With so many food superstars at Ballymaloe last weekend it would be easy to forget that wine, beer and whiskey tastings also played a major part thanks to the wonderful work done by Colm McCan, the inspiring sommelier at Ballymaloe House.
The highlight for all wine enthusiasts occurred late on Sunday when Jancis Robinson MW guided a packed Grain Store through some unusual grape varieties to tie in with the launch of her recent Wine Grapes book.
Wine Grapes is the definitive guide to all grapes in the world used to make commercially available wine. At 7lbs the book “weighs as much as a new-born baby” as Jancis so nicely put it, but this baby had a five year gestation so it was clear this was a truly daunting task.
DNA analysis has proven for example that Cabernet Sauvignon is a crossing of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc which seems obvious when you write it down, but was a revelation to the wine world and explained for example the green pepper aromas present in both wines.
Robinson's book has now thrown up dozens of similar mind-bending conclusions such as the fact that the grapes for €7.99 Pinot Grigio are genetically identical to the ones in La Tache red Burgundy which costs around €2,500 per bottle.
Mostly Jancis's talk and tasting was a hymn to bio-diversity and a reminder that we need lovely lemony Assyrtiko from Santorini in Greece and vibrant, honeyed Petit Manseng from Jurançon just as much as we need Merlot (an aunt of Trebbiano) and Zinfandel (which is actually Tribidrag from Croatia).
We drank a stunning and rare Palo Cortado from Equipo Navazos and learned about the huge stocks of “astonishingly high quality” sherry that is being rescued and bottled by enthusiasts (and many supermarkets) and also just what tiny supplies there are of fine old Madeira - “lets hope the Americans or the Chinese don't hear about it,” she quipped.
We tasted a Barbeito Malvasia Madeira and learned that this madeira is Jancis's desert island wine for purely practical reasons: “the acidity refreshes you when you are hot and the richness warms you if you are cold; and most importantly it never goes off so you can take a tiny sip every day for years!”.
As John Bowman put it at the end of her 140 minute talk: “expect to see queues forming at bookstores filled with Ballymaloe Festival goers” demanding copies.
Elsewhere at the festival Mary Dowey guided us through matching wine with spicy foods, John McDonald dissected riesling, John Wilson and Tom Doorley discussed wine writing, the guys from L. Mulligan Grocer conducted several whiskey and cheese tastings and I held an informal sherry tasting which included the just released Tio Pepe “En Rama” - a deeply fragrant unfiltered and unclarified dry Fino which tastes of honeysuckle and baked bread (available at Ballymaloe House and Mannings, Bantry, West Cork).