A Great Kick-Off to the Wine Geese Tastings with MW Jane Boyce

Those lucky enough to catch the first of the Wine Geese tastings yesterday evening with the charming and incredibly knowledgeable Jane Boyce (Master of Wine) were treated to a superb tasting of 7 wines with a distinctly Irish connection, culminating in a showdown between 2 great Bordeaux crus: Chateau Phélan-Ségur 2005 (Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel) and Chateau Langoa-Barton 2008 (Troisième Cru). Master of Wine is the highest-ranking qualification in the wine trade and Jane occupies the remarkable position of being the only female MW in Ireland. By the end of the evening, it was clear why Jane holds this accolade – her knowledge of all matters wine related is extraordinary and she imparts it in an effortless, easy-to-follow style.

The 7 wines tasted, sponsored by James Nicholson Wines, were carefully selected by Jane with the help of Conor O’Brien of JN Wines, and I have to say, their selection was spot on: it was varied, and aptly demonstrated the importance that the Irish have played in the production of wine over the years.

Proceedings got underway with a glass of one of the oldest sparkling wines in the world – a Blanquette de Limoux. This one was rosé from a vineyard started “by a Dutchman and a West Cork lady”: Rives-Blanques Blanquette Limoux 2009 (Limoux, France). A beautiful salmon colour with lots of tiny bubbles, a rich, open nose of red–berried fruits and biscuity notes. The palate was soft and creamy with apricot and a hint of rhubarb on the finish. A flying start!

The second wine was from Chateau Vignelaure La Source 2011 (Provence, France). Another rosé, but without the bubbles this time, and much lighter in colour than the last. Rose hip and soft raspberry on the nose, with sweet peach on the palate and a streak of minerality on the finish. So where’s the Irish connection? Jane related how this vineyard was lovingly restored from a ruin over 20 years ago by Catherine and David O’Brien (of the famous horse-training family) to become a producer of world-class wines. This is the same estate that produces the well-known L’Esprit de Nijinsky, named after the 1970’s Triple Crown Winner trained by Vincent O’Brien. They sold the estate in 2009 to a Dutch owner and moved to Australia. The current owners still value the Irish connection.

Wine number 3 brought us to Clare Valley in Australia. Clare Valley is one of Australia’s oldest wine regions, named by Irish settler Edward Burton Gleeson, who arrived there in the 1840s, and decided it resembled his home county of Clare. Clare Valley is famous for its Riesling and Jane talked us through a 2012 Riesling from Pikes Wines. She chose this one to demonstrate the expression of pure fruit that Riesling exudes before it develops its trademark kerosene notes (for some reason Australian Riesling develops kerosene aromas much quicker than Rieslings from Alsace). This was full of lemon and lime notes both on the nose and the palate with a touch of orange rind in the background, perfectly echoing Jane’s point about pure fruit.

We closed off the whites with a 2009 Barrel Selection Roussanne from the Languedoc. This barrel-fermented gem is made by Domaine Sainte Rose, which is owned by Northern Ireland couple Charles and Ruth Simpson, who left their respective international careers to pursue their dream of establishing a boutique vineyard and winery in 2002. This was my favourite of the whites with its ripe fruit, rich texture, smoky aromas and a spicy backbone, but it split the room as some found the oak too overpowering. For all the oak, I found it well-balanced, but agree it would probably work better with food. Jane recommended pairing it with chargrilled meats or smoked salmon.

Over to the reds: first up a delicious 2008 Pinot Noir from the Central Otago region of New Zealand under the label Mount Edward Estate. We discovered that the existence of Pinot Noir in the world’s most southerly vineyard region can be accredited to an Irishman – Alan Brady, who hailed from the foothills of the Mourne Mountains. Despite being told he was crazy to plant such a difficult variety, Alan persevered and was responsible for the first Pinot Noir plantings in Central Otago with several other growers following suit shortly after. This Pinot Noir is delicious with its silky texture, rich cherry fruit and mix of spice and dried herbs.

Keeping the best till last, Jane instructed us to have 2 glasses to the ready for the gran finale: a showdown between two great Irish Bordeaux families: the Phélan-Ségur’s of Sainte-Estèphe (or formerly of Tipperary) and the Langoa-Barton’s of St Julien (originally from Fermanagh and Kildare). Wines were carefully poured and we were under strict instruction not to mix up the glasses. Vigorous swirling of glasses and sniffing ensued, whilst Jane recounted the story of how these two Irish names came to be associated with great Bordeaux wine houses.

Thomas (French Tom) Barton left Fermanagh for France in 1722 and made his money trading Cognac for Irish wool. The Barton family went on to become the most important traders of fine wines in the Médoc – the Barton name is linked to several famous Chateaux, the best known perhaps being Léoville-Barton, which still belongs to the Barton family. Anthony Barton was born and raised in Ireland. He grew up on the family estate, Straffan House in Kildare, now the K Club – hence the Kildare connection! The Phelans – the accent was added later – arrived in Bordeaux around 1796 from Clonmel, Co. Tipperary after an invitation from a family friend, Hugh Barton, (yes, the same Bartons) who was already a well-established wine trader in Bordeaux. Bernard Phelan bought Clos de Garramey in Ste. Estephe and soon established himself as a highly respected winegrower. He purchased Chateau de Ségur in Ste. Estephe later and merged the two properties to create Chateau Phélan-Ségur.

And the wines: well, the contest was a little unfair as the Phélan-Ségur had a 3 year head-start on its Haut Médoc neighbour, which meant the tannins had started to mellow and the fruits, ripe blackcurrant and plum, were just beginning to come to the fore. Coupled with that, 2005 was also a fantastic vintage, which, Jane informed us, made the “en primeur” tastings a whole lot easier that year. However, the Langoa-Barton, once you fought your way through the tannins, had good depth of rich black fruit and an excellent structure – you can’t rush a good Bordeaux and this one just needed a little time.

So who won? Well, most preferred the Phélan-Ségur to its youthful counterpart, therefore, I guess the Blue & Gold of Tipperary won this particular challenge, but there were still a few flying the flag for the Lillywhites – and given the age and vintage credentials of the Phélan-Ségur, perhaps the Langoa-Barton should have been awarded a handicap. There’s only one thing for it – we’ll have to revisit this in a few years when both have had time to develop and the playing field has leveled out.

Back to the present: even though the results of the Irish/Bordeaux challenge may have been inconclusive, what Jane’s tasting showed was the immensely important role played by the Irish in winemaking all over the world. It has certainly whet my appetite to learn more about the Wine Geese – can’t wait for the next events to find out more!

We’d like to thank Jane for sharing her time and knowledge with us, and hope she’ll come back to Cork again soon. We’d also like to thank Conor O’Brien for organizing a fantastic event and Nicholson Wines for sponsoring fantastic wines. All wines available online at www.jnwine.com

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The next event is Jean-Charles Cazes of Chateau Lynch-Bages in the Grainstore in Ballymaloe on Sun 10th March. This event is almost sold out, so hurry if you don’t want to miss it!

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