Food, wine, travel, music
This article first appeared in a different form as part of a longer article on four of Ireland’s Winegeese in the Sunday Times 4 May 2014 called THE GRAPE ESCAPE. See this blog for the other three. The pics here were taken by me. On the left is Dermot Sugrue with on the right importer and retailer at le Caveau, Kilkenny Pascale Rossignol.
Dermot Sugrue Chief Winemaker Wiston Estate.
Growing up in Kilmallock, Co Limerick, Dermot Sugrue never expected to have a career making wine in England, but some might say it was the Lord’s will. When Sugrue was 16, the late Archdeacon Brian Snow, a family friend, brought him a bottle of his homemade elderberry port. “It was rich, filled with complex fruit flavours, sweet and powerful”, he says.
Captivated by the idea of turning fruit into wine, he was soon making his own, fuelling his friends during the 1990 World Cup. “That was the first ‘kit’ wine I made: red concentrated grape juice, fermented in a demijohn for a week, bottled and then left to mature for two weeks, or at least until midway through the World Cup”, he says. “By the time we played Romania and then Italy in the following tumultuous matches, every bottle was ruthlessly polished off.”
Now 40, Sugrue is based at Wiston Estate winery in West Sussex and is a member of a small, but successful club of Irish winemakers. We may be unable to grow grapes easily at home, but that hasn’t stopped us contributing to the wine world from abroad.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, Irish families fled from or left Ireland by choice to become wine merchants and chateaux owners, many of them in and around Bordeaux. Their descendants live there today. More recently other families have settled in the new as well as old world, producing top-class wines. Their life stories may be less harrowing, but they are every bit as varied. They have been documented by Dr Ted Murphy in his book A Kingdom of Wine – A Celebration of Ireland’s Winegeese (Onstream).
It was his mother Beryl who introduced Dermot to ‘real’ wine. “She told me how motorcycle couriers raced from Dublin Airport to the top restaurants in the city to deliver the first bottles of Beaujolais Nouveau every year, and drove me to Longueville House in Mallow to collect their empty bottles of Mosel, Hock, Claret and Rioja so I could refill them with my own dandelion, honeysuckle, blackcurrant and elderberry concoctions. I was fascinated by the labels; I didn’t want to scrub them off, they were so exotic.”
At a local church fete Beryl volunteered Dermot to man the mulled wine table, which was made from bottles of wine donated by the visitors. Most of it went straight into the pot, but not all of it. “When a 1982 Torres Gran Corona and 1981 Marques de Caceres, both Gran Reservas with some age, arrived, my mother put them aside and made an appropriate donation to the kitty. We tasted them over the following days and it was that 1982 Torres that made me realise why real wine was made with grapes and everything else was just a sideshow. I still remember exactly how it tasted: of leather, spice, tar and smoke.”
Archdeacon Snow further fuelled his interest in wine by giving Dermot books on wines of the world, including Hugh Johnson’s 1989 edition of ‘Wine’. “I read it so many times I virtually memorised whole paragraphs. I still have it and refer to it often; the wine world was refreshingly simple back then compared to now.”
While his enthusiasm for wine was strong, the young Dermot didn’t think of making it his career. In 1991 he was accepted to do a BSc in Journalism at City University, London, but couldn’t afford to go. London was an expensive city to study in so he took a year out, working at a beef factory at Ardnageehy, near Charleville, Co.Cork. He saved 2,000 punts. “On the day I changed it to Sterling, it was worth exactly £2,000 because of the devaluation of British Pound.” This was enough to get him started in the less costly city of Norwich where in the University of East Anglia, he first took French and Media Studies, before changing courses and graduating in 1996 with a degree in Environmental Science. Changing tracks again, up to 2002 he worked for several years as an independent financial advisor in Norwich, but boomeranged back to wine, for a short time studying Viticulture and Oenology in Plumpton College at Brighton University. “I didn’t finish the degree. I just didn’t like the academic side of the subject”. But the wine bug had bitten hard. He had already spent holiday times in wineries and after completing his first vintage in Bordeaux in 2001, he met Anthony and Lilian Barton for lunch in St Julien.
Dermot’s father Ronan Sugrue, a vet and Ireland’s only senior international show jumping judge, was well known within equestrian circles, and it was through a friend of his that Dermot met the Barton family. “That was the catalyst for me to give up what I was doing and turn to wine full-time. I was astonished that they were actually interested in hearing my thoughts on the wines they served – the ’83 and ’85 (Anthony’s favourite vintage at the time) of Leoville (Barton). It made me realise how absolutely genuine and honest they were, and I felt like part of the family – an extended Irish family whose destiny it was to bring joy to people through wine.”
Two seasons in Bordeaux were followed by work setting up a contract winery in Suffolk. “One of my first winemaking mentors in UK Rob Hemphill grew up in Tipperary and now lives there again. We worked very closely together on the 2003 vintage in England and I learned a huge amount from him my next job.” In 2004 he became the winemaker at the already well-established sparkling wine making facility at Nyetimber Vineyard. When it changed hands he left and worked the 2006 season at Moet & Chandon. Starting consultancy work to wineries in India in 2008, he joined Harry & Pip Goring to establish a new sparking wine enterprise on their Wiston Estate in West Sussex. “It was a terrific opportunity to take advantage of the superb soil structure and climate in South Down National Park, similar to Champagne with its south facing slopes.” Full of youthful exuberance, he planted Champagne grape varieties, and using his financial savvy, the development of the Wiston Estate wines included, as it still does, making wines under contract to other English vineyards. Following a disastrous 2012 (no wine whatsoever), in 2013 (a terrific year for English wine) 150,000 bottles were produced – a year of quality and quantity. “What’s special about the area”, he says, “is the long and cool growing season when you get lovely, defined flavours in the wines. We get very ripe grapes, the key to making world class wines in England.”
The winery has state of the art wine-making equipment, but Sugrue’s lateral thinking came into play to make the best of Goring Park’s history. It was once a turkey farm and processing plant (the source of the Goring fortune), and now, with perfect insulation, the wine is stored at an ideal 12-14 degrees in old blast freezers where once thousands of turkeys hung by the legs. “My uncle was a priest and mother a Protestant. There is a sense of redemption here!” Sugrue makes wine for several local wineries and for the Wiston Estate. He also makes wine for his own brand Sugrue Pierre named with his wife Sacha Pierre, a radiologist from Guyana. The 2010 vintage achieved an extraordinary 96 points in a recent Decanter rating – the highest ever awarded to an English sparkling wine. Just two weeks ago seven of his wines, some of them for contract clients, made the Top 30 list of English sparkling wines in the prestigious Judgement of Parsons Green.
“It is genuinely one of the new frontiers in the world of wine”, says Sugrue. “It’s probably the most exciting one, considering the quality we are capable of. In Hugh Johnson’s 1989 ‘Wine’, there’s not a single mention of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, let alone NZ wine, yet look where it is today. It is so exciting to be part of this genesis of a new wine region that surely will be around for centuries, and to be so instrumental in making so many of the wines – from Nyetimber to Wiston to Sugrue Pierre – is a privilege which I am very proud to be involved in.”
For Sugrue, who lives on the estate about 5 minutes from the vineyard and winery with Sacha, their dogs Noodles (6) and Tara (3), being Irish and making wine abroad is the most natural thing in the world. “The surprising thing is that I am making it in England now, and not France or Portugal.” Dermot Sugrue, from Kilmallock, Co. Limerick, is undeniably an important player in the development of English sparkling wine.
Sugrue Pierre South Downs Cuvée 2010 Brut
Dermot Sugrue’s own vintage sparkling wine label which has the subtitle ‘The Trouble with Dreams’, has wonderfully lively, clean fruit, with good depth of flavour. A blend of 55% Chardonnay, 45% Pinot Noir and 5% Pinot Meunier, part fermented in old barriques, the finish is long and dry. An elegant, delicious wine. The Wiston and Sugrue Pierre range is available from Le Caveau, Kilkenny, Ballymaloe Cookery School shop, Ballymaloe House, Co Cork. €45. In the UK the wines are available from http://www.eebria.com/drinks/show/105.