St. Patrick's Day is an appropriate time to enjoy an Irish beverage, but since Ireland is not a wine-producing country, many consider Irish whiskey as the only choice. Not true when you consider that some of the world's finest wines can trace their roots to Irish origin.
In Bordeaux's claret country, three major Grand Cru Classe chateaux, Lynch-Bages, Lynch-Moussas and premier claret Haut-Brion owe much to the Irish. Lynch-Bages was owned by members of the Lynch family, who left Ireland in 1690 because they were Catholic, only to find themselves in control of this marvelous vineyard some 60 years later when Thomas Lynch became the head of the domain of Bages.
The reign of the Lynches ended in 1824 but not before the name was given to Lynch-Moussas, a vineyard not as well known as the Lynch-Bages but of equal fifth-rank position. Interestingly, after the French Revolution a Lynch was mayor of Bordeaux while Lynch-Bages continued to be known as Chateau Lynch, even during the period when the wine was evaluated for membership in the famous 1855 Grand Cru Classe classification.
The roots of Chateau Haut-Brion, producers of one of Bordeaux's most celebrated wines, now owned by former Secretary of the Treasury C. Douglas Dillon, are hard to trace. Its history dates back at least 100 years, with several name changes, beginning with D'Obrion, Daubrion and Haut-Brion. The Irish connection apparently is rooted in the English pronunciation of the name Haut-Brion as O'Brien.
Haut-Brion can be extremely expensive because of its first-growth premier status, with prices ranging from $30 to $100, depending upon the vintage. The same can be said for its sister vineyard, La Mission, Haut-Brion, a credentialed Graves but not a first growth. Least costly and also a Graves is Chateau La Tour Haut-Brion.
No doubt additional research would reveal a number of other chateaux of Irish background. These, however, represent a good beginning, especially if enjoyed from any of the more current vintages, such as 1981, 1982, 1983 and 1984. Easiest to find is likely to be the 1983 vintage. Although not fully ready for today's consumption, the vintage offers breeding, roundness and a well-defined taste, especially the Lynch-Bages.
A clear-cut California choice is Livermore's Concannon Vineyards, founded by James Concannon in 1883 after emigrating from Ireland in 1865 at the age of 18. For many years the winery's principal products were altar wines, which provided economic survival during Prohibition. When his son, known as Capt. Joe, assumed command, he sent a barrel of Muscat de Frontignan for the Pope's table every five years as an expression of appreciation.
The Muscat de Frontignan is no longer produced, but there is a full line of reds and whites, including the well-established Petite Sirah, Estate Bottled, 1982, and the house specialty, Sauvignon Blanc, Estate Bottled, 1984. For a clean, upscale, non-sweet Zinfandel-style rose, try the '84 at about $4.
The Irish also found their way to France's famous brandy region, Cognac. The house of Delamain in Jarnac was founded by descendants of the local family who emigrated to Ireland in the 17th Century and returned later to work in Cognac distillation.
The firm of Hennessy Cognac has even stronger Irish roots by virtue of its establishments in 1765 by the youngest son of the Lord of Ballymacmoy of County Cork. Richard Hennessy was a captain in the Irish Brigade, fighting for French King Louis XV, when he elected to abandon a military career in favor of the Cognac trade. While both houses offer top-rate, Cognac in the $75-to-$100 range, the lesser-priced bottles will do just fine. Try Hennessy VSOP at less than $30 or Delamain Pale and Dry at about $35.
For those who still hanker for something directly from the old sod, there is nothing better than Irish whiskey, especially if it is full-flavored and triple-distilled in copper pot stills, similar to those used on Cognac.
Faster Distillation Method
Interestingly, much of the wine world uses a faster and more efficient method of distillation which was invented by an Irishman, Aeneas Coffey. The Irish claim to have invented whiskey, the word for which was derived from the Celtic uisgebeatha or uisgebaugh, meaning water of life. Both were later shortened to whiskey.
A prime choice is an Ireland favorite, Black Bush, a single-malt whiskey, which comes across with the complexity of a fine Cognac. Even the nose suggests Cognac, while the taste offers appealing, smooth Scotch-like flavors.
Produced by Bushmills (claimed to be the world's oldest licensed distillery), Black Bush is unlike most other whiskeys in that its single malt is aged nine to 11 years in casks that formerly aged Spanish Oloroso Sherries. Utilizing old Sherry casks is essential to flavor enhancement, so much so that the distillery is lending new oak casks to Spanish Sherry producers who will return them after Sherry aging.
Black Bush is priced at $21. Production is limited, with only 3,000 cases reaching the United States annually. In a brandy snifter it is an excellent after-dinner, lingering type of beverage to be savored like a Cognac on St. Patrick's Day or at any other time.