The Wine Geese
Another reason to kiss the Irish
The wines of Bordeaux are touted around the world as brilliantly complex, stunningly powerful and, of course, staggeringly expensive. They are the pride of France and the lust of Franco- and oeno-philes everywhere. But just how French are France’s biggest and brightest?
A quick look at many labels from the finest châteaux reveals a detail often overlooked by winos. Several bottles carry names that are anything but French. In fact, they’re undeniably Irish. Châteaux Lynch-Bages, Château Léoville-Barton, Château Kirwan and Château Clarke are just a few fancy-pants wineries with Emerald Isle roots. And it’s not just their wines that have curious monikers. Does a Cognac called Hennessy ring a bell?
In the 17th century, Irish rebels began fleeing their homeland after James II was defeated by British armies. The Treaty of Limerick allowed them to settle in France, and they were listed as “Wild Geese” on the documents of ships that transported them to join James II in exile. Those who stayed in Ireland settled into a new life full of persecution and strife, while those arriving in France recovered from any lingering mal de mer and familiarized themselves with their new home.
It’s been said that when in Rome, one should do as the Romans, so it would follow that when in France, one should do as the French. And that's just what the so-called Wild Geese did. Many landed in Bordeaux and soon began growing grapes and buying chateaux. Some even married into families associated with France’s wine industry. Evidence of this is seen today in the Irish names found on some of the most celebrated French wine labels.
As it turns out, Ireland has had a love affair with Europe’s reds and whites since before St. Patrick chased snakes from the island.
Surprisingly, wine and winemaking seems to have come naturally to the Irish. As it turns out, Ireland has had a love affair with Europe’s reds and whites since before St. Patrick chased snakes from the island. Long before Arthur Guinness sent folks stumbling out of pubs singing "Danny Boy," they imported four times more French wine than the British, who have long been known for gulping down large amounts of the foreign fruit.
According to Elisabet Bordt, associate director of The WineGeese Society, “Their experience came not from winemaking but from wine drinking.”
Their love of and experience with wine translated into an ability to quickly learn the ins and outs of winemaking and all aspects of the business. Bordt explains that “they had long established trade and commerce relationships with Bordeaux, so they were simply continuing what they already knew.”
America’s wine industry is also heavily influenced by the Irish. In 1860, Samuel Brannan established the town of Calistoga in Napa Valley and planted the region’s first vines. California now boasts several wineries that have an Irish connection. The Celeidh, Mayacamas and Maloy O’Neill Vineyards all lay claim to Irish lineage.
In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a wine region that isn’t tied to Ireland in one way or another. New Zealand, Australia and South Africa all have wineries owned or established by those from Erin, and even some of Spain’s great sherry bodegas like Domecq were brought about by none other than Irishmen.
Today, those who traveled from Ireland and lent a hand in the world’s vineyards are known as the Wine Geese. They've poured a lot into what we regularly pour into our glasses and have done so with little recognition. For most Americans, whiskey and stout are the primary liquid offerings associated with that little island across the Atlantic. In reality, wine consumption is on the rise and beer-drinking is declining across most of Ireland.
Bordt is quick to credit author Ted Murphy with shedding light on the contributions of the Wine Geese. Murphy is also credited with coining the term Wine Geese in his book A Kingdom of Wine.
While celebrating Irish heritage with a pint of blackened hops is fine and well, adding a glass of wine to the St. Patrick's Day festivities brings an elemental twist to the table.
As Bordt, in her soft, lilting voice puts it, “It’s an element of Irish history that is enriching and wonderful. It helps us to see that it’s actual people involved in this impossible art of winemaking at a time when it’s easy to assume that big corporations are behind it.”