Oh but there does seem to be a bit of ranting out there at the moment. Before I join in I have 3 quick questions on art, literature and fashion that I’d like you to have a look at:

1. You have a space on your wall you’d like to fill, would you rather

a. buy a poster for your wall now?

b. save for a few months for an original print or painting that you fell for or one by an artist you happen to rate?

c. save for a one-off by a grand master? (good luck with that)

2. You’re on holiday relaxing by the pool or on the beach or inside by the fire, would you rather

Beach Ball, Donegal

a. flick through a gossip magazine?

b. read a John Grisham or similar?

c. devote yourself to something you read a great review about and have been waiting until you had the time to do so?

3. You’re getting married, would you rather

a. wear something you picked up in Penney’s?

b. save to buy something off the rail in a department store or independent shop?

c. save up and go to a tailor/dress-maker?

There is obviously no wrong answer here, and I’d probably answer a, b and c to all three questions depending the mood I’m in when asked. [Small pause] Well, maybe not to that last one unless I were a serial bride, but if the wedding funds were such that it meant party or dress, I’d go for a frock from Penneys and a good knees up over a great dress and no guests any time.

I hope you get the point though. There is a great deal of snobbery out there when it comes to my line of work, wine. But no more than you can get from art critics or film buffs, book reviewers or fashion critics. Sometimes an airport novel is just what you need, it’ll do exactly what it says on the tin, and the same applies to a good old rom-com DVD.  I think that maybe the wine trade itself has a lot to answer for, reviewers have used overly flowery language or deliberately talk in exclusive jargon and it can be hard to explain the price differences between vintages or even decipher some labels. Wine snobs are a nightmare, I know.

photo: Robert Hunter

If you think of literature; say you read a novel by a certain author that completely knocks your socks off, be it a love story or thriller, then you are far more likely to pick up the author’s next offering, or try something he or she wrote previously. You are not going to assume that you will now love all thrillers or that all love stories are going to rock your boat. Something like ‘The Time Traveller’s Wife’ or ‘Dr Zhivago’ is hardly the same as a Mills & Boon (for the record I happen to quite like a Mills & Boon once in a while but I would never rate one in my all-time great reads). Or take music, you are hardly likely to go into a shop, or go to iTunes and get yourself any old tune categorised as ‘Rock’ just because you’re a big fan of The Rolling Stones. When it comes to film, would you like to see only main-stream, box office successes available? Or would you like to support the independent, sometime kookie, often amazing work the small, lesser known directors and producers come up with? [That reads a bit odd to me, I don’t mean that tall producers can’t be lesser known or come out with amazing films…. That’s probably not helped either.] It’s the same with wine, the grape is perhaps one of the least important pieces of information on the label – just because you like a wine made from the Merlot grape variety by producer X does not mean you now like all wines made from Merlot. Nor that if you like one Côtes du Rhône you’ll like all Côtes du Rhône (or the inverse). A pair of jeans from Penney’s is not the same beast as a pair of jeans from Levis but both are a pair of jeans. You don’t say ‘I don’t like cotton’ because you had a bad changing room experience with a t-shirt in Gap (I blame the mirror). Importantly this is not to say that all designer wines are expensive, neither am I saying all mass produced ones are bad.

photo: Robert Hunter

By the very nature of production, something that is mass produced is never going to be as interesting as its counterpart. How can it be? It can be good, it can be reliable, it can be safe, but hardly interesting. A fast food meal will taste the same no matter where in the world you are when you eat it (and yes, this can be a good thing). With wine you need to follow the artist, or talk to someone trustworthy who knows their stuff – your independent retailer for example. He or she will want your business, will want you to come back, to be satisfied with what you got the last time. He or she will probably have tasted the majority if not all the wines in the shop. This is not something you will get from your supermarket, especially not your discount supermarket.

When I read magazine wine reviews I get increasingly frustrated. For the most part the fashion pages are full of clothes I would have to really save up for – that said, I like what I read, even if I don’t like it, if you know what I mean. The beauty pages are inevitably about creams, potions and make up that I would be hard pushed to find on the shelves of say Aldi or Lidl (I am an avid reader of the beauty pages, needing more help than previously, I’m not sure why my mother keeps staring back at me out of my mirror). I don’t remember the last time I saw a review of a made-for-TV film, or something from my trusty Mills & Boon. The restaurant pages are not about the latest offerings from the Tesco or Dunnes Cafés. So why is it that I seem to be seeing a lot of bland supermarket wines there, and ones that are being sold almost below cost being touted as ‘good’? Why can’t wine prices mirror those of the fashion and beauty pages? As suppliers we often hear ‘only put forward wines that are widely available’ the implication here being wines available in supermarkets and off licence chains. Isn’t this the equivalent of asking restaurant reviewers to stick to places that have a branch in every major town in the country, or fashion reviewers to only look at high street offerings? For film critics to only write up films on general release and art critics to review nothing but mass produced posters? Where’s the room for the small guy? The artist starting out? The first time novelist? How will anything become better know unless people read about it somewhere first?

If you want alcohol and you don’t want to pay over a certain amount per glass then why not buy something a little more interesting than a mass produced supermarket wine? Why not try an Irish made beer, stout or cider – there are loads of really amazing ones out there at the moment. Or what about making cocktails? There’s more value, fun and flavour to be had with these than the majority of cheap supermarket wines. Please, please whatever you do, do not judge all Chablis or Châteauneufs, Chardonnays or Merlots against what you may pick up off the supermarket shelf. But if you do want a good bottle of wine, why not trade up by a just couple of euro, and talk to your local independent.

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Calories on menus and ingredients on wine labels. Where are we going with all this? Fat doesn’t necessarily make you fat, excess sugar that does that. If you look at something that’s fat-reduced or fat-free beside its wholesome counterpart you’ll notice on the nutritional breakdown that there’s usually more sugar of one kind or another in the reduced fat product to make up for the lack of flavour, not to mention a whole load more chemically sounding ingredients. I think the untouched version is probably much better for you. And research is now showing that the body treats different forms of calories in different ways, and that it’s not as simple as ‘calories in – calories out’ so this no doubt means 500 calories of chips or chocolate is a completely different beast from 500 calories of say avocado, or apple (sadly).

What about wine then? Do we need to label all the ingredients? Or just the added ingredients? Or the contents? What’s the difference?

When it comes to the ingredients, obviously there are grapes for a start. Yeast can be added but there are also wines that are produced using the naturally found yeasts in the atmosphere. And we can have inoculated yeasts – laboratory developed, these have been demonised recently in no small thanks to the ‘Natural Wine’ movement but is there really anything wrong with them? Should we stop pasteurising milk? Can we not have the choice of both pasteurised and unpasteurised, inoculated and non-inoculated without one being considered superior to the other – non-inoculated yeasts, considered more ‘natural’ can bring problems of their own; problems which can be vastly more complicated and damaging to wine, e.g. ‘stuck ferments’ – when fermentation doesn’t finish (some yeasts can’t ferment past a certain alcohol level and this is unfortunately something you cannot predict but only find out once it’s too late.)

Much has been discussed recently about putting ‘contains sulphites’ on a wine label. We need to put ‘contains sulphites’ on the wine label as some people, for example some asthmatics are allergic to sulphites. But also people think it’s important to have this on the label because they consider sulphites to be bad. What about ‘contains sugar’?  There are 2 primary sugars in wine: glucose and fructose, and around 2 – 4g of non-fermentable residual sugars are left in an average litre of dry wine. Perhaps we should add ‘contains tartaric acid/malic or lactic acid/citric acid’ all of which are bad for your teeth. But let’s go back to sulphites (and please note, in wine we are not talking about the element sulphur, as wrongly quoted by many, rather we are talking about sulphites , specifically sulphur dioxide, SO2). On a label it might say ‘contains sulphites’ but it’s important to note that sulphites are naturally produced in small quantities as a by-product of the fermentation process, so all wine contains sulphites.

However many producers, good and bad, also like to add sulphites in the form of SO2 etc. Why? Because of, among other things, its anti-bacterial, anti-fungal,  and anti-oxidative properties, and it is important to note that SO2 is in fact… wait for it… natural! Is it any worse than adding ascorbic acid, in the form of say lemon juice, to stop an apple browning? (And doesn’t ascorbic acid sound more ‘chemically’ than vitamin C or lemon juice? A lot’s in the name) Labels can be very misleading. Take ‘homemade’, let’s just say my children would not wear anything made in this home, I can hardly sew on a name-tag let alone knit a jumper, they’d far rather shop-bought, factory-made clothing and rightly so in this case. What about ‘organic’, what does really that mean? Does ‘organic’ = good, or imply a better product than a non-organic one? I’d argue that ‘organic’ is a philosophy more than a measure of standards. As we have said before, more emphasis should be placed on the artist, the person making the wine than just the techniques used. If something is organic, biodynamic or ‘natural’ as well as being made by a person who knows what they’re doing then so much the better. But please don’t get me wrong, I am not against organic and biodynamic products, quite the opposite. I just don’t believe that putting so on the label automatically means the product will be good.

Dig in! (photo: Domaine de l’Oratoire St Martin)

There is a big difference between ‘contains sulphites’ and ‘sulphites added’ but neither is bad. The perception is that sulphites cause headaches and allergic reactions; however this is now being challenged. Firstly, and I may be stating the bleeding obvious here, it is important to look at the quantity of wine drunk before a headache comes on as this is more often than not THE major factor. New studies are also pointing towards biogenic amines being the culprits when it comes to headaches. And what are these? Well they are naturally occurring, produced by bacteria, chiefly pediococcus, and they cause feelings of nausea and headaches, and, funnily enough, it’s sulphites that are used to prevent these appearing in wine. Biogenic amines are generally created when wine is left unprotected by SO2. (To protect against oxidation you can use a carbon dioxide or nitrogen layer – these two inert gases are sometimes used to sit as a layer on top of the wine to protect it). So once the wine has finished fermenting if left unprotected you can have the creation of these biogenic amines with beautiful sounding names such as: Histamine – involved in allergic reations; Tyramine – linked to migraines; Putrecine and the even more delightful sounding Cadavarine – Google both of those, they’re only gorgeous. So if you’re complaining of a headache it could be that the wine you drank was too natural!

There is a misperception out there that ‘natural’ is better and when it comes to wine this also seems to be the case. But be warned, there is no official rule book for making ‘natural’ wine. ‘Natural’ wine makers are generally organic in their viticulture and don’t like to add sulphites nor use inoculated yeasts. The motives behind the ‘Natural’ wine movement are to be admired, but it has an aggressive campaign behind it, often taking the moral high ground. In fact many of the original members behind the movement have formed a splinter group. They are unhappy with the number of wine-makers who have jumped on the band-wagon and now ‘Natural Wine’ is not considered extreme enough, so make way for the ‘Vin Vivant’ producers – ‘Living Wine’ is the new black.

added on 16 October 2012:

great piece by Tyler Colman, also known as Dr Vino, wine writer and teacher,

http://www.drvino.com/2012/10/16/contains-sulfites-meant-frighten-information/ to quote one paragraph:

So if you’ve ever wondered why dried fruits that have higher levels of sulfur than wine contain no government warning, now you know why. First, they’re regulated by different agencies (TTB vs FDA). Second, there’s no anti-dried fruit lobby.

This February, for the month that’s in it, we are running an offer through our website on wines from the Northern Rhône, an area close to our heart. Below are the producers that feature. If you are interested in availing of the offer please visit our site to find out more.

DOMAINE DU MONTEILLET

Stéphane Montez

The Montez family live in a remote set of disjointed buildings high above the Rhône River in Chavannay. The domaine is sandwiched between the cliff edge, that falls away to the Rhône and the imposing Mont du Pilat, which rises behind. The feeling of remoteness is set aside only when one dares to peer over the edge of the cliff, down to the hustel and bustle of the industry on the valley floor below. The range of wines produced at the domaine goes from Vin de Pays to St.Joseph, to Condrieu and Côte Rôtie. Stéphane Montez who today runs the family is a bundle of energy who in the ten years that we have been working with him has matured into one of France’s finest wine producers. Having started in 1997 with a constant sense of experiment, particularly with the use of wood, Stéphane has now settled down and has reached a stage where his understanding of his vineyards and how best to transform the grapes that come from them into wine, is at an imcomparable level. His wines have always had a delicious fruit character but today they also show a deep, underlying core of minerality allied to tremendous finesse. The overall range of wines is quite large but from top to bottom they are all outstanding examples

DOMAINE PATRICK ET CHRISTOPHE BONNEFOND

The terraces of Côte-Rôtie

Brothers Patrick and Christophe Bonnefond own, roughly, eight hectares of vineyard, the vast majority of which is in Côte-Rôtie, but with one hectare of Condrieu and a very small amount of Vin de Pays. Prior to 1990, their father sold all his production to local merchants, but once the brothers took over they decided not only to bottle their own wine but also to increase their vineyard holdings. Eight hectares may not sound like much but eight hectares on some of the steepest and most sought after vineyards in France is quite considerable. Most of their holdings are in the Côte Brune, with significant parcels of Les Rochains, Côte Rozier and Rozier. The whole Bonnefond operation is very much a family affair. Patrick and Charles, the father, look after most of the vineyard work whilst Christophe is the winemaker. Most producers will tell you that the most important work is done in the vineyards but in reality to produce truly outstanding wine a certain amount of genius is also required in the cellar and Christophe is unquestionably one of the region’s greatest winemakers. Of all the producers of Côte-Rôtie that we have tasted over the last eight years, Christophe is without doubt the one who has made the most progress in terms of quality.  He has become more pragmatic over the years regarding his vinfication and barrel ageing and the wines today certainly possess a greater sense of balance between fruit and wood. The two top wines Côte Rozier and Les Rochains vie for top spot depending on the vintage. Côte Rozier with its easterly orientation performing better in hot years like 2003, Les Rochains which faces South coming out on top in cooler years like 2004. The Bonnefond brothers not only represent all that is good in the recent changes in Côte-Rôtie, they also remain immeasurably modest both in character and pricing, despite all their success.

DOMAINE MICHEL ET STÉPHANE OGIER

Domaine Michel et Stéphane Ogier

Stéphane Ogier is a legend in the making and the really good news is that at thirty three years of age we are only at the very start of his career. Stéphane has talent to burn and today produces the most elegant and fine wines of all of Côte-Rôtie. After studying for five years in Beaune he returned to the family domaine to take over from his father Michel. From his time spent in Burgundy it is clear when tasting Stéphane’s wines how much it has influenced what he is trying to achieve. Even his great Cuvée Lancement is (half) jokingly referred to as his “Musigny”. After recent purchases the domaine’s vineyard holdings cover just over 12 hectares: three and half in Côte-Rôtie, six in Vin de Pays between Côte-Rôtie and Condrieu and one and a half hectares in the exciting re-planted vineyard area of Seyssuel to the north of Vienne on the eastern side of the Rhône. The latest addition is 1.2 hectares of Condrieu with 2007 being the first vintage to be released. The Côte-Rôtie holdings are split between the Côte Brune but with a significant parcel in the Lancement parcel on the Côte Blonde. The granite soils of the Blonde providing the elegance and finesse, the mica-schist soils of the Brune bringing intensity and minerality. Stéphane has improved the quality of fruit emerging from the vineyards and has redefined the vinification process completely, moving to a modern approach, more Burgundian in its style. He has adopted a pragmatic approach, cooling the fruit when he needs to, starting the ferments cool but allowing them to rise in temperature almost as much as they want towards the end and really only employing pump overs as a method of extraction. Stéphane has also adapted the length of the barrel ageing, particularly after the first year, depending on the vintage and the quality of the fruit.

DOMAINE DU COULET

Ovoid fermentation tanks at the domaine

Matthieu Barret, the owner of Domaine du Coulet, is going to become the star of Cornas and to our mind one of the emerging greats of the Northern Rhône. Mathieu only started at the domaine in 1998 as his family previously either sold the production to local negociants or had the land rented out to other growers. When Matthieu finally takes back all the vineyards he will in fact become the largest landowner in Cornas with approximately ten hectares. Don’t be fooled by the first impression of his apparent laid back nature because behind that facade is a desire to place his domaine and his appellation to the forefont of Northern Rhône. Cornas often suffers in comparison to other Northern Rhône appellations because the wines can be both powerful and rather aggressive in terms of their tannins. The appellation is sandwiched between two limestone outcrops, the Rocher de Crussols and the Rocher de Rochepertuis whilst the main soil of the area under vine is a loose granite rock, known locally as gore. Matthieu is aiming to use this superb mineral soil to give his wines a real sense of freshness to balance the richness of the fruit from the South facing slopes. The domaine’s vineyards are essentially situated on the side of a mountain with the Brise Cailloux cuvée coming from the bottom slopes, Les Terrasses du Serre cuvée from the mid slopes and Billes Noires from the top of the mountain. A fourth red wine is produced under the Côtes du Rhône appellation and which comes from a tiny parcel of vineyard with a clay/limestone soil that lies between Cornas and St.Joseph and which has never been claimed by either appellation – hence Matthieu decided to call the wine “No Wine’s Land.” The domaine is certified biodynamic (Ecocert & Biodyvin) and Matthieu keeps the amount of sulphur he uses to an absolute minimum with the aim of providing the consumer with a wine that resembles as closely as possible the fruit produced in his vineyards. Vinification takes place in both in stainless steel tanks and increasingly in the ever popular cement eggs. These are ovoid fermentation tanks that allow the wine to remain in greater contact with the lees whilst the porosity of the cement also permits a certain amount of micro-oxygenation. For maturation Matthieu likes to use a mixture of different barrel sizes and different ages, displaying his pragmatic approach to wine making. The resulting wines are amazingly accessible for Cornas. They all possess excellent fruit concentration and lovely silkiness, present but fine tannins and wonderful minerality.

DOMAINE YANN CHAVE

Yann Chave

Yann Chave

Yann Chave today creates some of the best and most elegant wines of the Northern Rhône. Yann took over from his father, Bernard in 1996, having worked previously as a bank fraud inspector in Paris. Yann works his vineyards organically and in spite of the problems posed by certain vintages, such as the early part of 2007, he is convinced that he has gained a tremendous amount in terms of fruit quality. His vinification techniques differ depending on the wine. For the Crozes-Hermitage Tradition the wine is fermented only in tank with a gentle oxygenation to open up the wine in its youth.

John Livingstone-Learmonth writes of Yann in his book The Wines of the Northern Rhône “one of the best young men to appear in the northern Rhône in the past dozen years”

Jancis Robinson calls Yann “hugely gifted”.

DOMAINE

NO PRESSURE!

At the beginning of the year I was delighted and, above all, honoured to be asked to be a member of the jury asked to judge the wines from the 2009 and 2010 vintages in Côte-Rôtie at Le Marché aux Vins d’Ampuis. This annual show is one of the most important dates in the calendar for the producers of Côte-Rôtie and the neighbouring appellation of Condrieu. Over three and a half days 14,000 private buyers and professionals attend the fair with wallets at the ready, eager to secure what are sometimes miniscule allocations of some of the world’s most sought after wines.

Almost all the region’s producers are in attendance, including the large scale, well-known names of Guigal, Chapoutier and Jaboulet. In fact as with every year the only notable absentee was René Rostaing but then Rostaing has always marched to the beat of a different drum. For the private buyer it represents an incredible opportunity to taste all the top wines of the top producers under one roof. Generally speaking the wines that are on show are those that are commercially available from the estates but the growers are also expected to show the wines of the two most recent vintages that are either in bottle or ready to go to bottle, in this case 2009 and 2010.

As a regular visitor to the region I am fortunate to know who is making good wine and who is perhaps a little or, on occasion, a long way behind the play. However a quick visit to the fair will bring you up to speed in no time. Certain stands are thronged with visitors, each stretching over the next, holding out their glasses for a taste of the rare nectar whilst at others the producers stand forlornly behind their bottles waiting for a passer-by to stop out of curiosity or pity to sample their wines. This may sound harsh but just because Côte-Rôtie is a highly regarded appellation in terms of quality doesn’t mean that all the producers there make good wine. Year after year it is the same stands that are empty and it is on occasions like this that one realises the parochial nature of wine production in France and that for some producers it is just a basic agricultural activity in which they take part and from which they rarely look left or right to see what is happening around them. It’s a tough world out there making wine and sympathy won’t put food on the table for very long.

The competition for the wines of the vintage takes place on the Monday of the fair and the two vintages are divided amongst two tasting panels. The panels themselves are made up of winemakers from other regions, oenologists, barrel merchants, sommeliers and this year one Irish importer. This year each panel for the different vintages was made up of twelve people, split in turn, into groups of six. On my table were three sommeliers, one oenologist and one regional sales manager from Seguin-Moreau, the barrel maker. We were allocated the already highly rated 2009 vintage with an initial fifteen wines to judge (our fellow 2009 judges on the next door table having another, different fifteen to assess). Marks were to be awarded out of twenty with no specific direction from the organisers  to give marks for typicity, colour etc as the judges were already deemed to be experienced tasters. All the wines were tasted blind, labelled alphabetically A to O, and in a separate part of the building to the main fair. For me, the overall quality of the wines was excellent bar a few real shockers (see empty stands reference above). A lot of my scores were around the 14-15 point mark whilst the highest scorer was 17.5 and the lowest 8 ( I’m not totally lacking in sympathy). If I were to be critical I would say that the over-use of new oak was the main problem, giving the wines a sweetness that I find slightly sickly as well as contributing rough wood tannins. The best just shone like beacons – pure fruit, mineral backbones, lovely use of oak and overall great balance and always with a sense of understated majesty – in way that only the Northern Rhône can make Syrah appear.

(above: the Jury. Photo courtesy of www.leProgres.com)

An interesting element to the tasting itself was how different tasters score wines. Tasting opinions, I think, are sometimes reflective of people’s personalities. The introvert/pessimist taster is just much more severe than others often regarding a high score as being 12/20 whilst the extrovert/optmist throw scores of 18/20 or 19/20 around like confetti. Ultimately it didn’t matter as our scores were added up and averaged out but this thought struck me most obviously when  a sommelier scored one wine 17/20 whlist the barrel sales woman gave it an 11/20. His highest score was for a wine was 19, hers 13.

Once we got through the initial round the top three scoring wines from our table were put together with the top three wines of our fellow 2009 judges for a taste off. This time the two tables tasted the same six wines with the scores being averaged out. The top three wines from this second tier would then be awarded gold, silver and bronze, the places announced that lunchtime, followed by an unseemly scramble from the assembled masses in the main hall to purchase the winning wines. At this point it was interesting to note that there were three clear winners – no need to protest, re-taste, lie kicking and screaming on the ground or pull one’s hair out at the injustice of the results. Amazingly we all agreed on the winners. And the results…..well now that would telling. Suffice to say D came first, E second and B third.

Only kidding. Christophe Pichon placed first, Yves Cuilleron second and Patrick et Christophe Bonnefond third.

(above: The Winners – 2010 on the left, 2009 on the right. Photo courtesy of www.leProgres.com)

We’re coming to Cork and are very much looking forward to it. The venue is upstairs in the new star on the block, L’Atitude 51 on Union Quay.

The date is  Monday, 5th March and we’ll kick off at 7.30 pm

Simon will be talking you through 6 wines mainly from the Rhône Valley, but we may just hop outside of that area for one or two of these, and there will be tapas served to match each wine. The cost of the evening will be €15.00 per person and numbers will be limited to a maximum of 40 people. There will also be the option to stay on and avail of a set menu dinner; main course, dessert and coffee for just another €15.00 – if you are interested in this please be sure to mention when booking.

To book your place please call L’Atitude 51 on 021 2390219

Upstairs at L'Atitude 51

Upstairs at L'Atitude 51

Does climate change, even if we’re only talking about a temperature increase of 0.81°C, make a difference to what ends up in your bottle – or is it that simple?

The letter below was published in the Irish Times letters page of 24th January 2012. It was written in response to another letter, printed in the same pages on 16th January, which in turn was prompted by an article by John Wilson in the Irish Times Magazine of 7th January, 2012:

Sir,

In response to Jim Ryan’s (January 16th) letter on John Wilson’s article “Now for something different”, I would strongly disagree with his claim that a 0.81 increase of a degree Celsius is “hardly enough for…plants to notice.”

Whilst the increase seems insignificant in the greater scheme of things, it is actually the hotter temperatures during the growing season and in particular more frequent spikes in temperature that are causing problems for grape producers. Grape growing conditions are a complex subject and are affected by numerous macroclimatic conditions. Sunlight, rainfall, altitude and continentality as well as what is referred to as heat summation, all have a role to play with heat being responsible for 75% of the grape growth and ripening. Grape growers refer to the amount of heat generated during the growth season as growing degree days (GDDs). Added to this, mesoclimatic factors such as aspect, soil, wind exposure and bodies of water also have an influence on the ripening of grapes on the vine.

GDDs are calculated by taking the mean temperature for a month, subtracting ten and multiplying this figure by the number of days in the month. The GDDs for each month are then added together across the growing season (April-October in the Northern Hemisphere) to get the heat summation figure for the whole year. Typical GGD readings for well known grape growing areas are: Bordeaux 1440, the Barossa Valley, Australia 1680 and Burgundy 1100. These figures are used by the grape growing industry to help assign the correct grape variety to the correct area. For example the Syrah grape requires 1250 GDDs to ripen to a stage where it can be used to make dry table wine and therefore whilst not suited to Burgundy, it would easily ripen in the Barossa Valley.

Having obtained even fairly recent historical information from the weather station at Frankfurt airport in Germany it is clear to see that Mr. Ryan’s assertion that a small overall temperature increase has no affect on grape production is wrong. In 1997 the GDDs recorded at the station were 1317 and yet for the following fourteen years they were recorded at an average of 1474. In fact only 2010 had a lower reading with 1287 whilst the memorable heatwave summer of 2003 came in at 1700 GDDs. Under the 1997 reading a grape grower would have been recommended to plant varieties such as Chenin Blanc for whites and Merlot or Syrah for reds. In the intervening period that same grape grower would have regretted their decision as the advice today would be to plant traditional Mediterranean grape varieties such as Grenache Blanc and Mourvedre for whites and reds respectively such is the climatic change in the growing season. As for the traditional Riesling grape so commonly found in German vineyards, has Mr. Ryan not noticed that these wines are no longer found to be at the previous alcohol levels of nine or ten percent but more likely at twelve to thirteen percent? Riper grapes equals more sugar which equals more alcohol.

In addition, I don’t think any wine lover would dispute Mr. Ryan’s claim that Germany has been making good Pinot Noir for a long time but with the change in growing conditions I think it is safe to say that they are now doing so more regularly!

Yours faithfully,

Simon Tyrrell

And we love the reply in the paper today, 25th January 2012:

Sir, – I have just calculated the GDD (growing degree days) of my “Château Garage” 2011 utilising Simon Tyrell’s very helpful guide (January 24th) and using the mean temperatures from the Malin Head Weather Station, April to October 2011. It comes out at 656.1. I have one question: will it improve with age? – Yours, etc,

CORMAC MEEHAN,

Main Street,

Bundoran, Co Donegal.

This is a rant that was originally sent out as a Newsletter in July 2011. It prompted a lot of conversation for us and we feel it’s worth posting here. We’ve updated and edited it slightly (vat rate has changed etc.):

How do we compete with the large chains? Is it a matter of educating our target consumer? And if so how do we do that? Do we need to rely on word of mouth to promote our services (as opposed to advertising to promote our brand) and if so how do we maximize on this?

Ten years ago the independent off licences of this country had about a 50% share of the total off-premise sales of wine, beers and spirits but in the intervening years this has been steadily eroded to about 30% and continues to slide. Who have they lost out to? Well it’s of absolutely no surprise to know that the shift has been towards supermarkets and convenience stores such as Centra, Spar, Londis etc as well as newer arrivals Lidl and Aldi. Every time one of these opens it just continues to nibble away at what is left of the market for independents. If you were a true economic liberal you might just say ‘hard cheese, it’s the market that dictates’. We think the reality is more sinister and that the drinks business, particularly the wine side of it, is in danger of monopolised by a small number of extremely powerful retailers who not only control the domestic market but who also, due to their significant buying-power, have an adverse effect on grape production and winemaking.

Supermarkets are liable to mislead people regarding the true cost of a product. Below cost selling, a tactic to get customers through the door, is misleading as to the true value of a product. Items that are made in respectful and authentic ways naturally cost a certain price and if for example you find a bottle of wine in a supermarket at €4.99 or even €3.99 (and they do exist) you should question not only the quality of what is in the bottle but also the production methods that have been used by the winery to manage to get the juice into the bottle and for there still to be enough margin to satisfy the large retailer. A bottle of wine at €3.99 attracts 23% VAT, so remove 75 cents from the price. It also is subject to import duty of €1.97 (ex vat). Remove transport costs of approximately 20 cents and we get to €1.07. What are known as the dry materials cost at the very cheapest about 50 cents per bottle for the glass, the label, the capsule, the closure (plastic / cork / screwcap) and the carton. By now we have arrived at €0.57 and we haven’t taken into account advertising and promotion let alone a margin for the retailer or the producer. The message is pretty clear; wine can be had for cheap, but we are led to believe that this is all quite o.k. and that everyone is happy. Substitute wine with meat say and it isn’t nearly such a palatable idea. Think of what smoked salmon has become in the last 20 years, or going further back, even the humble chicken. Both used to be a luxury product, eaten on very special occasions and usually of very high quality. An average chicken on the supermarket shelf is apparently only 30 days old and pumped with goodness knows what to get it from egg to shelf so quickly. Smoked salmon fills lunchtime sandwiches, is mass produced and fed a diet of antibiotics. These foods are practically affordable on a daily basis if you buy the cheapest quality. Who was responsible for this degradation of such wonderful foodstuff – the salmon and chicken farmers or the large retailer, or maybe the consumer? (Do we deserve what we get?)

the steep terraces at Côte-Rôtie where alll the vineyard work has to be done by handThere are apparently means afoot to get wine producers to state on the label all the ingredients that have been used to make a wine. This could potentially help the smaller, quality focused grower (for example someone in Côte-Rôtie, see image, here all the work in the steep terraced vineyards has to be done by hand.) How palatable will it be to the consumer to see that their favourite bottle of cheap white wine has additions of ascorbic acid, sugar, pectolytic enzymes, sulphur dioxide, tartaric acid, cream of tartar, bentonite, maybe a touch of copper sulphate and some more sulphur dioxide. Admittedly some or all of these may be used by quality focused growers but rarely in the systematic way employed by large scale industrial growers. In fairness it should be said that despite the chemical sounding names not all these added ingredients are ‘bad’ but it does take away from the romance of it all.

The other obvious issue regarding the retailing of wine and the difference between the small independents and the large scale retailers is the level of service. Unless you are exceptionally well-read on the subject of wine your chance of picking up something really interesting in a supermarket has to be severely limited by the fact that no one is on hand to advise you. Therefore the obvious choice is to reach for a recognisable brand, instantly putting you into a zone of bland, heavily manipulated wines. The dedicated independent on the other hand has often spent years honing their range, and their knowledge of that range, in order to better guide you, the consumer. An independent merchant could well carry up to a thousand different wines but if he or she is any good they will have probably tasted the vast majority of those.

We should never underestimate the desire of the large groups to wipe out the competition and we all know it’s not just in the areas of food and drink retailing (however the availability of cheap alcohol is another whole kettle of fish – just to mix the old food and drink mataphors up a bit – and another day’s blogging). Their thirst to do so though leads them ultimately to join forces with the large scale producers. Imagine there are, say, 300 branches of supermarket inIrelandand each store sells twenty cases a year of a given wine. That means for the Irish arm of this supermarket alone a winery needs to be able to supply 6,000 cases or 72,000 bottles in a year. Most small or medium-sized producers don’t even make that amount.

Individuality, high quality, knowledge in wine and great service is not going to be found amongst the shelves of a supermarket. However it is more likely than not, be found at your dedicated local independent off licence or wine shop.

A fewmonths after we had first sent out this in newsletter form two other very interesting blog posts appeared, sparked by a Lidl promotion. One by Kevin Ecock (which was then followed by an article by Conor Pope in the Irish Times) and the other by Liam Cabot, of Cabot & Co in response to that article, both well worth the read.

We’ve been thinking about blogging for some time now, and reckon that it’s probably a better way to keep customers and those interested up to date with what we’ve got going on. We’ll continue with the Newsletter for the time being but will post some of the older ones here, that way you can easily have a read of older ones. So without wanting to start with too much repetition we would like to wish you a Happy New Year (it’s still January after all) and to give a little advance warning of the upcoming Bin End Sale which will be this February. Subscribers to our eNewsletter will have advance notice of the sale, so if you would like to be included please fill in your details in the box on the website, or send us an email ( wine@thewinestore.ie ) and we will add you to our emailing list.

We have a few bits of good news, including the four wines that were included in the Irish Times Wines of the Year by John Wilson (Friday December 2nd 2011) which will still be available at the old vat rate until the end of the month at least:

Domaine de la Renaudie, Chenin Blanc, Touraine 2009

Dominio di Bibei, Lalama, Ribeira Sacra, 2007

Domaine du Monteillet, ‘les Hauts du Monteillet’ Syrah, 2009

Domaine de la Sarabande, ‘Misterioso’ 2010 Faugères

We are also delighted to be included again this year in John and Sally McKenna’s Bridgestone Best in Ireland Guide 2012 and are equally thrilled with our parent company, Tyrrell & Co. (Wine Importers) Ltd,  being named Best Fine Wine Importer of the Year 2011 by Tomás Clancy in the Sunday Business Post (Agenda Magazine, January 1, 2012)

As mentioned on the home page of the website we have not yet applied any price increases as per the new vat rate, so you can still avail of the old prices for a little while longer.

Up coming dates for the diary include:


Tastings at ely – many tastings arranged for the New Year
Including Thursday 2nd February: Châteauneuf du Pape (€40 per head) featuring Simon Tyrrell.(This event is now sold out but contact ely using the details below to find out more of other tastings on offer)

For details of this and more see www.elywinebar.com.
Tastings start at 18:45 sharp and take place in ely bar & brasserie, IFSC.
For more information or to reserve your place please contact wineclub@elywinebar.com or call 01 678 786