Reflections on O’Briens Spring Wine Festival 2019

Time to reflect on the O’Briens Wine fest this past weekend at Dublin Castle. With over 300 wines to choose from, the Festival gets bigger and bigger each year, probably for my poor palate too big, as it was a question of being spoiled for choice. But, I was determined to get around as many as possible and see what exciting new wines are in store for the summer and beyond.

As I’m studying for my WSET at the moment I took the opportunity of an advance entrance to try as many of the Sauvignon Blancs from around the world, as this is a wine I do not particularly like, but it is a regular at exam time, and I need to be able to distinguish the differences between New and Old World and the taste variations that different winemakers add to this widely planted grape.

Not wanting to bore people with my inexperienced tasting notes, suffice to say from the Old World my Sauvignon Blancs to recommend were the “H” de L’Hospitalet 2017 from Gerard Bertrand in Languedoc and the Italian Puiatti Fun 2017 from Bertani Domains. From Chile I actually really liked, yes me saying that, the Pictor 2018 from Mont Gras, with its tangy acidity and mouthful of juiciness. And onto New Zealand, the modern home of Sauvignon, and two to look at were the Astrolabe Province Marlborough 2018 and the Giesen’s Marlborough Ridge 2017, both very typical of NZ wines with aromatic notes and full on citrus flavours. If you like your NZ Sauvignons these will not disappoint.

Once I got my studying out of the way, it was time to taste for pleasure, and, again, with so many to choose from, this is only a personal snapshot, as there was no way I could make it around every stand, and apologies to Germany for missing you out this year altogether, it won’t happen again.

I’ll run swiftly through personal favourites from the show, and save the best to last. As I said, with so many to choose, I missed a fair number of wines that I’m sure would have made my top ten, and I avoided wines I am familiar with, so this is purely a personal journey around the tables. From Australia it was a pleasure to chat with Charlie O’Brien from Kangarilla Road Winery in the McLaren Vale, and his excellent Street Cred Shiraz 2016.

I chanced upon the Disznoko range from Hungary and their delightful Tokaji and Furmint wines, with the Aszu 6 Puttonyos 2002 leaping out for more, as the honey textured flavours seeped down my throat, as it says in the guide, luscious. Back to more ordinary stuff next, although the Domaine des Senechaux Chateauneuf-du-Pape Blanc 2017 was far from ordinary, a white CdP, and with green fruit and citrus combining to end with a creamy texture on the palate, this was an excellent wine and one I will seek out for the summer.

One table that I really enjoyed all the wines on, was the Delheim Wines spread, with winemaker Roelof Lotriet a fountain of knowledge. Their Wild Ferment Chenin Blanc 2016 was full of stone fruit, with hints of smokiness behind it. Their Chardonnay Sur Lie 2016 would be a hit with my wife, and for me, the Vera Cruz 2014 Shiraz was full of the flavours that makes Shiraz/Syrah always high on my list of go to wines – black fruits and pepper spiciness, without the enamel coming off my teeth with over reaching tannins.

As anyone who knows me is aware, aside from Argentine Malbecs, Spain is my Wine Utopia, with the wide range of grapes and styles from Iberia being a regular feature of my #fridaywineclub choices and a country I am always keen to explore more of. Patrick Webb from Coast to Coast Wines was a delight to chat with, and the range of small wineries he works with had done him proud with all his wines being top class examples of their styles. The highlight being the new vintage, 2014, of the Lo Mon Priorat, which improves on the 2013 that was sampled more than once over the last twelve months at dinner in our home. A surprise for me was in store at the Fincha La Estacada table from La Mancha, and the Ocho y Medio (8 ½) Malbec 2017, a light textured juicy red, full of flavour, peeking my interest as we start to see more and more Malbec Wines appearing from outside their usual locations of Argentina and France, and at a very good price point, another wine that will reach my table over the summer months.

There were many other interesting wines from Spain, but words need to be condensed, and a quick trip back to the Americas saw two enjoyable wines from different ends of the spectrum, and different ends of the continent, From Uruguay, I skipped the Tannat usual suspects, and really enjoyed the acidity and stoney fruit of the Familia Deicas Bodegones del Sur Viognier 2017, with ot being so great to see new emerging wines coming from South America, outside of those we have become accustomed to in recent years – I look forward to my future move back to Argentina, and the variety that is now on offer. From the other end of the Americas, it was an absolute delight to chat with Joe from Teac Mor (without an H!), and to sample his Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2013. As a fan of a good Burgundy myself, and with not too much variety coming our way from the US, this was just my cup of tea, so to speak, and the Irish name and the Harp on the bottle, won’t do any harm in promoting the product here at home, but it should sell well with a blank label, as it’s an excellent example of Pinot, rich ruby, cherry flavours, and very easy drinking, noting the lingering taste of black pepper and a hint of toffee, maybe coming from the French Oak ageing, another exciting addition for me.

As I said at the beginning, I saved the two highlights until the end, and they are not necessarily ones that I would have been expecting to be eulogising about with so much to choose from. First up was a wine that literally was fresh off the boat, having only arrived on Thursday on the boat from New Zealand (poetic licence, it came via Holyhead, but you get the picture), and Sacred Hill Winery, represented by Ben Stuart, a UK based Kiwi who spent a great deal of time chatting about his two wines on show, their Hawke’s Bay Merlot Reserve 2018, and a real highlight, a close runner up to “Best in Show” if we had one, the Hawke’s Bay Syrah Reserve 2017 (note not using the New World Shiraz handle). The Gimblett Gravels are notorious for producing top notch wines, and at a ridiculously cheap price of €17.95 is a compete steal, when you compare it to similar high quality products from the Rhone Valley, which is where I would compare this with, rather than the popular, in your face, Shiraz we generally see from Australia at the price point. Chocolate, redcurrants, spices from everywhere, and pepper to finish off with, I could have stopped tasting there and then and sat down with a bottle of this and be content.

But, Syrah aside, there was one winner on the night. I was highly recommend to try out the range of fortified styled wines from Bodegas Toro Albala and the DO Montilla-Morilles in Andalucia, Spain. They can’t call their wines Sherries, of course, as that name is precious to their neighbours in Jerez, but that is what they can be compared with, the wines made in traditional methods with Soleras being abundant in their wineries. They had four versions on display, from a Fino, to an Oloroso, and a Amontillado which started in Solera in 1922 and bares the name of the foundation barrel, although I doubt that much is left from the first harvest today. However, fine as these three wines were, the absolute highlight for me, was the Don PX Vintage 1990, bottled in July 2018, and a sweet wine made from Pedro Ximenez grapes, sundried to perfection to retain the sugars and aged in solera. The resulting wine is almost black in colour, treacle like in texture, and sweet without being sickly, like liquid raisins, with added molasses – It was pure heaven, and needless to say, a bottle has been acquired, and I doubt it will be the last.

All in all, and excellent festival, and with only three hours to get around the 300 plus wines, probably worth splitting the visits over the two days to try and facilitate all the treasures on display. A special thanks to Lorcan O’Brien and Lynne Coyle MW for chats while I was there, and a pleasure to meet so many of the great and good in the Irish Wine World on the evening. I look forward to trying out many of the wines I enjoyed over the coming months, and before you know it, the Autumn Wine Fair will be upon us, and we can do it all over again.