consume a pint.
Gavin Newsom, Governor of California since 2019 and co-proprietor (with oil tycoon Gordon Getty) of the Napa Valley’s Plump Jack Winery, is great-grandson of a Cork émigré. His ancestor, Edward Newsom, was Mayor of Cork in 1822.
The Grapes of Mexico
Born in the Aran Islands in 1847, James Concannon single-handedly revolutionised the Mexican wine trade when he persuaded the country’s President to import millions of cuttings of French varieties into the country. Concannon had performed this same trick some years earlier on his own estate in California’s Livermore Valley, planted with cuttings of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc, purchased directly from Château d’Yquem in France.
Wines Down Under
Second generation Irishman Maurice O’Shea is hailed as the man who first convinced Australians they could make wines every bit as good as the French. One of the top wine regions is the Clare Valley, a Tuscany down-under located 1400km west of Sydney and 130km north of Adelaide. First settled by the Irish in the 1840s, both the valley and its main town were named by Mayor Edward Gleeson after his home county; Clare’s town square is called Ennis.
Back east in New South Wales, the award-winning Windowrie Estate was established in 1959 by David O’Dea, a banker whose grandfather emigrated from Co. Clare to Sydney in the early 20th century.
Another wine-making dynasty with Ennis roots is that of the late Jim Barry, founder of both the legendary ‘Armagh‘ estate and the Lodge Hill Shiraz.
In 1980, Gerald Hughes left his hometown of Clontarf in 1980 and ‘went bush’, founding thee Carrick Hill vineyard in Western Australia’s Margaret River. Denis Horgan of Cork founded the nearby Leeuwin Estate; his ‘Perth Rose’ niece Naomi Horgan won the Rose of Tralee in 1995. Other Margaret River vineyards with strong Irish roots include those of Cullen and Lagan (Xanadu). The Fermoy estate in Western Australia was named by descendants of Scottish entrepreneur, John Anderson who, as well as designing the town of Fermoy, Co. Cork, developed the roads and started the mail coach system in Ireland.
The Sarsfield estate in Victoria is named for General Sir Patrick Sarsfield, the original Wild Goose.
Further afield in New Zealand, the Hunter and Forrest houses both have Irish connections through the late Ernie Hunter’s Belfast roots and Brigid Forrest’s Cork connections.
‘Ashbourne’, the South African pinotage from Hamilton Russell Vineyards in South Africa’s Hemel-en-Aarde Vally is named after the present owner’s great, great grandfather, Baron Ashbourne, Lord Chancellor of Ireland. The Coleraine Wines in the Paarl region are named for the Kerr family’s Ulster ancestors.
Present Day Vineyards of Irish Interest
The idea of owning a vineyard might not be everybody’s dream. But, by God, I’d say it works for a lot of us. If the climate keeps roller-coasting, who knows, perhaps we’ll be able to grow vines throughout the four provinces of Ireland.
In 1998, the McGrath family of Cappoquin proved you could grow a fine white from vines planted in the Blackwater Valley of Co. Waterford. I also have friends who began growing vines on the shores of Clew Bay in 2018.
But otherwise, our best bet is to move abroad. That’s what former ‘Social & Personal‘ publisher Nell Stewart-Liberty did when she took on the 19th century Chateau Soussasc in Bordeaux.
Likewise, Kilkenny born Gay McGuinness quit running a freight company to successfully team up with wine maker Ciaran Rooney at the Domaine Des Anges vineyard in Provence.
The winemaker at Châteaux du Tertre and Giscours is another Kilkenny man, David Fennelly.
Roisín Curley, a pharmacist from County Mayo, is a micro-négociant who makes small-scale wines in Burgundy.
Isla Gordon (née Couchman) of Carlow and her New Zealand-born husband Paul are winemakers and owners of Domaine La Sarabande in Languedoc in the south of France, where they have lived since 2009
Sinéad and Liam Cabot have been growing grapes and making wine at the Roka estate in Slovenia since 2015.
Other Irish citizens with French vineyards include former racehorse trainer David O’Brien and his wife Catherine (Château Vignelaure), Terry Cross (Château de La Ligne) and Lochlainn and Brenda Quinn (Château de Fieuzal, Bordeuax).
On a different tack, Kildare-born Gerard Lynch of Cuvee Speciale moved to Paris in 1992 and went on to be one of the top 10 independent wine traders in France.
Sips from the Casket
The Norsemen of Limerick paid Brian Boru an annual tribute of ‘a casket of red wine for every day of the year‘.
In 1177, Theobald FitzWalter, Chief Butler to Henry II and ancestor of the Butler family, was granted the exceedingly juicy right to collect two barrels of wine from every thirteen entering the ports of Ireland.
Kinsale was a designated Wine Port and supplied ships for the Vintage Fleet (forerunner of the British Navy) as far back as the 15th century. In 1412, the Vintage Fleet of some 160 vessels plying from Bordeaux included five Irish owned vessels – three from Kinsale and two from Dublin.
Spanish sherry firm Pedro Domecq was founded as a bodega in 1730 by Irish farmer Patrick Murphy. Fifty years later, Wexford man William Garvey set up his own sherry business in Jerez de La Frontera.
The Madeira wine of Cossart-Gordon is named for William Cossart, a Dublin-born Hugenot who joined the firm in 1808.
Founded in 1997, the Order of the Wine Geese is an honour exclusively open to members of the wine industry of Irish descent.
Ireland’s International Museum of Wine is housed in Desmond Castle, Kinsale, Co. Cork, and tells this romantic tale of the Irish emigrants and the vineyards of the world.
This is based on an article that originally featured in Cara magazine in June 2007.