The legacy of the Celts in Ireland and how, in the absence of grapes, they used their wine making skills to create a honey-wine.
Odds are, you’re familiar with the fact that beer, stout and whiskey have been mainstays of Celtic culture for eons. What I’ll bet you don’t know is that the Celts also played a key role in the development of humanity’s fascination with wine.
Not that the Celts “invented” wine. That epicurean advance is credited to an accidental spoilage of grapes somewhere in ancient Persia as early as 6000 BC. Four thousand years later, while Egyptian workers building the pyramids slaked their thirst with beer, the local royalty was drinking wine. Passages in Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad reveal that by 1600 BC wine-making and trading was an important part of Greek commerce, and wine was a favorite beverage of just about everyone, peasants and blue-bloods alike. Starting about 1000 BC, the Romans made major contributions in classifying grape varieties and colors, observing and charting ripening characteristics, pruning, identifying diseases, and increasing yields through irrigation and fertilization techniques. Not to mention spreading cultivation of the grape throughout the Empire.
So where do the Celts come into the picture? To get the full story, one has to look back to the days of the original Celts, the prehistoric people who lived on the banks of eastern Europe’s Danube River, and whose descendants moved ever westward to become the first inhabitants of Ireland — the Tuatha de Danaan (People of the Danube) in legend and lore.
Peaceful farmers by nature – and fierce warriors on provocation – the Celts were also master metallurgists who perfected the process of extracting ore from rock via smelting. By melting together tin and copper they ushered in Europe’s Bronze Age, and later excelled in working with iron, inventing not only sturdier weapons but agriculture’s first iron plough and scythe as well. The Celts were also responsible for a major advancement in transportation and trade. By affixing an exterior iron sheath to the wooden wheel, they made the device much sturdier, able to carry heavier loads and less susceptible to breakage.
It was at this point in history that the Celts contributed their expertise to wine making. In addition to metallurgy, they were also master woodcrafters. For more than a thousand years, wine had been transported in clay jugs called amphorae, risky containers at best that were prone to cracking, seepage, and in worst case scenarios, smashing to pieces even when carefully cradled in layers of straw.
Having learned from the Greeks and Romans the methods of growing grapes and transforming the juice into wine (not to mention being very fond of the drink and even fonder of the revenue it provided), in approximately 900 BC the Celts combined their woodworking and metallurgic skills and invented the barrel. Consisting of curved wooden staves encircled by bands of iron and closed on either end by flat wood caps, this Celtic invention forever changed wine production. Not only did the wooden barrel contain the liquid more efficiently and safely, it was discovered that the wine’s flavor changed dramatically depending on what wood was used. A phenomenon that wine lovers the world over appreciate to this day.
It must have been dismaying when on finally reaching Ireland the Celts realized that the climate of their newest territory did not support grape growing. No matter. Being endlessly creative, they made a wine-like beverage from what was most easily at hand: honey. When honey is simply dissolved in water and exposed to air, wild yeast spores feed on its sugar content, causing the liquid to ferment, and transforming it into a potent alcoholic drink.
Call them fickle or call them smart, the ancient Celts quickly adopted mead as a grape wine replacement. The heady golden liquor was believed to enhance virility and fertility, and for a bonus it also served as an aphrodisiac. It doesn’t take much reasoning to understand why mead almost immediately became the preferred drink at wedding ceremonies. In fact, the term ‘honeymoon’ probably stems from the Irish tradition of newlyweds drinking honey wine every day for one full moon (a month) after their weddings. Even now some Irish nuptial celebrations still include a traditional mead toast to wish the wedded couple well in their new life together.
Notwithstanding Ireland’s inhospitable grape growing climate, Irish chieftains’ thirst for wine never waned. One King of Connaught is reported as constantly “going from one feast of purple wine to another” and in the 11th century the Norsemen of Limerick paid an annual tribute of ‘one cask of red wine for every day of the year’ to Brian Boru. Compared to the Irish, British wine drinkers were pikers. In 1740, Bordeaux supplied England with only 1,000 casks of wine while 4,000 casks were shipped to Ireland.
Then came the bleak days of the 18th and 19th centuries when Irish Catholics were persecuted for their faith and the Potato Famines brought widespread starvation to the population. Hundreds of thousands of Celts migrated once again. This time to lands across the seas to France, America, and remote Australia. Move the clock forward a few clicks more, and behold! Those indefatigable Celts began making grape wine again.
“Winegeese” is the name given to the emigrant Irish families and their descendants who, from the 18th century onwards, engaged in the various endeavors of the wine making and trading industry in their adopted countries. Many of these pioneering wine families have played significant roles in the viticultural development of some of the finest wine-growing regions around the world, ranging from the Concannon Winery, in Livermore, to Napa Valley in California, the Loire Valley in France, to the Clare Valley in Australia and the Hemel En Aarde Valley in South Africa.
To find a listing of Irish heritage winemakers and wineries in France, the United States and Australia visit The Ireland Funds Winegeese Society here. For a complete history of Irish winemaking (and a good read besides), dive into Ted Murphy’s encyclopedic book The Story of the Winegeese.
And the next time you’re looking for a great complement to a great meal, pour some of the fine wines created by Irish-American vintners who continue to advance the art of winemaking begun by the Celtic barrel makers umpteen ages ago! Sláinte!
Pairing Wine & Food
The world of wine is wide and can be consummately confusing when it comes to pairing wine with food. Here are some suggestions. For more info, or if your favorite varietal is not included, check out this great interactive site.
BURGUNDY: medium bodied with flavors of berries and earthy notes.
Serve with: salmon, tuna, duck, turkey, pork, veal, braised beef.
Avoid: light seafood, lamb, cream sauces.
CABERNET SAUVIGNON: full-flavored with flavors of black currants, chocolate, cedar.
Serve with: beef, duck, lamb, roast chicken, game, mushrooms, roast squash.
Avoid: seafood (except rare tuna), citrus, cream sauces.
CHAMPAGNE: crisply acid with flavors of yeast, toast, citrus, apple, grapefruit.
Serve with: caviar, lobster, oysters, light chicken dishes.
Avoid: sautéed scallops, smoked salmon, red meat, rich cream sauces.
CHARDONNAY: full-flavored with flavors of apple, butter, oak, vanilla, honey, lemon.
Serve with: lobster, sea bass, shrimp, chicken, turkey, pork, cream sauces, avocado, spinach, squash.
Avoid: tuna, beef, lamb, BBQ, tomato sauce.
GEWURTZTRAMINER: full-flavored with flavors of roses, lychees, spices
Serve with: chicken, fish, turkey, cheese.
Avoid: mild fish dishes.
MERLOT: soft and supple with flavors of black cherry, plum, vanilla, oak
Serve with: tuna, salmon, beef, duck, mushrooms, wild rice, mild cow and goat cheeses.
Avoid: most fish and crustaceans, pork, citrus and cream sauces.
PINO GRIGIO: light semi-fragrant with lemony-citrus flavors.
Serve with: light fish, oysters, chicken, ham, veal, light pasta, ravioli, antipasti.
Avoid: salmon, tuna, beef, duck, game, rich cream sauces.
PINOT NOIR: medium-bodied with flavors of black cherry, strawberry, smoke.
Serve with: salmon, tuna, beef, lamb, duck, ham, butter sauces, mushrooms, potatoes.
Avoid: heavy cream sauces, pumpkin, sweet potato.
SAUVIGNON BLANC: crisp with flavors of grapefruit, lemon, fresh grass
Serve with: scallops, shrimp, grilled or sautéed chicken and pork, vinaigrettes, citrus sauces.
Avoid: crab, oysters, lamb, rich cream sauces.
SHIRAZ: fruit-forward with flavors of blackberries, black currants, oaky vanilla, chocolate.
Serve with: brisket, stew, steak, lamb, venison, pork, roast duck.
Avoid: everything light and delicate.
This article was published in the February / March 2012 edition of Irish America.