"Winegeese" – the Irish Wine Diaspora

On St. Patrick’s Day wine columnist Greville Havenhand looks at the unexpected influence of Irish exiles and their families on the world of wine.

geese1 Wandering around the attractive Port of Kinsale I came upon a wine museum. “What,” I thought, “is a wine museum doing in the South west of Ireland?”  I discovered in the excellent collection largely curated by author, broadcaster and student of all things vinous, Ted Murphy, that wine goes far back into Irish history. 

In the ninth century the Vikings settled in Ireland, and as well as being marauders they were also traders. They had already settled in a wine producing region of the Loire Valley in France, and not ones to miss out on a profit, they soon started a wine trade with Ireland. They were not the rulers and had to pay “tribute” to the  king, Brian Boru – a tribute of a “ton” of wine for every day of the year. A “ton” was the eqivalent of 128 dozen present day bottles. The legend of the Irish and drink was born.

The importation of wine into Ireland continued. In the eighteenth century  it shipped four times  as much fine wine from Bordeaux than did England. It was this Bordeaux connection that was to be the start of a relationship that has marked the history of that city.

This is partly where Kinsale comes in. The battle of Kinsale in 1601 caused many Irish, long subjected to English rule, to flee. More serious was the “Flight of the Earls” that followed the Williamite Wars and the violated the Treaty of Limerick in 1691. These fleeing Irishmen were dubbed Wildgeese because this is how they were entered on ships’ manifests.

It was not only the nobility, because of the laws against Roman Catholics  which restricted their economic activities. Many gained distinction in the Irish Brigades in the service of France. Other distinction came in the Chateaux and warehouses of Bordeaux.

Did you know that in Bordeaux there are fourteen Chateaux, ten streets , one wine commune and one public monument, all bearing Irish names?  The Chateaux include Lynch-Bages, Dillon, Mcarthy, Phelan Segur, Kirwan and Dillon. The monument is in honour of Patrice McMahon,Marshall of France, and incidentally,the only owner of a Chateau in Burgundy to be honoured in Bordeaux. In 1877 his niece Anne married Comte Eugene de Lur Saluces, the owner of Chateau d’Yquem.

It was in the eighteenth century that the merchants established themselves on the Quai de Chatrons in Bordeaux. Most of these early mechants were Irish, sending the wine to the home country, with the ships returning with good Irish beef and butter. Notable among these merchants was Thomas Barton from County Fermanagh. His name survives to this day with Guestier and Barton and more importantly with Chateau Leoville-Barton which is run by his descendant Anthony Barton and his daughter Lilian.chateauleovillebarton

It is not just in the past that the Irish have made their mark in France. Chateau Lascombes is now part-owned by Irish businessman Dr. Tony Ryan, and a Belfast entrepreneur, Terry Cross, has bought and revived the beautiful Chateau de la Ligne. The wine maker at Chateaux du Tertre and Giscours is a Kilkenny man, David Fennelly. 

Not only in France have the Winegeese made their mark. The  sherry firm, Pedro Domecq, was founded by an Irish farmer and Garvey’s Sherry and Offaly’s Port give their origins away with their names. In Madeira William Cossart and a nephew  founded Cossart-Gordon, whic survives to this day as a great name on the Island.

Further afield there was, unsurprisingly, a large Irish input in the United States.  In the nineteenth century another family of Murphys were prominent and a James Concannon planted vines  of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon imported from Chateau d’Yquem. Some of the rootstocks still bear fruit today. He also virtually founded the Mexican wine industry. The first vineyards in the Napa Valley were planted by Samuel Brannan. Chateau Montelena , whose wines beat all its French competitors in the famous “Judgement of Paris” in 1976, is run by Irish American Jim Barrett.

In the Southern hemisphere the Barrys are one of  Australia’s leading wine families. Jim Barry’s  “The Armagh” is one of the country’s top wines – and one of my favourites. Maurice O’Shea, second generation Irish-Australian convinced a disbelieving wine industry that it was capable of making internationally competitive “fine wines”.

In Western Australia the splendid Cullen family has Irish origins, as do the owners of nearby Xanadu and Lagan Estate.

There is also Irish input into the New Zealand  and South African wine industries. St. Patrick should be proud that the land of Stout and Whiskey has done so much to give pleasure to wine drinkers through the centuries.


About this article

Greville Havenhand

About Greville Havenhand

Greville Havenhand came from a teetotal family but was introduced to good (and bad) wine by Oxford dons in the 1950s. Travelling the world as a BBC documentary maker and editor he grew to appreciate the versatility of wine and wine makers. On taking early retirement he acquired his Wine and Spirit Education Trust qualifications. For the last ten years Greville has led wine tours to France, he regularly gives tutored wine tastings and lectures to wine societies and is a contributing editor to wineontheweb.co.uk. He is an active member of the Dulwich Wine Society.
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