"Yes, Guinness is a big feature of the whole image of Ireland," acknowledges Ian Brosnan, "but when people actually get here, they find that there's a lot more to it." The wine manager of Ely Winebar in Dublin knows: In 2015, the restaurant, already acclaimed in Ireland, earned Wine Spectator's Best of Award of Excellence with its 355-selection list, moderate pricing, pairings of local ingredients with wines from around the world, and a diverse by-the-glass list, with about 80 choices changing every two months.
Brosnan, 39, originally pursued applied biology in college, but working the floor at a local restaurant during his studies sparked an interest in wine and dining that grew with time. As he honed his knowledge in a local wineshop, then spent a year in Australia working at a restaurant and visiting Hunter Valley wineries, Brosnan's passion turned to purpose. From 2002 to 2010, as sommelier at Dublin establishment Chapter One, he helped guide the restaurant to multiple awards and a Michelin star.
In 2012, he joined Ely Restaurant Group as wine manager, and now oversees the wine lists for Ely Winebar and Ely Bar & Brasserie, along with wine appreciation courses, winemaker dinners and a twice-yearly public tasting event. Brosnan spoke with editorial assistant Sara Heegaard about what it's like to manage one of Ireland's premier wine lists in heady times for the country's culinary scene.
Wine Spectator: What is it like managing a wine program in a city—and country—that has such strong ties to beer?
Ian Brosnan: In many ways, it's an advantage because when people come, they are very pleasantly surprised by the range of wines that we provide. Even though we're not a wine-producing country, we have a fantastic selection of wines from around the world available to us. We're constantly looking for up-and-coming grape varieties from different regions, and part of the reason we're able to provide them is because we know we have guests who will try them.
I don't think we'll ever be a country that will be able to make a decent wine, but what we have been doing really well is Irish cider. I refer to them more as sparkling apple wines: They are bone-dry and meant to be drunk with food out of a wine glass. That, I think, surprises a lot of people.
WS: While the menu at Ely Winebar is a modern take on Irish cuisine, the wine list has a particular strength in French wines. Why do you think that works so well?
IB: One of the strengths about our menu is that really good quality meats have always been a focal point. Our beef and pork is organic from the owner's farm [in County Clare], and all of our organic lamb comes from the neighbor's farm. We have a pretty big Bordeaux and Burgundy list, but we've always had a particular fondness for the wines of the Rhône, which I think are perfect for a wine bar situation. We find them infinitely better value for money, more consistent in terms of vintage variation and more interesting in terms of flavor—they're incredibly fruit-heavy and very versatile.
WS: Are there any other wines that you feel pair particularly well with the menu at Ely Winebar?
IB: Sangiovese and beef is a classic pairing, but I love Sangiovese and lamb—particularly slow-cooked lamb. The Sangiovese cuts through the fattiness of lamb really well.
WS: What do you feel is the importance of having a strong wine-by-the-glass program?
IB: It's a great way to introduce people to wines that they may not be prepared to experiment with by buying a whole bottle. We've recently introduced a lot more wines to our customers that way from places like Slovenia, Croatia, Slovakia, Greece... If we're bored by the wines-by-the-glass, then we can't expect our customers to be excited about them, so we try to keep the list fresh as much as we can.
WS: What are your favorite up-and-coming wine regions at the moment?
IB: Personally, I think the Italian whites coming out at the moment are among some of the most exciting in Europe because of the huge range of native grape varieties, as well as their fantastic value for money. A couple of years ago, we took off Pinot Grigio from the wines-by-the-glass list and replaced it with other grape varieties that probably weren't as familiar to a lot of people, but were still in that price range, to get people to start trying new things. Varieties like Falanghina, Greco di Tufo, Grechetto. We've got some beautiful Verdicchios on the list at the moment.
We've been very impressed lately with some of the wines coming out of South Africa, in particular places like Swartland. In the last year, we've doubled our list of South African wines—mostly Syrah in the reds, which I think is by far the best grape variety that they're making there, and the Chenin Blancs, [which] have been world-class.
WS: What are some recent additions to the wine list that you are excited about?
IB: I love magnums and seeing them out in the restaurants. Rather than just having the top-end, expensive wines in magnum, we wanted to have magnums which were accessible to all of our guests. So we've put together a magnum list which includes Pieropan Calvarino Soave, Domaine Ogier Le Temps Est Venu Côtes du Rhône, Fontodi Chianti Classico, Domaine de L'Hortus Grande Cuvée Coteaux du Languedoc, Allegrini Palazzo della Torre… These are all wines that we love and have listed for some time, but now having them in magnum makes it all the more interesting.
The other thing that we update constantly on the list is mini-verticals for wines that we have a special attachment to…. At the moment, I'm doing a series of Domaine des Baumard Clos de St.-Yves Savennières. We're also doing Grosset Polish Hill Riesling from the Clare Valley and Clonakilla Shiraz-Viognier from the Canberra district in Australia, to name a few.
WS: What are your favorite wines to drink on your own time?
IB: Pretty much anything from Italy, but in particular, Tuscany. I absolutely love Alsace—always have. I'm a fan of top-quality Chardonnay from anywhere, but at the moment I think Australia's making the most exciting [versions of this] grape variety. I recently got three bottles of Bindi Quartz, which I had to have sent over from the U.K. Two are for the wine list, but I was adamant I wanted one of them for myself. And I've always been a sucker for Champagne.