A Wine Lover's Diary, part 36 (May 25, 2005)
Saturday, May 14: Finished off the last writing chores before lunch and then down to the Park Hyatt Hotel for my seminar on Wines For Spring Romance. Not a great attendance, some twenty people. Steve Thurlow expressed the opinion that the whimsically titled seminars were not selling this year. Consumers seem to want hard educational events, like Big Australian Shiraz. Guy and Deborah picked me up outside the hotel and we drove straight to the airport to catch the plane to London (the same procedure as last year at this time when we went to Tuscany to celebrate Deborah's 50th birthday).
Sunday, May 15: An easy flight to London, although I didn't get much sleep. The guy behind me for some reason decided to use my head rest as his pillow and kept moving around. We have a five-hour layover at Heathrow before our British Midland flight to Dublin. Luckily we were allowed into the lounge. We arrived in Dublin at 3 pm and took the bus into town which dropped us off outside Trinity College. I was a student here many years ago. Our hotel, Brooks on Drury Street, is a ten minute walk. The concierge, an Australian named Damien, suggests we eat at a tourist pub named after the poet/surgeon Oliver St. John Gogarty. He pronounces it "Go-Garty." Grafton Street, Dublin's main shopping area, is now a pedestrian street and is full of Sunday shoppers. The first thing that struck me is how young Dublin is – young people everywhere. After checking in, we go for a walk up to St. Stephen's Green and along to Merrion Square. We pass the house where Oscar Wilde lived, which is now the American College in Dublin. We're looking for Dobbin's Wine Bar, a recommendation by my friend Billy Munnelly (of Billy's Best Bottles newsletter). Billy has a printed brochure on Dublin with a hand-drawn map indicating his suggested places to see or to eat. We can't find Dobbins from his map, so we go into a hotel to ask directions. The receptionist is mystified by Billy's map. "It's a quare map," he says, but shows us the way to the street where Dobbins is. We turn up an alleyway behind the new wing of the National Galley into a parking area, but still no Dobbins. A woman is taking a photo of a man and his black Scottie. We ask directions. Dobbins is a good walk away, he tells us. We get into conversation and he turns out to be a journalist for The Irish Independent newspaper. His son works for Oddbins. He suggests we try an Italian restaurant on Frederick Street South. It looks great, but unfortunately it has just closed. So we walk back to a restaurant in Powerscourt that looked interesting, but that too has closed since we passed it earlier. Then we happen on to The Bistro on Castlemarket just around the corner from our hotel. It serves "Continental Cuisine," so we give it a try. The deep-fried oysters are delicious with a bottle of the Casablanca Sauvignon Blanc 2003, followed by Tiger Prawns and Asparagus with fettuccini (Deborah) and Chicken Penne (me). We go to bed exhausted at 9 pm.
Monday, May 16: A great night's sleep (with the aid of melatonin). Up at 8:05 am and down at breakfast for 9 am. I forgo my usual breakfast of fresh fruit and order the Irish breakfast instead: scrambled eggs, bacon, white sausage, black sausage, pork sausage, mushrooms, fried potato cake, fried tomato – have I forgotten something, oh yes, brown toast and marmalade. Deborah and I walk over to the Bank of Ireland to cash some American dollars. They don't accept $100 bills unless you have an account but suggest we try Thomas Cook across the road, who are less squeamish. Then into Trinity College to see the Book of Kells. Trinity hasn't changed since I was a postgrad student, but the old theatre where my first one-act plays were performed is now administrative offices. We line up for about half an hour to see the 8th-century illuminated manuscripts. The museum setting is well done with a fascinating video on how they leather-bind books. Then we walk down to the Liffey, cross the Ha'penny Bridge and stroll towards the Jameson Distillery. The site is now a museum rather than a working distillery (all the whiskey in the Irish Distillers group is made in Midelton near Cork or Bushmills in Northern Ireland). We watch a video ("The story of Jameson is the story of Ireland...") and then Simon Fay, the regional manager for North America (whose brother, it turns out, lives around the corner from us in Toronto) and the newly retired master blender Barry Walsh show us around the historic building. At the end of the tour we sit in the pub and taste the different whiskeys made by the group. They have an interesting way of showing Irish whiskey. On a tasting sheet are four plastic thimbles containing samples of Jameson, Bushmills, Paddy and Power's 12 Year Old. In the top corners are samples of Scotch and Bourbon – Johnny Walker Red label, the world's largest-selling blended Scotch, and Jim Beam, the world's largest-selling Bourbon. The idea, no doubt, is to show that Irish whiskey, because it is triple distilled and the malted barley is not dried over peat smoke, tastes much mellower and less aggressive than Scotch or Bourbon. Scotch has 35% of the world whisky market; Irish has 2%.
My notes on the whiskies:
- Jameson – yellow amber colour; spicy sweet nose of vanilla and new leather; mellow and light on the palate.
- Old Bushmills – the same yellow amber colour; drier nose, toasty, woody, malty – more like a malt whisky.
- Paddy – sweet coconut, lemon peel nose; flavourful with a long dry finish. (Paddy was named after a Cork whiskey salesman, Paddy Flaherty, who used to buy drinks for the pub. His guests would return and ask for Paddy's whiskey.)
- Power's Gold Label – deeper in colour than the other whiskies; dry, nutty, orange peel nose; mouth-filling and rich, full flavoured with a smooth aftertaste. My favourite of the four.
When we compared these to the Johnny Walker the contrast was immediate – the smoke and peat flavours stood out, giving the Scotch an iodine note. The bourbon smelled of caraway seed and tasted raw.
To the standard tasting Simon Fay had added two more Irish whiskies. Jameson 12 Year Old: deeply coloured amber-bronze; fruity, malty nose with a touch of leather and a sweet oaky, spicy flavour with a vanilla note. And a whiskey I had never tried before, Redbreast 12 Year Old, which is fabulous: again deeply coloured with a vanilla, fruity-toasty nose complemented by coffee bean and orange peel notes; creamy on the palate with rich notes of vanilla and pencil lead.
We had lunch in the restaurant (seafood salad) with a bottle of St. Clair Sauvignon Blanc 2003 from New Zealand. Barry signed a bottled of 18 Year Old Jameson for me.
We took the Luas (Dublin's new fast tram - luas is Irish for "speed") to O'Connell Street, where we caught the double-decker tour bus for a trip around the city. According to the driver of the tour bus we were about to take, the Luas (which was three years behind schedule and massively over budget) was constructed to cut down the number of cars on city streets. This, he said, was slowly being accomplished, one car at a time, because of the many collisions involving cars being caught on the tram tracks... We have been invited to dinner by friends of our Irish friends, the Sweeneys in Toronto. Edward picks us up at 7:30 and drives us to his beautiful Georgian house on Lesson Street Upper. Barbara, his wife, has two bottles of wine waiting, a Chinon and an Italian white. We opt for the white. Edward tells us a hilarious story about visiting his brother-in-law in Beaverton, who writes a hunting and fishing column in the Toronto Star and has a local radio program. He invited Edward on the show and introduced him as the President of the Dublin Ice Fishing Association (on the strength of his one experience in Beaverton when both he and his host got completely smashed). His fellow members meet monthly in a pub to discuss technique. We go to dinner in a local restaurant called Roly's Bistro in Ballsbridge. The cuisine is contemporary Irish. I have crab cakes and veal loin; Deborah orders rocket and asparagus salad and rack of Wicklow lamb. We order two bottles of Hunter's Pinot Noir 2002 (we're making sure New Zealand doesn't end up with a wine lake).
Tuesday, May 17: A wretched night's sleep. Both us us woke at 3 am and could not fall back to sleep. Finally staggered down to breakfast after 10 am. Took a taxi to the Thrifty Car Rental on Lombard Street and picked up a small blue VW Polo. They only have gear shift models, which means I shall be doing all the driving. It's many years since I last drove a stick shift and I am apprehensive about pulling out into city traffic on the left-hand side of the road. But it all comes back very quickly. We head for Wexford, about 140 km south of Dublin. Lunch at The Beehive, a roadside restaurant south of Wicklow that advertises itself as a Carvery. They offer beer or pork in trencherman portions. The chef's assistant serves the vegetables – cabbage and potatoes. I opt for the roast potatoes and stop him at three. He enquires if I'd like mashed as well. The plate feeds both Deborah and me. We stop at Enniscorthy and watch from an old stone bridge as a man plays a 12-pound salmon and finally lands it with the aid of his net-wielding wife. We arrive in Wicklow and I pull into a garage to ask directions to the B&B we're booked into – Auburn House. The man says, "Ah, that's going to be difficult. Shall I write it down?" Then he points to a row of houses fifty yards away. "That's it." The proprietor, Mary O'Brien, shows us to our room. It has a four-poster bed and overlooks the estuary. We walk up to the castle and watch a video that gives the history of Wexford. The guy who sells us the tickets tells us in boring detail of the trip he took to Canada and insists we see the grave of the family of Thomas D'arcy McGee... Mary recommends a restaurant for dinner, The Sky & the Ground on South Main Street, about a mile away. It's a pub and an off-license with a restaurant two flights up called Heavens Above. If you arrive before 7 pm you can get the Early Bird Special, which means you can get a starter and a dessert for the same price as the main course. We arrive at 6:55 pm. The waitress asks if we have a reservation. I hesitate wondering whether we won't be able to get in. Before I can reply, she says amiably, "It's not a trick question, you know." When I ask for the wine list, I'm told that all I have to do is go downstairs to the off-license and buy a bottle; there'll be no corkage charge. How good is that! I pick up a bottle of La Motte Sauvignon Blanc 2004 from South Africa (I seem to be on a Sauvignon jag). We both order moules marinère; Deborah orders salmon and I the lemon sole (which is tarted up with prosciutto and cheese, which is a pity, because I can hardly taste the fish.) The table of nine next to us accepted our side dish of potatoes, boiled in their jackets and mashed, and the butter to go with them. By way of expressing his appreciation, the host, a local publican who was entertaining his four grown-up children and their partners, came over to our table placed his palms on the surface to steady himself and began to recount his life story.
Wednesday, May 18: It rained all day today. We picked up a picnic lunch at a supermarket, cashed some more $$ (this bank wouldn't accept US $100 bills either) and drove towards Waterford. A digression down to see the oldest lighthouse in Northern Europe, which stands at the end of the Hook Peninsula. It dates back to the thirteenth century. Then we take the short ferry ride across the bay (eating our lunch as we cross the water) and drive to Waterford. We check out Reginald's Tower, a Norman round tower by the water with its 10-foot-thick walls. It's said to be the first Irish building to use mortar, "a primitive concoction of blood, lime, firm and mud" according to the Eyewitness Guide to Ireland – the only reference book we need. Deborah has found a pet shop that sells Dog Loos. You bury it in the ground and pour in some solution once a month which allows it to liquefy and disperse into the ground. I was wondering how we'd train Pinot to use, it but apparently you have to shovel the stuff in yourself. Next visit the Waterford glass factory, a vast commercial operation with magnificent show rooms. We buy a glass wine coaster and had it engraved for a Christmas present to our friends who will remain anonymous so as not to spoil the surprise. Drove from Waterford to Cork (the rain is heavy now) and arrived at 5:45 pm Got hopelessly lost trying to find our B&B, Garnish House, which is mentioned in our guide book. They have tea waiting for us and an enormous basket of scones, fruit cake, chocolate bread and jams. Met a man who did his thesis on the Irish influence in the Bordeaux wine trade. Dinner at Fenn's Quay, a restaurant recommended by the B&B manager. Actually, this is more of a hotel than a B&B; it has 14 rooms. Fenn's is a ten-minute walk away, which is a good thing, since it's only raining lightly and I'm sick of driving. We dine with Etta and Tony Rodriguez, an older couple we meet on arrival at the B&B. They're from Akron, Ohio. Tony did the Camino walk from the French border to Compostela. It took him 32 days. He and I order blood pudding salad and sea bass; Deborah, Parmesan and tomato tart and Aubergine Charlotte; Etta, a salad and sea bass. I ordered a bottle of Terruzi and Puthold Vernaccia di San Gimignano 2004. We had a second bottle. On the walk back we drop into an off-license around 11 pm and I pick up a bottle of Villa Maria Sauvignon Blanc for the room. Easy to deal with – it has a screwcap.
Thursday, May 19: At breakfast the waitress offered me porridge, which I could have with cream and honey or Bailey's Irish Cream or Irish whiskey. Mountains of toast and scones and bread arrived, and once we had finished eating, suddenly crepes arrived at the table with tiny jugs of maple syrup. We drive towards Blarney Castle and stop by the Blarney Woollen Mills to buy gifts and sweaters for us. I had read somewhere that the only vineyard in Ireland is in Mallow, just north of Blarney (we did not stop at the castle to kiss the stone). Deborah rolled her eyes when I told her that I had found a vineyard in Ireland. She recalled my finding a winery on Maui. The vineyard is on the 500-acre property of Longueville House, a Relais & Chateaux hotel in a splendid Georgian heritage house (painted pink). I wondered if the Longueville had anything to do with the Barton family and heir Bordeaux connection. Unfortunately, the owner, William O'Callaghan, had left, so I couldn't buy a bottle of his wine or find out about his vineyard, which is in a garden to the left of the house. Deborah and I did manage to walk through it, about an acre of vines, set well apart on a good slope. Mallow is a few degrees above 52° Latitude (Toronto is at 44° and Schloss Johannisberg in the Rheingau at 50°), so I wonder what's planted here. I'll email William O'Callaghan and ask him. Apparently he also makes an apple brandy... From Mallow we drove to Kenmare (in the rain). The shop fronts are all painted different colours, very attractive. We stop for coffee and a local woman gives us information about the best route around the Ring of Kerry, which we will take tomorrow. We drive through Moll's Gorge, past the lakes, to Killarney and then to Beaufort, where we will stay tonight at a farm B&B called Invicta. A rainbow greets us as we arrive in the rain. From our window we can see Lough Leane and two small islands with mountains called The Paps behind. We dine at Kate Kearney's Cottage on the Gap of Dunloe, a ten-minute drive away. Kate Kearney was a legendary beauty in the days before the potato famine, according to the story on the back of the menu. She ran an illicit poteen still. The potency of her "mountain tea" was such that you would have to take seven times the amount of water to cool your throat! I order vegetable soup and the traditional Irish strew. Deborah has the soup and roast beef. I have a pint of Guinness and she, a Jameson. There is a trio of musicians who entertain us (and a busload of tourists – why are other tourists such a pain) with traditional Irish music. Two sisters, one ten years old, performed Irish step dances. Returned to the B&B about 8:30 pm and talked about fishing with Sean, the husband of the proprietor, who tells me that the fishing has been going downhill for years. An early night because the weather forecast is for sun in the morning turning to rain in the afternoon.
Friday, May 20: Today we tackle the Ring of Kerry, which is a distance of some 166 km. We start by getting lost, taking a track that's barely one car's width, winding through the hills of sheep and lambs, across rivers with narrow stone bridges. We try to find the way to Black Valley but end up having to retrace our route. At least the sun is shining and the sky is blue. We scatter some of Deborah's mother's ashes in an idyllic setting of rocks, fast running water and sheep. Eventually, after a couple of missteps, we work our way back to the N72, the Ring of Kerry around the perimeter of the Iveragh Peninsula. What a magnificent drive it is along the northern coast. The richness of the wild rhododendrons is breathtaking. We stop for lunch in Cahirsiveen, but the seafood restaurant we've chosen doesn't open until 2:30pm and it's only noon. We drop into the Harp Hotel for a Guinness. The 83-year-old owner gives me a card when Deborah goes to the ladies' room. "Put this on your daughter's seat," he says. It reads: "RESERVED – Gone for a wee-wee." He gives me another card, which is printed:
I'M OUT FOR THE NIGHT!
If I get drunk, tie this label to my button-hole and
SEND ME HOME
Do not knock, but ring the bell
And when the Mrs. comes run like L
Lunch – fish and chips for Deborah, smoked salmon salad and a half pint of Guinness. Then on to Waterville, Caherdaniel and Castlecove to Sneem. Sneem is self-consciously gorgeous, with the shops painted in bright colours, a Hollywood setting for a musical if ever there was one. From Sneem we take Moll's Gap to Killarney, past Upper Lake, Middle Lake and Lower Lake (the biggest of the three), then on to Tralee. Tonight we're staying at a B&B on a working farm just outside the city. We get lost again, twice. Finally the publican at The Tankard, a pub restaurant, puts us on the right road. Our room overlooks Tralee Bay. We went back to the Tankard for dinner since we could find it. It was also recommended by the B&B owner. A party of eight American men discuss their golf games all through the meal. There is nothing more boring than listening to virtual golf games. I order six oysters (delicious) and crab claws (an enormous plateful) and Deborah orders mussels and baked salmon with a bottle of Errazuriz Sauvignon Blanc 2003 from Chile. I've never had so much white wine since the 1970s. Today we had perfect traveling weather.
Saturday, May 21: Awoke to a beautifully sunny morning and blue skies. We decide to drive the Dingle Peninsula. Amazing vistas of steep green slopes with cattle and sheep, whitewashed cottages and towns with multi-coloured facades. We end up in Dingle, a lovely fishing port town where we meet a woman from Vancouver who sells Irish wildflower seeds. Then we drive back through Connor's Passage, a hair-raising road that curves around the mountain, cutting across the Peninsula. We drive up to the ferry at Talback, a twenty-minute trip across the River Shannon. Drive to the Cliffs of Moher, the most astonishing vista of cliffs that rise 650 feet straight out of the sea. There are warning signs about not crossing the barrier for a closer took at the edge, but no-one is taking any notice and all are wandering dangerously close to the edge. Then drive through stone fields to end up in Galway at the Western B&B on Prospect Hill. Our friend Shirley Keville, who lives in Ormanston, takes us to Murphy's pub for a drink before dinner, then we dine at KC Blakes Brasserie in Galway's "Latin Quarter." We order a bottle of Bodegas Castano Pozuelo Reserva from Yekla in Spain (a Mourvedre). The pedestrian street is full of young people (it's the FA Cup final day between Manchester United and Liverpool. As an old Man. United supporter I'm depressed they lost on a penalty shoot-out).
Sunday, May 22: The breakfast room is full of women who have been celebrating their friend's engagement. They are all hung over and look like hell. I open a package of what I took to be strawberry jam and spread it on my scone. It turns out to be brown sauce. Not a pleasant way to wake up. Our friend Shirley is driving us to Connemara. A blessing not to be driving for a day. There are cyclists on the road for some charity who make the driving on these narrow roads even more treacherous. There is a posted speed limit of 100 kph on these country roads but it is impossible to reach this speed unless you're a Formula One driver. When I got to eighty on previous days Deborah became white-knuckled. We're heading for Clifden on the coast where we have lunch. We pass Kyltemore Abbey, a majestic battlemented Gothic revival building, now an exclusive girls' school run by nuns. In the shop both Deborah and I do damage with credit cards. We lunch in Clifden's former railway station. In the men's room a man wants to make conversation. He asks if I'm passing though. I tell him I am. "I'm passing through too, I'm passing through life," he says. "It's not a good day when you wake up dead. It could be seriously bothersome." We drive to Roundstone, a fishing village with beautiful sand beaches. Connemara is rugged and wild, peat bogs, granite hills, ancient stone walls that separate one small plot of land from the next, yellow gorse bushes, wild rhododendrons and green grass. And sheep. Back in Galway we decide to have dinner at the Quay Street Wine Bar on Dury Street (how Irish can you get). Deborah orders Thai mussels cooked in coconut milk; I order a half dozen oysters (not as good as The Tankard's). Deborah has Tandoori Chicken and I have lamb shank (which two Frenchmen at the next table have ordered with a bottle of Australian Shiraz). I order a bottle of Vina Porta Pinot Noir from Bio Bio, an emerging region in the south of Chile. It is delicious. On the way back to the B&B we stop for a nightcap at Freeneys Bar and order two glasses of Jameson 12 Year Old Redbreast. It's so delicious I buy a bottle to take home. On the way back to the room we pass a bar called M. T. Pockets. It's beginning to feel that way. Tomorrow we leave for Dublin. We're ready to go home.
Monday, May 23: Today we drive from Galway to Dublin, a 210-kilometre drive through the middle of Ireland. The scenery is flat and not as dramatic as the west coast but at least the sun is shining, although it is raining in Galway ("lashing") according to the radio. We stop in Athlone, about halfway across. We buy a picnic lunch at Dunnes and pull off the highway an hour later by an old church that looks abandoned, with an ancient graveyard now overgrown with foot high grass. We arrive in Dublin at 3:45 pm and drop off the rental car. The rain is coming down in buckets, but once we finish our transaction the sun comes out. We walk over to the Liffey and Deborah scatters the rest of her mother's ashes from a bridge. Then we visit the National Gallery to see the Jack B. Yeats collection of paintings. His portraits might have been painted by a different painter. His landscapes are a mixture of fantasy and brooding colours. In a strange way he reminded me of Alex Colville in their sense of foreboding although the styles are radically different. More final shopping – going through Brown Thomas, the Weston's store on Grafton Street, Marks & Spenser and then to dinner at Dunne & Crescenzi on South Frederick Street – the place we had tried to get into the first night we arrived in London. The place is packed and we have to queue 20 minutes. But it's worth it. An excellent meal with a bottle of Castelli dei Grevepesa Terramara Morellino di Scansano 2003, a Sangiovese from Tuscany. Then back to our B&B on Gardiner Place to pack.
Tuesday, March 24: An early alarm after a sleepless night at the Dergvale B&B. After breakfast we get a cab to the Royal Dublin Hotel, where we can pick up an airport bus, for which we already have a return ticket, but the driver convinces us to let him take us to the airport, since it will ultimately be worth our while in terms of stress. We fly to London, where we luxuriate in the lounge, checking on emails and drinking wine. They have two reds on offer – Bernard d'Assigny Pinot Noir 2003 (Pays d'Oc) and Les Vignerons de la Mediterranée Merlot 2004 (Pays de l'Aude). Both very drinkable with those little packets of cheese that are impossible to remove from their plastic.