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|Eyes on the Vine|
From County Cork to California, honey wine casts its historical spell
By Matthew DeBord
St. Patrick's Day brings out a little Irish in everyone, regardless of distance from the Emerald Isle. What it doesn't usually inspire, however, is the uncorking of a celebratory Irish wine.
"Ireland is not suitable for growing wine grapes," says Michael O'Callaghan, who, undaunted, is the winemaker at Longueville House in County Cork. There he tends 3 acres of vineyards that produce Reichensteiner, an obscure German grape, but one of the few varieties that can handle the Irish climate.
"It's simply too cold in Ireland," O'Callaghan continues, explaining that most better-known grapes, even the hardier ones, won't ripen at Ireland's northern latitudes.
Despite being officially named a wine-producing country last year by the European Commission, the Irish wine industry hasn't exactly taken off. Only 10 true vineyards, most in Cork, generate less than 5,000 bottles of wine each year, according to published reports. An inquiry through Ireland's Wine Development Board yielded only three winemakers, Callaghan among them.
But this doesn't mean that Ireland has nothing to contribute to the world of winemaking. Because the Irish will always have mead.
That's right, mead, a honey wine that can range from very sweet to fairly dry, and whose flavors cover a surprisingly wide spectrum, from saccharine to herbaceous to, in more unappealing cases, cough-syrupy.
"Mead was an accident," says Dan McFeeley, an amateur mead expert and seven-year veteran of making wine from honey at home. "A long time ago, someone left some honey out in the rain, it diluted enough to begin fermenting, and people discovered something magical."
Whether this happened in Ireland, Scotland, France, Norway, or any of a dozen other places -- including ancient Rome, where a mead precursor called hydromel was enjoyed -- is anybody's guess. Still, mead has, in modern times, evolved a folkloric association with Ireland.
"As it was incorporated into the culture, mead was made uniquely Irish," suggests McFeeley.
According to Anthony Aellen, president and winemaker at Maryland's Linganore Winecellars/Berrywine Plantations, mead became a crucial component of Celtic mythology and worship. "Mead was attributed mystical, godlike powers," he says, "because it wouldn't go bad."
Each year, Linganore/Berrywine stages a Leprechaun Wine Tasting (March 17 and 18) to celebrate St. Patrick's Day. "We dyed the mead green when we first started out," says Aellen, "but green wine goes over like a lead balloon. So we kept the name and got rid of the green."
Visitors to the Leprechaun tasting can also learn about the relationship between mead and Ireland. For centuries, mead functioned as a harbinger of fertility -- legend has it that the word "honeymoon" derives from the ancient custom of giving newlyweds enough mead to last a month -- but in medieval Ireland, mead, mythology, and religion became almost mystically intertwined.
None of this has been lost on Americans thirsting for a taste nearly as old as civilization itself. McFeeley's online meadery directory lists 27 meadmakers in the United States alone. An entire thriving Internet subculture -- a grassroots community analogous to the home-brewing movement of a decade ago -- has sprung up.
There are a few pros in the mead game. Paul Wofford of Bargetto Winery in Soquel, Calif., has been making Chaucer's mead, one of the more well-known national brands, since 1986. "Mead is more than something to pour in a tankard when you're playing Renaissance man," he says, referring to the Renaissance Fair enthusiasts who are mead's main consumers.
The first mead may have been a lucky accident, but meadmaking is in fact no easy process. Honey, because of its very high sugar content, is naturally resistant to fermentation. It must first be diluted, and in some cases re-sweetened with honey before bottling.
Despite the mead boom in America, the "mother ship" of mead remains in Ireland. Bunratty Winery is the only Irish winery with an international reputation, attributable to both its mead, which is blended with white wine (26,000 gallons produced annually), and the enormous popularity of neighboring Bunratty Castle for tourists visiting County Clare.
Even though Ireland may be terra incognita as far as fine wine goes, it's ground zero for mead. Just listen to Bunratty's meadmaker, Oliver Dillon.
"The future," he claims, with a distinctive lilt to his voice, "looks bright for Irish mead."
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