Tag Archives: wine



Flashback to twenty five years ago. I’m sat in a pub in Rathdrum, County Wicklow with cartoonist the late Terry Willers with whom I’m collaborating on a writing project when in walks a guy I know from the wine business. He is accompanied by his wife and daughter, the latter porting a long cardboard tube. From his briefcase the man takes a ring binder filled with notes, observations and naive sketches. He takes the tube from the daughter and extracts a set of plans, which he spreads out on the pub table. 


Pat Keown, the incomer, now proceeds to unravel his dream, his vision for a new restaurant. It is a strange concept, involving medieval monks and a good deal of religious imagery from churchy oak furniture to gregorian chant piped to the toilets, sorry, ‘convent’ and ‘cloisters’. Wife and daughter do not seem entirely convinced the project is a goer, judging by the sly way they look at each other before simultaneously raising their eyes to heaven as your man speaks. Terry is initially diffident until his cartoonist’s imagination takes over, whereupon he waxes enthusiastic and commences to visualise glasses place mats, menus and framed cartoons to reinforce the theme. A deal is struck.Later, Bill, the colleague who has driven me down, and I laugh all the way back to Dublin. “I’ll give it six months” he ventured.


Well, Bill old son, no second career as a prophet for you. Last week I dined in that very restaurant. Pat Keown’s off-the-wall vision is still extant, full of monky business. Pat  himself is still around. His son Julian runs the bistro that the original restaurant has spawned. Here we dined and observed it full-to-bursting. The restaurant’s masthead, ‘The Hungry Monk’, set in a mock medieval typeface that would seem ludicrous and vulgar in any other context, has been a fixture in Church Road, Greystones these past twenty-five years.


We had not bothered to book, not thinking it necessary of a Monday and were gobsmacked to find the dining room near-full. However, the pleasant waitress found us a table without any delay. We leaned back into our upholstered, somewhat less than penitential monks’ benches. I suggested to my companions that saying grace might be seemly.


A peek at the menu told us that the food offering, too, falls short of being penitential. We could see from the plates going to adjacent tables that portions were ‘humonkous’ (might as well get in on the act). The grub is unashamedly retro-mainstream, reading like a history of home cooking between 1960 and 1990, with a few nods to modernity here and there. There’s a fair bit of ‘monk-style’ this-and-that, as in the chips, the spicy chicken wings, etc. Clonakilty black pudding features, a yesteryear Irish success d’estime, considered abroad an epicurean treat. Did nobody tell them that this pud is largely passé, that 2013‘s chef favours a softer, oozier style of black pudding? Would they care?


My starter, the lamb’s kidneys Dijonaise, was a throwback to the days of Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson. I don’t know how many Wicklow lambs had donated their organs to this hunger-salving dish which comprised a substantial plateful of properly pinked tender slices, smothered in a rich fudge of cream, brandy, Dijon mustard and more cream. “Aren’t you afraid for your arteries?,” enquired Fenella, a local who had led us there in the first place. “Yes, but what the hell, I’m back on the rabbit food and green tea tomorrow.”  Sibella and Fenella were sharing the nearest The Hungry Monk gets to a ‘healthy option’, the goat cheese salad and the tautological ‘deep-fried Dublin Bay prawn scampi’. “Go easy on the homemade tartar sauce, dears,” I advised, mockingly.


The menu lists suppliers, denotes vegetarian dishes with a ‘V’. There is also a ‘C’ but I am unsure what this is for – mayhap the dreaded traces of nuts? The wine list, as one might expect, benefits from proprietorial input. The bistro offers ‘A selection of beauties from our list upstairs’, around 35 bottles, plus another 20 or so listed ‘house wines’ and a few half bottles. I know, from my omnipresence as a food and wine award judge, that the full Hungry Monk carte makes many a short list for ‘Wine Experience of the Year’. I was surprised, though, that vintages were not detailed. The thought of, say, an oaked white Rioja more than a couple of years old fills me with dread. I had the gut feeling that mark-ups were slightly high, but not enough to get antsy about. With two of us destined to drive we took it easy, ordering a bottle of the ever so reliable Joseph Drouhin St.Veran, priced, at €30.


While Fenella was negotiating for a seafood risotto containing zero molluscs, Sibs and I bickered over which one of us was to eat the retro classic duck with orange sauce. Oh, joy, no mere quintet of fey fanned-out slices of breast here, imagine a  big bold chunk, half a duck, honey-roasted until the skin gets crispy-crunchy then laid  on a bed of good scallion mash, surely a feast fit for Friar Tuck. In the event, we both ordered it and were pleased to find that the sauce, unlike the cornflour-driven swamp of memory, was light, sweet and piquant, the orange’s appeal augmented by sensitive use of Cointreau and star anise. If I am to be picky Sibella’s was perfectly cooked, mine a tad overdone, to the extent where the leg meat had become slightly stringy. Again, a minor gripe, for roasting till crisp is, by its nature, an imprecise process. Fenella’s risotto, of which I scammed a spoonful, was excellent.


The Hungry Monk, I saw from the menu, has a dedicated pastry chef, one David Gonzalez. Sibella and I benefited from this by way of an enchanting mille feuille, while Fenella’s request for a small cheese plate was readily accommodated. Interestingly, it contained three cheeses which different from those listed on the standard platter. I finished with an unremarkable) espresso. All we ate and drank came to €134, including a 10% service charge which I only noticed in hindsight. All three of us gave the Bistro a thumbs-up. Behind the playful gimmickry there’s a serious intent. I’m already planning to go back for a venial glutton-fest on the dry aged beef and pale ale pie.


The Hungry Monk Bistro, Church Road, Greystones, Co Wicklow Tel: 287 5759


Food ***1/2


Wine ****


Service ***1/2


Ambience ****


Value ***½


Overall ***1/2



Enjoy the wine you desire without pulling the cork


  • Explore your collection glass by glass, without committing to any bottle—or wasting a drop.
  • Get more adventurous with your food and wine pairings, and compare vintages and varietals.
  • Sip from your finest bottles, noting subtle changes in the wine’s evolution.


Oh I so want one of these yokes! Thanks to Martin Moran and Simon Woods for the heads-up.


Don’t pull the cork — just pour the wine – Business – The Boston Globe.

Coravin™ website





In the early post-apartheid years South Africa enjoyed considerable patronage from Irish wine drinkers. Today, however, inflation has ramped up prices, making them a hard sell. Initially, South African wine was massively over-hyped. Years of isolation left the industry with scant opportunity to investigate what was happening in other wine regions and bereft of self-criticism. South Africa was also lumbered with pinotage, an indigenous grape variety seen as a national treasure but which, maladroitly handled, produces a wine with an elastoplast nose and a palate revealing notes of ersatz coffee and smoking tyres. Better wine science, helped by Interaction with winemakers in other countries, subsequently improved the wines dramatically. A key factor in the quality hike has been the transference of varieties such as merlot and sauvignon blanc to more suitable sites. In this tasting we found many interesting wines – including a respectable pinotage! 21 wines tasted, 8 chosen, here are the first four. Caroline Byrne, wine columnist  for Irish Garden, deputises for Martin Moran, away judging in England..


Neil Ellis Aenigma 2007, Elgin €18.99 Mortons, Galway; www.drinkstore.ie, D7, 64 Wines, Glasthule. Co Dublin


EW: The cheaper of a brace from a respected winemaker, this was a Bordeaux blend where the mint and herbal fragrance of cabernet franc floated over substantial plum and cabernet fruit. Absorbing and well-made.

CB: Fragrant mineral nose, with a touch of green bell pepper leads into very drinkable merlot-led red and black berry fruit fruit.



Post House Penny Black 2010, Stellenbosch €25.99 Many independents including Hole in the Wall, D7; Matsons, Bandon, Co Cork; Grapevine,Glasnevin, D9; Mulcahy’s. Charleville, Co Cork


EW: An unfeasible pot pourri of shiraz, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot and chenin blanc (ours not to reason why) that  fuse into a beast of naked power that still manages to charm. Skillfully made – but pleading to be drunk with rich roast meats.

CB: Phew! A floral  plus heather-and-herb nose then an explosion of rich ripe fruit – everything from raspberries to damsons. Needs food.



Glen Carlou Pinot Noir 2011 Paarl €16.99 Florries Fine Wines, Tramore Co Waterford; Worldwide Wines, Waterford; www.fallonandbyrne.com, D2   BRONZE

EW: A fragrant floral and true-to-varietal nose segueing into strawberry and cherry fruit with good balancing acidity make for a very pretty, even elegant, wine. Good value too.

CB: An intriguing black pepper-spiked nose, with strawberry, anis and cake spices on the palate with a Graves-like powdery aftertaste. Very pretty wine.



Graham Beck Pinotage 2010, Robertson €15.99 www.obrienswine.ie and many independents. BRONZE

EW: Amazing! This ultra-reliable producer has made a ‘pinotage without tears’ even I can enjoy.  Fragrant lightly-roasted coffee, violets and bergamot on the nose. Abundant plummy fruit, highlighted by soft dark tannins and pluperfect acid balance. Long finish.

CB: By far the nicest of the pinotage we tasted. An attractive floral nose, followed by dense blueberry fruit with a hint of cumin and coffee.






If your grapes can’t stand the heat, get into shiraz, seems to be the mantra for modern South African winemaking writes Ernie Whalley. It’s a course of action I remember advocating on a visit there over twenty years ago after tasting a good deal of ‘overcooked’ merlot and pinotage. The suggestion was met with decided scepticism from grape farmers ingrained in the old ways. Things change – today syrah/shiraz is the cultivar that has shown the most dramatic growth in terms of plantings, new wines and competition entries.

The first confirmation of shiraz being planted on South African soil was at the end of the 1890’s in the vineyards of Groot Constantia. Later, some 15 examples are recorded as entries in the 1935 Cape Agricultural Wine Competition. Interestingly, 12 of these were sweet wines. By 1978 a mere 20 shiraz-based wines were recorded but the 1990’s saw a boom in plantings. Today shiraz is the country’s second largest planted red variety and fourth overall after chenin blanc (steen), cabernet sauvignon and colombard.


Bellow’s Rock Shiraz, 2011, Coastal Region €9.99 www.obrienswine.ie BRONZE


EW: A whiff of black pepper and allspice announces classical shiraz with a weight of greengage, dark plum and brambly fruit, with the alcohol sensibly constrained to 14.5% ABV. Excellent value.


CB: Floral nose with notes of black pepper and a whiff of spice. Plenty of rich fruit and a long finish. A touch of class about this wine.




Boland Cellar Five Climates Shiraz 2010 €13.99 Londis, Malahide, Co Dublin; Fresh Stores; Hole in the Wall, D7; 1601, Kinsale, Co Cork; Village Off Licence, D15 BRONZE


EW Spice and savoury fruit, a decent stab at producing a South African wine with Northern Rhone character. Pleasurable, greatly involving and good value for the ask.


CB: On the nose a compote of plum and morello cherry. Masses of plummy fruit on the palate, with grippy tannins that will help the wine develop.





Goats do Roam 2011, Paarl €12.99 www.sweeneys.ie, D11 and many independents BRONZE


EW: Charles Back’s vintage pun – Côtes du Rhône, geddit? –  still amuses and this balanced blend of Syrah (61%) plus 5 other grapes associated with the Southern Rhône proves reliable as ever.


CB: Not overly complex but well-made tasty stuff that emphasises good fruit selection and confident winemaking.




Delheim Cabernet Sauvignon, 2005, Simonsberg-Stellenbosch €15.99 www.obrienswine.ie nationwide SILVER


EW: Serious wine. Beautifully integrated fruit with an abundance of dark berries; tannins resolving nicely, good length. All-in-all, enticing well-structured wine that belies its age.


CB: Extraordinarily aromatic with a touch of smoke, blackcurrant and blueberry fruit. Well integrated oak and tannins.




READ ERNIE WHALLEY &  MARTIN MORAN every Sunday in ‘Sunday’ Magazine in The Sunday Times (IE)

BLOG – Albert Zenato in Dublin

My good friend Maureen O’Hara who runs Premier Wine Training sends me news that  Alberto Zenato will present a tasting of Zenato wines in Dublin, on Sunday evening, April 15th.

Until I get the event calendar up and running again, here are the details.

Places cost €20 per person. Space is limited, and places must be booked in advanced on-line, on www.premierwinetraining.com./

Venue is the  Radisson Blu Royal Hotel on Golden Lane, just off South Great George’s St, from 5-7pm.

Zenato is one of the Veneto’s most illustrious wine families, most famous for its award-winning Amarone and other appassimento styles wines.  This is a rare opportunity, open to all, to discover the broader range of Zenato wines, as Alberto will introduce and taste nine Zenato wines, both white and red.
The event is open to all wine enthusiasts.

Natural Wine: Dog’s bollocks or the King’s new clothes?

Natural Wine Tasting at Fallon & Byrne, Dublin  by Le Caveau

My first encounter with what has come to be called ‘natural wine’ came some five or six years ago during the Salon de Vins de Loire at Angers. That week I was staying at the Chateau des Vaults, as a guest of Evelyne de Pontbriand, proprietor of the first-rate Savennieres winery, Domaine du Closel. Also staying at the chateau was a young Belgian journalist. One evening, before dinner, he brought from his room seven or eight wines, an assortment of red and white, saying “I would like you to try these. It is the wine of the future.” After such a flourish of trumpets, how could I refuse. Twirling a glass of cloudy liquid before taking a generous swig, your man pronounced “One day all wine will taste like this”. Nervously, I took a second mouthful which only served to confirm my initial opinion -that the wine was spoiled, acetic and wholly vile. As were most of its cohorts. There was not one wine in the batch that I’d consider ‘of merchantable quality’, as the old legal phrase goes.

Since then things have moved on. Wines of this kind, made from hand-picked grapes,with minimum intervention in the winery, using ‘wild’ i.e. naturally present yeasts rather than bought-in cultivars have proliferated. Their proponents have coined a term – ‘natural wine’ to describe the product. Principally, they believe that wine today is too mucked-about with, too processed for its own good. They prefer to let nature take its course and if nature hasn’t bestowed the right amount of acidity or tannin or sugar in the grape then we have to put up with what we have. Natural wine makers are against the addition of tartaric acid, powdered tannin or grape concentrate, the tools of the hyper-commercial wineries. These guys are looking to make wine with a ‘sense of place’, wine that reflects its terroir – the soil, the aspect, the micro-climate in which the grapes are grown – one hundred per cent. The wine is to be made without using pesticides, fungicides, weedkillers or other synthetic chemicals or fertilisers. The addition of dollops of sulphur dioxide as a preservative is as much anathema as is trucking in grapes from other locations to balance the blend. The land is farmed at least organically, probably biodynamically, although the certification that accompanies these methodologies is often lacking. The credo of minimum intervention, zero manipulation and low or zero use of sulphur dioxide (which asthma sufferers will find a blessing) is carried over into the winery. It’s both a ‘nowt taken out’ and ‘nowt put in’ philosophy.

Other beliefs have attached themselves to the movement. First and foremost is a quest among producers to make wines that are lower in alcohol than the brands they aim to supplant. Reds are often in the 12-12.5% range, a backtrack to the clarets and burgundies of 30 years ago.

Sceptics might find natural wine a soft target. Firstly, there’s the name. To call a wine made with this methodology ‘natural’ stigmatizes wines which are not so made as ‘unnatural’. Which is fundamentally unfair to a host of good winemakers all over the world who believe that to make the best possible wine nature must be given a little help. The lack of a defined standard is, for me, a major handicap. It’s maybe significant that great winemakers like Olivier Humbrecht in Alsace, Chapoutier on The Rhone and Vanya Cullen in Margaret River, WA have been doing the biodynamic/minimum intervention thing for years yet they and others have thus far declined to add their weight and influence to the ‘natural’ movement. Then there’s the variable quality; a recent tasting in Dublin revealed that while there are some decent and enjoyable natural wines there are also real bummers, some cloudy, others acetic, still others exhibiting funky farmyard flavours most critics would consider a winemaking fault (although some do have a surprising (to me) tolerance of, even liking for, brettanomyces. To be fair, there are wines of variable quality at most tastings, natural or no. But proponents of the ‘unnatural’ stuff will at least agree that a wine is oxidized or bretty, they won’t shrug the shoulders and utter a De Niroesque ‘this is how it is because this is how it is”. The arrogance of some natural wine adherents is simply staggering. On more than a few occasions I’ve been presented with a glass of murky liquid having more in common with scrumpy than with conventional wine and told “This is great”. Yeah, right.

Yet the market for ‘natural’ is growing. English wine merchant Les Caves de Pyrene stocks a wide range, approaching 400 wines at the last count. The company is also a major investor in two London ‘natural’ wine bars and were instrumental in setting up the first Natural Wine Fair in London earlier this year. Many British wine writers were first intrigued, then impressed and some have now nailed their colors to the mast.

Me, I’m still sitting on the fence even though the barbed wire of naturalism is prickling my arse. So far and yes, I know I should have been at the London extravaganza, I simply haven’t tasted enough natural wines of the merchantable kind, nor have I come across a single example that’s really wowed me. And my love of certain well-fettled wines by talented and honest winemakers with the appliance of science at their fingertips has not one whit diminished.

Last week’s Dublin tutored tasting was hosted by specialist wine merchants Le Caveau and presented by Les Caves de Pyrene’s Dario Poddana, an eloquent spokesman for the cause.

The wines

N.V Prosecco di Valdobbiadene. DOC Casa Coste Piane. €17.95 Lively stuff with a crisp, clean nose and on the palate a good weight of fruit – crisp green apples and citrus, with hints of walnut. Tasty. 14.5/20

‘La Dilettante’ AC Vouvray Sec 2010, Pierre et Catherine Breton €18.50 Tasty, clean, classy wine with 100% typicity to grape and region. A gem. 16/20

A.C. Montlouis ‘Minerale +’2010, Frantz Saumon €18.95. Impressive pear, heather and thyme nose fades to reveal bright fruit with a mineral tang. For me this wine was let down by its finish – unpleasant dark notes I could only describe as ‘coal mine’. 13/20

Cotes du Rhone AOP Blanc ‘Les Clos des Grillons’ 2010 €18.65 Wildly aromatic honey and herbal nose leads you to believe this wine will be more substantial but it feels thinner than a 14.5% white from Rhone grapes should. Somewhat rescued by the spicy climax at the back end. 13.5/20

AC Morgon, Cote du Py, Jean Follard 2009 €27.50 Enjoyable, pristine expression of Gamay with lively cherry flavours with a hint of russet apple. Smart kit. 15/20

Touraine AC Cot (Malbec) ‘In Cot We Trust’, Thierry Puzelat, 2008 €19.60 Enjoyed by a couple of other people, I found this wine acidic, unbalanced, beery on the palate and on the nose just too funky. Sad. 10/20

DO Ribiera Sacra, ‘Pezar do Rei’ Cachin/Dieguez 2009 €18.25 ‘Pezar do Rei’ means ‘The Royal Plot’ and this was regal wine. Smart red with lovely weight of cherry and cranberry fruit and a refreshing minerality, the sort of wine I could drink all night and then some. 15.5/20

Gran Cerdo Tempranillo Vino de Mesa 2009. €12.50 With a spot-on fruit acid balance, this easygoing and enjoyable red was bang on the money for the modest ask. Decent wine. 13.5/20

Rosso di Montalcino DOC Az.Ag, Pian dell’Orino di Caroline Pobitzer 2008 €29.95 This, apparently, has something of a reputation which, for me at least it didn’t live up to. Weird, curiously reductive nose fades and rises up as pure ‘farmyard’. Atypical, it didn’t even hint at ‘origin’. And didn’t drink like a €30 wine. 11/20

Sicilia IGT, ‘Vino di Anna’, Anna Martens, 2009. €19.95. It’s been said that the Nerello Mascalese grape can taste like aged Pinot Noir and though I haven’t had much experience with NM, the guy who said it wasn’t wrong! Balanced, rustic without being in any way rough, with endearing strawberry, raspberry and morello cherry flavours, I really liked it. So characterful and at the same time well made, it’s what ‘natural wine’ should be all about. 16/20

Mendoza DO Malbec ‘No Sulphites Added’ Familia Cecchin 2008. €17.55 The other side of the coin. I can’t help but think the addition of even a microscopic amount of sulphur would help stabilise this wine. It’s an extreme style – funky, earthy and, for me, thin, acidic and hard to love. 9/20

Summary: King’s new clothes or the dingo’s danglers? Maybe a bit of both. The “this is how all wine will taste in the future” gang are wrong, I hope. Otherwise I’ll be glugging craft beer with my coq au vin. Unlikely too. Give a panel of punters the choice of the above Montalcino or, say, a bottle of decent conventional Chianti Classico that cost the same money I’ve no doubt as to which wine would win the vote. On the other hand there’s no denying that the better-made natural wines do offer a lively, absorbing and very different drinking experience. And if the claimed alternative really is a world full of plastic tasting ‘industrial’ wines evincing no subtlety nor sense of their origins then the presence of the ‘natural wine movement’ will be essential to redress the balance.

I look forward to gaining more familiarity.

Postscript: If the topic interests you I’d recommend two books: Authentic Wine: Toward Natural and Sustainable Winemaking by British scientist/wine writer Jaime Goode and New Zealand-born consulting winemaker and Master of Wine Sam Harrop; Naked Wine – Letting Grapes Do What Comes Naturally by  US wine writer Alice Feiring.  The first is a serious treatise, but by no means dull; the second, more a travelogue with thoughts, observations and discussions with wine makers who espouse the ‘natural’ cause of which Feiring is an adherent..

These natural wines and others available from Le Caveau, Market Yard Kilkenny, Co. Kilkenny 056 775 2166 or via the website http://www.lecaveau.ie



I’m all for training sommeliers. If a little learning means an end to woejous wine waiters resting the bottle neck on my glass or pouring wine from the second bottle into a glass still containing some of the first, then great. The Restaurant Association Of Ireland (RAI) has asked me to let people know about the training course they’ve initiated in conjunction with the Irish Guild of Sommeliers. If these courses result in a better wine experience in a restaurant, I’m happy to oblige.

Following the hugely successful training programme launched in October 2010, The Irish Guild of Sommeliers (IGS) in partnership with the Restaurant Association Of Ireland (RAI) are  running another modular 8 week Sommeliers Certificate training programme in wine service and product knowledge to members of both organisations. This will conclude with an exam in January.

Venue: The Stephens Green Hibernian Club, 9 St Stephens Green Dublin 2
Time: 11am – 3.30pm.

Training Dates
Monday September 26th
Monday October 3rd & 17th
Monday November 7th & 21st
Monday December 5th
Monday January 9th
Monday January 23rd exam
Please note that this is a members club and follows a no jeans policy.

Training Costs
Member of both Restaurants Association of Ireland & Irish Guild of Sommeliers : €250
RAI member: €500
Irish Guild of Sommelier member: €300
Non- Member course only: €1000
Special Offer to non -members:  Join both the Restaurants Association of Ireland and the Irish
Guild of Sommeliers and be included on the training course for €945.

Closing date for receipt of application:
Tuesday 31st May 2011 .
Please send application form to Karen McBride, Restaurants Association of Ireland, 11 Bridge Court, City Gate, St Augustine St, Dublin 8
If you require further information please contact Karen McBride, ph: 01 6779901 or email info@rai.ie.

10, 20, 100, STARS OR SMILIES? Ernie Whalley looks at Rating Wines

I’m not mad about the idea of scoring wines. I grew up drinking wine in an age when good wines were treated with reverence and bad ones were scorned* but there was never any attempt to evaluate on a comparative basis other than stating a preference for bottle A over bottle B.  Certainly no one ever attempted to construct a new ‘league table’. We followed the 1855 and subsequent assessments, of course, but never slavishly. We noticed that some wines were in decline and that the star of certain others was on the rise. As wine writing in newspapers and magazines began to proliferate, so rating systems were invented. Some were numeric, usually based on a 0-20 point scale. Others involved stars, glasses (typically 1-5) or a row of happy faces.

Around 1985, everything changed. Robert M.Parker, a young American lawyer who had fallen in love with wine, invented a scoring system he believed would take the mystery, the guesswork out of choosing wine. As methodology it was perfectly suited to the American market where the public, it seems, have little truck with subtle nuances or shades of grey. Here was something they could relate to. Robert Parker’s rating system employs a 50-100 point quality scale (Parker Points®), based on the belief that the various 20 point rating systems – popular in wine competitions – do not provide enough flexibility, often resulting in compressed and inflated wine ratings. In Parker’s words “The Wine Advocate (the newsletter he founded)  takes a hard, very critical look at wine, since I would prefer to underestimate the wine’s quality than to overestimate it. The numerical ratings are utilized only to enhance and complement the thorough tasting notes, which are my primary means of communicating my judgments to you.“ Thus a wine rated  96-100 will be “an extraordinary wine of profound and complex character displaying all the attributes expected of a classic wine of its variety. Wines of this caliber are worth a special effort to find, purchase, and consume.” One rated 89-90 will be “a  barely above average to very good wine displaying various degrees of finesse and flavor as well as character, with no noticeable flaws.” A 60 – 69 wine, on the other hand, will be below average “containing noticeable deficiencies, such as excessive acidity and/or tannin, an absence of flavor, or possibly dirty aromas or flavors.”  Wines rated  50 – 59 are deemed “unacceptable.” Trouble is numbers such as 93/100, especially when awarded by an influential taster, tend to become set in stone. In the minds of winemakers, wine buyers and wine lovers these can become as exact and absolute as a blood pressure reading or the Premiership league table at the season’s end. Ratings are of so much interest because of their effect on producers, markets and consumers. We are , however much we dislike them, stuck with ratings. Robert Parker’s influence is enormous, particularly across the pond, much as people like to say it’s on the wane. A wine’s commercial success can vary greatly on whether it receives an 89 or a 91. Yet there are only two points between the scores. Minute differences in scores move the market, increasing or decreasing the price the wine can command. As the apocryphal saying goes “Parker gives a wine 89, no one buys it. Parker gives a wine 91, no one can afford it.” Taking advantage, certain wine producers have deliberately sculpted their wines to get attention and  garner better scores – a process that’s become known as ‘Parkerisation’. This is hardly Parker’s fault. In fairness Parker does issue a caveat that evaluating a wine and assigning a score to a beverage that will change and evolve, in many cases for up to 10 or more years, is “analogous to taking a photograph of a marathon runner.”Parker defends scoring as “important for the reader to gauge a professional critic’s overall placement of a wine vis-à-vis its peer group”. He also asserts that  “there can never be any substitute for your own palate nor any better education than tasting the wine yourself.” This is very sound.

When I started writing ‘So it Goes…’ my monthly column in Food & Wine Magazine I decided I needed a rating system so readers could take advantage of the work I’d put in at the numerous tastings I’d attended during the year. I constructed my own 0-20 point system (though some might be churlish and call it a 7-20 point system as wines rated 8 or less I regarded as ‘undrinkable’.  I should stress that it was just invented for my own purposes. No wine is likely to fluctuate in price because Ernie Whalley has rated it high or low. And amen to that, I say. The system, subsequently modified from the original,now  goes something like: 18-20 = Stellar Wine 17-17.8 = Class act 15-16.8 = Stylish wine, some excitement as you move up the scale. 13-14.8 = Decent drinking 11-12.8 = Reliable and value for money 10-10.8 = OK as “party wine” 8-9.8 = You might like it, I didn’t Under 8 = Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

Lately, I’ve been using an excellent iPhone/iPod touch/iPad app called ‘Wine Notes’. It’s fun, quick and easy to use and I’d recommend it as a useful tool for the wine aficionado. I have petitioned Bill Lindmeir the inventor to add a user customizable choice of 10, 20, or 100 rating systems. At the moment it’s 10. So if you see a wine I’ve scored on Facebook, Twitter or Forkncork using Wine Notes  just double the score. 8.6/10 will equate to 17.2/20 on my 20 point scale. I’d recommend, to anyone interested in the subject of scoring, pages 38-45 of the English wine writer Hugh Johnson’s autobiography ‘WINE – A life uncorked’ (Wiedenfeld & Nicolson). To my mind it’s the most commonsense that’s ever been written on the subject.  Chapter 5 of Gérard Basset’s ‘The Wine Experience’ (Kyle Cathie) contains some interesting stuff too. *I received my first taste of and tuition in wine back in 1956 from my Aunt Ethel who knew a deal about good Burgundy despite her mispronunciation. “This is called ‘Newits’. What do you think of it?” (‘Newits’ was, of course, Nuits Saint-Georges).

COFFEE CULTURE – Ernie Whalley finds a Pinotage he can actually drink

Sophia Pritchard, winemaker at Clos Malverne, with 'Le Café'


Until yesterday I’d always thought that offensive Pinotage and inoffensive Pinot Grigio were two grapes that should have been strangled at birth. Now, after a tasting of Dunne’s Stores current and proposd South African range, I’m prepared to grant the former at least a stay of execution.

I’ve always hated Pinotage. If I wanted to smell smoking rubber I’d have become a Formula One tifoso. Were I that fond of elastoplast I’d have become a paramedic. Every wine I’d ever tasted that was fettled from this grape seemed, however well-made, utterly charmless. The worst were savagely aggressive –  a mad axeman in a bottle. I’m not lacking company in my dislike of this varietal. Many wine writers have dissed Pinotage, to the extent where one of the fraternity called it “the punchbag of wine criticism”.

Yesterday, though, I found a Pinotage I could actually finish a glass of. And maybe a tad more.

According to Clos Malverne winemaker Sophia Pritchard what’s become known as ‘Coffee Pinotage’ is trending among South African wine drinkers, particularly among the younger set. The style, now around ten years in existence, was ‘invented’ by a winemaker called Bertus Fourie at the Deiemersfontein winery. Subsequently he was lured away by the giant KWW to create a Pinotage called Café Culture. The people at Diemerfontein were, apparently, not impressed, even going as far as to contemplate litigation, reckoning he had nicked the recipe. Bertus Fourie, having gained the nickname of ‘Starbucks’, left KWW in 2008 for a boutique operation called Val de Vie who also run a Polo Club and an estate agency. Val de Vie were Rhone varietal specialists, producing an iconic, for South Africa, Syrah. Curiously, what they didn’t have was Pinotage or at least it was never listed among their varietals on the website. However ‘Starbucks’ and his brother Martin, also a winemaker, set to and produced what was aimed at being the cream of the coffee Pinotages, a wine named (flourish of trumpets) ‘Barista’.

So, what’s the secret of the kick in ‘The Coffee’? According to Sophia the key ingredient is top-notch fruit, ripe in similar vein to the Merlot of the Bordeaux ‘garagistes’. Hand-sorting too, the motto being “If you find anything green, get rid of it.”  Plus cosseting  soft pressing. The main difference, however,  is in the wood employed – usually staves but there is some matured in new French barriques. The wood is toasted to a high ++ specification. I doubt you’ll find oak this charred elsewhere. This subdues the trademark vanilla and coconut of oak aged wine, replacing it with coffee sensations. The effect simulates someone tipping a few gallons of double espresso into the vat. The high toast also contributes, along with the premium fruit, to taming the weird things that go on in the typical Pinotage and making the wine more relaxed, more joyful. I found  the Clos Malverne ‘Le Café’ very decent. Full-boded, rounded and balanced with roasty-toasty aromatics announcing a heap of plum and Morello cherry fruit. Some South African winemakers seem bent on making a ‘Pinotage Light’, more in the manner of a New World Pinot Noir; I think the ‘Coffee’ route may present better opportunities of getting the grape worldwide acceptance.

That said, in all honesty, I couldn’t detect much of a taste of coffee. I roast coffee and my nose and palate are pretty well attuned to picking out the nuances. The smell of roast coffee is one of the great sensory myths. Initially, after roasting, there’s no smell at all until the CO2 generated by the process has dispersed. And during roasting what you are getting is the smell of…. yes, ‘roasting’. If I loaded my HotProg roaster with acorns it would smell much the same. Coffee, cocoa and chocolate flavours show up in a lot of red wines, particularly in New World Cabernet and Shiraz. Wolf Blass President’s Selection, to name but one, is a veritable chocolate factory.

Footnote: Clos Malverne ‘ Le Café is on the ‘maybe coming soon’ list at Dunnes Stores. I don’t have a price. Other wines that showed up well at the tasting were the clean, crisp Clos Malverne Sauvignon Blanc (€9.99); the well-balanced Clos Malverne Cabernet/Shiraz 2008 (€10.99); and the Bellingham Basket Press Syrah 2006, another hopefully en route from the Cape. There’s a Chardonnay, Heron’s Nest, on promotion at €6.99.


RECIPE Pollo alla Cacciatora

Despite my 12.5% Italian ancestry and my lifelong adherence to the Azzurri I was a bit hesitant about including an Italian dish with people like Italian Foodie around the site. Still, Pollo alla Cacciatora is a great cold weather comfort casserole and a favourite that I cook regularly, so here goes…

Cacciatore’ means ‘hunter’. All over Tuscany and Umbria in summer you see conventions of these guys, clad in bright waistcoats and mad bearskin hats, and mingling with the backpackers, Americans-doing-Europe and Japanese happy-snappers. Everything I read about this dish tells me that, given a commonality of chicken, bell peppers, tomatoes and wine, there are umpteen variations so I’m no reason to suspect that mine is not authentic.

You can use any lidded casserole, ideally one large enough to put all the chicken into one layer. I use a Portuguese cataplana, a two-part copper/steel dish (imagine 2 woks clipped together!) of which I have 2 or 3. It enables you to brown the chicken and sweat the vegetables on top of the stove and you don’t need to transfer everything to an oven proof casserole. In addition the air-tightness of the cataplana helps preserve the rich flavours during the cooking process.

1 chicken, jointed. At least free range and as righteous as your budget allows.

1 medium onion, finely chopped.

1 bunch small carrots, topped, tailed and scraped.

1 stick celery, chopped.

3-5 cloves of garlic, chopped fine

1 bell pepper, red, green or a mix, cut into chunks

5-6 large flat mushrooms

350 ml good passata (or a can of chopped tomatoes)

350 ml red wine

handful of herbs – at this time of year (March) I use sage, rosemary and fresh oregano from my garden.

salt and pepper to season. I’d recommend truffle salt for this purpose if you have it.

Serves 4

Pre-heat the oven to 220 C. Brown the chicken. I usually leave the skin on but you can remove it if you wish. Remove from heat and reserve. Sweat the onions, carrots, celery, peppers and garlic in the chicken fat (or olive oil) just until the onion starts to change colour. Put in the lidded casserole and place the mushrooms on top i one layer. Top with the chicken, skin, side up. Deglaze the frying pan with the wine and add the passata. Cook for one minute then pour over the dish. Cook in oven for approximately 1 hour. Remove, take the lid off, turn the oven down to 190 C and return the casserole to the oven. Cook for a further 15 minutes with the lid off to brown the chicken and thicken the sauce.

Serve with your choice of saute potatoes, mash, boiled rice or fried polenta and a green vegetable.


"Stuck in an appellation" Saint Emilion

A day in a wine writer’s life. I get up, dress, eat my porridge then phone the Guinness Storehouse to see if they have a wheelchair. Oh dear, apparently they don’t. I should maybe make it clear that my request stems not from the previous night’s over indulgence but from a knee operation. The Storehouse is The Land That God Forgot for us D4, southside wine scribes – can’t get there by public transport, there’s no parking and a cab costs a fortune. Ah, well, needs must…

I grab my crutches and limp up the road towards the taxi rank. Three traffic jams later I arrive at the Gleesons Incorporating Gilbey’s Portfoilio Tasting, bit of a mouthful? No, it’s a lot of mouthfuls, 41 tables, groaning with wines from all over the world as well as ports, sherries, brandies and beers. Here’s a flavour.

Before I kick off I’ll issue the usual caveat. This is a personal view of a tasting on a particular day. Other folk may love wines I hated or hate wines I loved. Make of it what you will.

Scanning the catalogue I find lots of old familiars, known quantities. This saves me time. For instance, while I know that, say, Les Charmes de Magnol Medoc 2008 is going to be of merchantable quality it won’t excite or surprise so I pass. The Cheval Noir Grand Vin de St.Emilion 2005 (€18.50, selected independents) on did surprise and pleasantly so, good budget claret.

Louis Latour, as usual, have quite a presence but, as ever, I find you have to get into the upper echelons of their list before thye start to charm. Louis Latour Montagny (Super Valu €19.99) is much more inviting than their Chablis. Simmonet-Febre’s Chablis (€18.99, O’Brien’s) was nicer, less steely.

On the Chateau de Sours stand I re-encounter owner Martin Krajewski, nice man. His Petit Cantenac St.Emilion 2008 (€22.50) has plenty of potential. The Bordeaux Rosé,  as always, was well up to the mark (€14.99, independents).

I’m a massive fan of the wines of JCP Malthus as people who read my Herald and the old Sunday Independent columns may have noticed! Bordeaux, Barossa, wherever there’s a roundness, a loveliness, a warmth about them and something that just shouts “Hey, this is bloody good winemaking”.  Area Manager Myriam Carrere tempts me to a vertical – 2006/7/8 – of Ch.Teyssier St.Emilion – I seem stuck in this appellation at the minute – the 2008 promises much but if you can find it, buy the ’06, it’s simply stunning. Entry level Pezat was good as ever. Seems to be some confusion as to whether this and Ch.Lacroix are the same thing. I came away none the wiser.

Can’t help thinking that Jaboulet Ainé have lost their way.Though Caroline Frey has expunged the bad winemaking of Jabs from ‘90s days the newer wines still seem to be struggling to find a house style. Maybe I just liked the big ruggery-buggery wines I remember from the 1980s? Anyhopw, I think they’ve lost something in power, shape and robustness while recovering the finesse that  went missing for so many years.

The delightful Anne Trimbach is in Dublin to present the wines of this brilliant house. Unlike some of their Alsace rivals I can’t think of one wine in their portfolio that doesn’t hack it. Everything is ‘sorted’. Trimbach Alsace Riesling 2009 (€15.99, SuperValu, O’Brien’s, independents) is a classic of the genre.  As for the Cuvée Frederick Emile 2004 (€34.99) every wine lover should have at least one bottle squirreled away for a joyous occasion.

Next table, Gruner Veltiner, Austria’s signature from ex-hippy Laurenz Moser. Named ‘Singing’, ‘Sunny’ and ‘Charming’ (€15.99-€24.99, Donnybrook Fair and independents) the wines are as beguiling as the titles. German wines, happily, are back up and bouncing, after a rocky couple of decades.

Lingenfelder’s German riesling and gewürztraminer (€13.99, independents) with their engaging bird and hare labels should be sought out and bought.

Black Tower roll on, now with added varietal choice. Stick with the Riesling, honest wine for the €9.35 ask. The sylvaner is a bit grim.

Moving up the price scale, if you can still find Lo Zoccolaio’s Barolo 2001 for the stated €37.49 (McHugh’s had some) grab the merchant’s hand off, this is classic kit.

The Dalmau Reserva Rioja 1985 at €85 is daft money, considering you could have, as alternative, 4 bottles of the very quaffable Marques de Murieta Reserva 2005 (O’Briens, Dunnes, Molloys) and a taxi home. This wine, for me, wiped the floor with the popular Faustino equivalent.

The Bodegas Portia Prima Ribero del Duero 2007 (€25, selected independents) is currently dead sexy. Baby brother Ebeia Roble 2009, almost half the price, is good too.

Simonassi Malbec 2006 was decent for the money (€9.99).

Vergelegen Cabernet 2004 was good kit but at €29.45 I can think of a couple of dozen reds I’d rather drink or lay down. The better South African wines still impress, rather than charm.As a ‘how to’ they should look at the complexity St.Hallet are cramming into St.Hallet Old Block Shiraz 2005 (€34.95) , the 2004 of which I remember from a big Aussie seminar last year where it kicked sand in the eyes of a good few more expensive shirazes. The ’05 has all the poke of  a traditional Barossa red with lots of other nice things revolving round the glass.

Chileans Terra Andina gave us a well-priced Reserva Pinot Noir from Leyda (€10.99, Donnybrook Fair, Centra) and an electrifying, invigorating Sauvignon Blanc (€9.99) that carried more than a hint of old-style Marlborough before the Kiwis started shining it up.

More? Luscious the Lane ‘The Gathering’ Semillon-Sauvignon from Adelaide Hills (€22, independents); Hunter Estates Chardonnay from NZ, always class; and St.Hallett Old Block Shiraz 2005 (€35, O’Briens, Tesco) up there with the Barossa’s biggies.

Best of the budgets? No question. I give you False Bay Chardonnay, from South Africa’s Western Cape – classy stuff at ridiculous (€9.80, Londis, independents) money from Paul Boutinot, the Manchester maverick behind, among others, Chat en Oeuf (€9.10, Superquinn, Centra), one I’m always plugging for value. The 2010 False Bay Chardonnay is clean, non-cloying, more European than New World and altogther a worthy example of the sort of Chardy that should put noisy chavs like Pinot Grigio back in their box.

Can’t quit without mentioning the wonderful Julia Kennedy, whose organisation, as usual, was pluperfect. Great ideas of hers to get Fingal Ferguson there with mum Giana’s cheeses and his own salami, a huge quantum leap from when he started a few years back. The new mortadella, in particular, was a wondrous product.

Julia is off now to pastures new, Gleeson’s loss is Dillon’s gain.