How a German winemaker thrives in the land of whiskey and Guinness
You will rarely see someone ordering a glass of red in an Irish pub, where traditional whiskey or iconic Guinness still predominates.
This is partly because a lot of people associate going to the pub with a pint. But closures around the world have resulted in an increase in global demand for wine, a positive trend for Ireland’s relatively few wineries, which have long produced grapes despite the island’s harsh climate.
Thanks to the Gulf Stream, Ireland enjoys lush flora, especially along the coastline, and a hot and humid climate, which makes it less than ideal for wine production.
However, a few winegrowers have discovered grape varieties that are surprisingly well suited to this environment. One of them is German winemaker Thomas Walk, owner of Ireland’s largest vineyard, located in County Cork, in the south of the island.
At the time, he started growing grapes because there were so few German varieties in the country – and also because wine was expensive on the island, he explains.
Coming from a family of winegrowers in southern Germany, Walk bought a property on Kinsale Bay some 40 years ago. The town of Kinsale is known for its superb restaurants and hosts a number of food festivals each year.
Today, the Thomas Walk vineyard has some 4,800 vines.
âCompared to the great wineries in Germanyâ – with an average holding of just under 13 ha and almost 100,000 vines – âit’s really not that big,â he says modestly. For Ireland, however, this is huge.
Other Irish wineries, such as Wicklow Way Wines in South Dublin, David Llewellyn’s Orchard in Lusk, David Dennison’s Viking Wines in Waterford and Bunratty Mead in County Clare, are even smaller.
During the pandemic, wine sales in Ireland rose 12% and yet locally produced wine is still scarce, with most wines in stores imported from Chile, Spain and Australia.
Some say Ireland has a long tradition of growing grapes. The Celts attempted to cultivate vines and produce wine as early as the 5th century, according to archaeologists, while other sources claim that the vine was first introduced to the island in the 12th century.
The oldest wine from the Walk cellar dates from 1989.
âIt was also the first successful harvest. We only open one of the bottles on special occasions, âhe says. That’s understandable – after all, it took Walk some time and a lot of courage before he could even get a yield from his vines.
For several years, the seasoned winemaker experimented with 12 different grape varieties – from Mueller-Thurgau to Pinot Noir and Riesling – until he found the right one.
“The Mueller-Thurgau grew like crazy, but didn’t bear fruit. Not all white varieties worked for us, so it had to be a red one.”
Eventually, they found success in 1985 with Rondo, a relatively unknown grape variety at the time that produced a ruby ââred wine, full-bodied and, above all, very resistant to fungi in a hot and humid environment.
âWe were the first to cultivate this variety in the British Isles, and now Rondo is found elsewhere in Ireland and also in England,â says Walk proudly.
As in many industries, sustainability is playing an increasingly important role in the wine business. Walk, like many Irish winemakers, sells organic wines and is happy that they don’t have to use pesticides, fungicides or herbicides. Instead, he lets the vines grow tall so the herbs and plants can thrive underneath.
During a walk in the vineyard, Walk stops to inspect some vines: âIt’s going to be a good harvest this year,â he says.
Once transformed, the wine is stored in large barrels in an extension of the main house.
âBottling and corking are always a community project. Children, grandchildren and friends come to help us, âsays Walk.
Although it still depends on the harvest, the Walk vineyard can produce several hundred bottles of wine per year, many of which are exported to its native Germany, although Walk has a growing customer base in Ireland, including many restaurants.
âIt’s always something new to see Irish wine on the menu,â he says. – dpa