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Wicklow Fine Wines - In Season

Brett Stephenson & Pamela Walsh - Wicklow Way Wines

Aoife Carrigy meets two pioneers who are producing fine Irish fruit wine. Their new elderberry and blackberry flavour, launched in October, is based on wild elderberries foraged in the Wicklow Mountains during autumn 2015; blended with luscious Irish blackberries, it’s a perfect match for autumn and winter food.

“The stuff is absolutely screaming out the door,” says US expat Brett Stephenson, co-founder of Wicklow Way Wines with his Dublin-born wife Pamela Walsh. “I can’t really label it fast enough.”

Success has come fast for their Móinéir Fine Fruit Wine. The couple launched their flagship strawberry wine at Bloom 2016 on a gloriously sunny June bank holiday weekend. They knew they had something “unique and really good”, admits Pamela, “but that doesn’t mean we weren’t terrified. We had invested so much at that point and it was such a new category.”

The response has been overwhelmingly positive, with a growing number of independent wine merchants and top gastronomic restaurants such as Chapter One and The Greenhouse keen to list this unique Irish wine. And when I visit the pair of pioneers less than four weeks after Bloom in their
Newtownmountkennedy winery, they are packing up their first shipment for London’s Fortnum & Mason.

That’s quite a journey for those Irish strawberries, which started life in Pat Clarke’s fruit farm on the Dublin-Meath border and made their way into the elegant Riesling-style bottles, at over 100 strawberries per bottle, by way of Brett’s tinkering about with the tools of his new trade: the bladder press that gently crushes the fruit, the small-batch 320 litre tanks in which the wine is macerated for four days and fermented for another week, and the larger storage tanks in which it is matured and blended before being bottled and boxed up on-site. That all this happens by hand – from the picking of the fruit to the air-bagging of the bottles – makes it all the more remarkable to think of those bottles navigating through Picadilly traffic and onto the shelves of Fortnum & Mason just in time to be taken home and chilled ahead of last season’s Wimbledon finals.

It’s been quite the journey for Brett and Pamela too. While a lot has happened since the launch, Móinéir has been years in the making. “It took a year to get the wine out,” Brett says, but that’s not counting finding the right space for the winery, or registering the business, or untangling the challenges of creating an unprecedented commercial category. “It’s a huge undertaking.”

Wicklow Way Wine - Moineir

As for the research and development, that began back in the 1990s when the couple were living in California where they became “hobbyist” wine-makers. “That’s how we got into this,” Brett says. “Years of trying it out and getting better and better.”

An electrical engineer by training, Pamela worked in Silicon Valley, while Brett worked as a sound engineer in San Francisco. “I got to work with my heroes… Tom Waits, Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Santana.” But in early 2000, with two young kids in tow (Shane and Celina, now 21 and 18 respectively) they decided that they wanted “to work to live rather than the other way around” and moved back to Dublin.

Committed to Californian-fostered ideals of sustainability, Pamela landed a job with Airtricity where she headed up Ireland’s first off-shore wind-farm on the Arklow Bank. But a decade in a senior executive role with a huge amount of travel eventually took its toll. “I started getting sick: asthma, chest infections.”

Pamela says her life-long passions for gardening, foraging and cooking helped to keep her sane but she realised “I couldn’t keep doing what I was doing.” The itch to start their own business grew, but the question was, what business? “It’s hard to find something that works for what you want to do, but hasn’t been done a hundred times.”

Then the penny dropped.

“We shop Irish for food as much we can, but we’re always buying French or Italian wines,” says Pamela. Meanwhile, their experiments with wine made from “every kind of berry” were producing “fabulous flavours.” They suspected they weren’t the only Irish consumers who would support an Irish fruit wine. “We said ‘someone should do that’. And then thought, uh oh, that’s us!”

There have been lots of learnings since they decided to take the plunge, as can be expected from navigating such uncharted waters. They’ve learnt, for example, just how expensive it is to produce a strawberry wine on a commercial basis. It doesn’t help that we Irish have the highest excise rate for wine in Europe, as Pamela explains. “In a bottle of wine that’s selling for €20” – which Móinéir strawberry wine fetches in an off-licence – “the best part of €7 is tax.”

“And then you’re talking the bottle, label, cork, transport, box, middle man,” Brett continues, not to mention a year’s worth of rent and rates before you can make a sale, or the fruit itself. “It’s incredible. People sometimes say ‘your wine is expensive’ but have you bought strawberries lately?”

Wicklow Way Wines - Moineir Label

The couple keep a tight rein on costs and quality by doing everything in-house, down to attaching the beautifully designed labels on a small hand-operated machine. This low-tech contraption looks even teensier when compared to the crates of empty bottles that run the length and height of one whole wall of the winery.

Thankfully Brett’s background in mixing sound gives him patience for managing such minutiae. Meanwhile Pamela’s brand of professional attention to detail has helped manoeuvre the complexities faced by start-up companies, such as signing up to Bord Bia’s Origin Green sustainability programme for which the business was an obvious fit.

Currently, all the fruit used is either selected from Bord Bia-approved growers or foraged, as with the 9kg of elderberries Brett used for their elderberry and blackberry wine, to be released in late autumn. The by-product fruit pulp is recycled as compost for food production. “My raised beds have gone wild!” says Pamela.

Being members of Origin Green, she says, “puts the onus on us to continue that down the road.” For example, having committed to using exclusively Irish fruit, “the challenge becomes how do you grow if you can’t get the fruit?” The answer is to work with those growers to meet demand, including looking at planting elder trees.

That commitment to Irish-only fruit isn’t just about air miles or supporting a sustainable local economy. They believe it is the unique sweetness, body, acidity levels and intensity of flavour of Irish fruit that make their wines so special. An added bonus is that those pure Irish flavours go so well with other Irish flavours.

Brett Stephenson & Pamela Walsh - Wicklow Way Wines

Their aromatic strawberry wine smells distinctly summery with that unmistakable fragrance of crushed, macerated strawberries. And it tastes like a wine, but with an unmistakable character of pure, ripe strawberries. It's off-dry in style, meaning it has a definite sweetness to it but one that is balanced with a refreshing acidity for a gorgeously tangy effect. As well as making a great aperitif, Brett says “it cuts through food really nicely.” They recommend it with nettle pesto and asparagus. It also pairs well with spicier fare such as Thai. But Brett’s favourite match is with avocado and salmon – often for a working lunch, enjoyed in the Wicklow air at the entrance to the winery.

“Once it’s been in the vats about six months, I like to pour a little glass from the tasting valve, and go sit out by the door…” Brett says, trailing off into a reverie. This could be another reason that the speed of labelling can’t keep up with the rate of sales, observes Pamela with a raised eyebrow and a smile.

Still, given their desire to work to live rather than the other way around, it sounds like they’ve hit on a recipe for success.

www.wicklowwaywines.ie

[First published in the Irish Independent]

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Aoife Carrigy

Chairwoman of the Irish Food Writers’ Guild, Aoife Carrigy is a freelance food and wine writer and editor. She is a regular contributor to FOOD&WINE Magazine, The Irish Independent, The Herald and Cara Magazine, amongst others, and was co-author of The Ard Bia Cookbook and general editor of The ICA Cookbook, The ICA Book of Home and Family, The ICA Book of Tea & Company and, most recently, The ICA Book of Christmas. In 2015, she teamed up with Great Irish Beverages to launch the inaugural Dublin Wine Fest and Irish Cider & Food Day.

 

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