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  • February 08, 2022 5 min read

    With Easter approaching , and the spotlight on Bordeaux, David is delighted to share unique insights from the book "The Irish Wines of Bordeaux" written by his father, T.P Whelehan in 1990. We hope you enjoy the first instalment.



    For thirty years Bordeaux has been my second home. Magnet-like it draws me, three or four times each year. The elegant city, its generous merchants andvignerons, its incomparable vinous treasures, have greatly enriched my pleasure in wine, and intrigued me for a thousand different and good reasons through this period. Being Irish, the great connection between the Irish and Bordeaux invariably surfaced at hospitable tables. Perhaps partly this happened as a compliment to my birthright, but mostly, I suspect, because the Bordeaux wine fraternity have a great sense of history and tradition.

    Over the years I built up a file on this connection. It contained much anecdotal material covering personalities met and the historical data. Inevitably, there were astonishing bottles tasted from legendary vintages in the company of memorable men and women. These wines went back to 1858. The experiences and their incidental recording were vaguely considered as material for a modest volume of gleaning on my retirement. 

    But then others took a hand. Ray Naughton had the idea for a small book on the Irish wine connections in Bordeaux. He was a devoted reader of Maurice Healy’s Stay Me with Flagons, and found in my writing a reflection of Maurice Healy’s enthusiasm and style. His concept favoured a light and readable account which would entertain and educate. Readers, he felt, should see the subject through Irish eyes, or from an Irish angle. The Vine Press offered to publish the book. It has been a rewarding exercise, not just in terms of research and tasting but also because it brought me into close working relations again with two old, wine-loving friends, each with a different skill. 

    Cork wine historian, Ted Murphy, proved to be a great source of material himself, much of it original. He gave generously of it, as he did of himself. His repertoire covers the ‘Wine Geese’ far and wide, taking in Spain, Portugal and South America, as well as other French regions such as Cognac and the Loire.

    Bruce Arnold, Literary Editor ofThe Irish Independent, author and connoisseur of life generally, was my wet-nurse. He gave directions to my endeavours, sensitively fined-tuned my copy and entirely defined this format. We worked together in the very early mornings when his good humour and enthusiasm greatly assisted my gestation. TO them; also to a legion of friends in the Bordeaux, British and Irish wine trade. I Send my heartfelt thanks. 

    T.P. Whelehan



    One of Ireland’s Wild Geese of the twentieth century, the international rugby player, Andie Mulligan, was travelling in Bordeaux with its first citizen, Jacques Chaban-Delmas. The former French Prime Minister, and for many years Mayor of Bordeaux, is the architect of much of the modern revival of the world capital of wine. In the front of the large limousine in which the two men drove through the fine estates of the Médoc sat the silent and inscrutable secretary to the mayor. As circumstance required, and in fulfilment of his national duties to all great Irish men, living and dead, Andie Mulligan waved first to the right and then to left, indicating those estates and Château with which there were was an Irish connection; Clarke, Dillon, O’Brien. Johnston, Barton, Lynch, the names fell easily and musically from his lips. Inevitably, for there were indeed some gaps in the terrain which were wholly French, silence ensued. And in one of the pauses the secretary sitting in front, unaware of the fluent French which the Irishman beside his employer commanded, leaned over towards the chauffeur and said: “The Stations of the Cross?”

      Mulligan tells the story with a certain relish, knowing all too well just how popular, with the French as well as his own countrymen, is the idea of the Irish, renowned as saints and scholars through Europe, should also have penetrated that most French of all territories, the world of wine, and should have done it where the very heart of quality and perfection beats out its heady measure, in the fields and on the slopes of Bordeaux.
    In its misty romanticism, the story of the seventeenth century Wild Geese is an emotive one. A broken treaty, much betrayal and the defeat of the Catholic King James at the battle of the Boyne sent the flower
    of the country's youth and nobility into the service of the King of France to continue their fight against the English. While many fought and died bravely, many of the highest calibre survived. Some were to achieve high rank in foreign armies, others moved into commerce. The wine trade especially in Bordeaux, Cognac and Jerez still reverberates with their names which have become synonymous with quality around the world.
    It may come as a surprise to some that Irishmen were making wine long before their beloved Guinness was invented. Records also show that during the early eighteenth century, when Dublin was a gay and thriving city, shipments of Bordeaux wine were vast. In fact they were greater than the combined total for England and Scotland. The rather dour Lord Chesterfield, commenting on the then current scene observed that ‘one gentleman in ten in Ireland are impoverished by the great quantity of claret which, for mistaken notions of hospitality and dignity, they think it necessary should be drunk in their houses' and that the 'affectation of drinking wine has even got into the middle and lower ranks of the people.’
    Jonathan Swift, Dean of St Patrick's Cathedral, and the author of Gulliver's Travels was also a celebrated wine connoisseur of his day, preferring to drink claret above all other wines. The huge Deanery cellars were always amply stocked 'seldom without eight or nine hogsheads’. The following were his instructions for disinterring a 'great bottle of wine long interred.’

    ‘Behold the bottle where it lies
    with neck elated tow'rds the skies
    The God of winds and God of fire
    Did to its wondrous conspire;
    And Bacchus for the poets use
    Pour’d in a strong inspiring juice.
    It drags behind a spacious womb,
    And in the spacious womb contains
    A sov’reign med’cine for the brains’

     By the end of the eighteenth century there were many Irish families prospering in Bordeaux. In 1787 Thomas Jefferson, the first U.S. ambassador to France at the Court of Louis XVI. Paid a visit to the city. He advised President George Washington - then busily building a cellar – that the following were amongst the leading wine merchants in Bordeaux: ‘Gernon, Barton, Johnston, Foster, Skinner, Copinger and MacCarthy’, He could have included many other families of Irish descent such as Lvnch, Kirwan, Morgan, Phelan, Clarke, Dillon, Boyd, Burke, Roche, Lawton, Murphy.
    The Irish connection, by name or by association, by marriage or by liaison, by merchant, producer, négociant or owner, provides a rich and extensive story, and penetrates to the heart of some of the greatest Bordeaux properties of all. In telling the story here, and giving an Irish flavour to that
    most French of tastes, we are but setting the reader on a course of his own which must inevitably lead to further discovery, the most exciting of all being first hand experiences among the Irish vineyards in France."

    Next instalment: Pauillac and Pauillac wines...

    Reproduced with the kind permission of Bruce Arnold.