Several months ago, as my family and I planned our vacation to Ireland, my excitement built steadily in anticipation of all the wonderful things we would see and do. But, mostly, I couldn’t wait to dive into the Irish food and wine scene that I’d read so much about, a cultural renaissance that started to sweep the country during the heyday of the Celtic Tiger phenomenon. From what I had read, culinary invention and innovation was still the norm, despite the horrific downturn in the Irish economy. In fact, the emphasis on local, sustainable, and organic cuisine seemed only to have intensified with time. Wine in Ireland, I figured, had to be at least keeping up. And, with such close proximity to the great growing regions of Europe, the lists in Ireland must be bursting with unknown producers and grapes, just waiting for me to discover them. Sadly, I was more often wrong than right.
In the ten days we spent in Ireland, before heading over to London for a jam-packed weekend, we ate meals, with wine, in Galway, Killarney, Cork, Kinsale, Kilkenny, Trim, and Dublin. Surprising was the wine list that strayed beyond the odd but customary format of listing wines by country, and then only offering one wine per nation. Most lists separated the reds and whites, and in each section you’d see headings for France, Italy, Australia, and Chile. Sometimes listings would change a bit and places like Spain or Argentina would nab a spot in the starting lineup. Another odd consistency with wine lists was the almost complete absence of red Burgundy. Well, that category popped up once or twice, but the listed offering each time was a Beaujolais from a big producer like Jadot or Dubouef. I asked one owner about this and she explained that she stopped buying it because she couldn’t sell it. Pinot noir just didn’t move, she complained. And, although she had been in the restaurant business for many years, she still wasn’t sure why. Of course, I had no idea why this was the case, but I did know that I was a little more disappointed each time I ran into a wine list without any pinot noir.
In most places, prices revealed the typical 100-200 percent markup, and despite the power of the euro, the numbers weren’t all that different from what you’d run into back home here in the States. That was to be expected, but the real disappointment came when opening the wine list, regardless of where you were in Ireland, and finding many of the same labels from all the same producers. It seemed as if one distributor or importer held sway over much of the country. More than once I settled for a beer because of the lack of choice or the way that the restaurant stored, handled, or served their wines. There were exceptions to this rule, praise be to St. Patrick. The Malt House and Ard Bia at Nimmo’s in Galway both carried short lists but seemed to make an effort at being creative and interesting while remaining affordable. Similarly, the Loch Lein Country House and Lord Kenmare’s in Killarney both offered wines that matched their menus perfectly. Not a load of choices, but what was available avoided mass-produced, generic labels, which were all too plentiful in most restaurants.
At Fishy Fishy Café in Kinsale, the extensive wine list, heavy with great whites from around the world, offered sturdy support to a menu that year in, year out, has made this spot one of the top fish restaurants in Ireland.
In Dublin, we went four-for-four when looking for wine: at Fallon & Byrne for lunch, and at Bedlam, Darwin’s and Trocadero for dinner. Each establishment offered interesting selections that complemented the cuisine, and service was friendly, knowledgeable, and professional. None of the bottles we enjoyed, even the occasional splurge, broke the bank.
So, while I’m happy to report that the food we found in Ireland, at almost every meal, was fresh and deliciously prepared, the wine scene hasn’t quite caught up, and that was a bit of a let-down. As our trip wound down and visions of home came more into focus, I started thinking about what sat waiting for me in my garage. I’ve said it before, but it’s certainly appropriate to say again here, living in Northern California completely spoils wine lovers. And I’m not ashamed to describe myself as being exactly that, a spoiled wine lover. When I got home, I knew that my anxiety about the daily search for decent wine would be at an end. I loved being in Ireland, but it was great to come home. I’m not sure, but I think my wine fridge missed me.