The red baroness

 

A grande dame in Dublin, and other news from wine world, by Mary Dowey

Bordeaux does a good line in theatrical baronesses. Philippine de Rothschild, who was an actress before taking over Château Mouton-Rothschild, performed the opening ceremony at the last major Irish wine fair in the RDS with great exuberance. And then, a couple of weeks ago, Baroness Edmond de Rothschild arrived in Dublin to host a dinner in L'Ecrivain and talk about her properties, Château Clarke and Château Malmaison, as well as her colourful life.

Coming from a humble background, the baroness left school at the age of 14 to work in a car factory before gravitating toward the stage. She was a well-known actress when the banker Baron Edmond de Rothschild married her in 1963. Although she then abandoned the boards, she remains a dramatic figure, lighting up a grey room in the Merrion Hotel in her scarlet suit, red turban and elephant brooch. Had she been here before? "No, it's my first time, I am a virgin!" Exactly the turn of phrase you might expect from a grande dame who has published 10 books about love and the power of seduction.

When he bought Château Clarke in Listrac and Château Malmaison in Moulis in 1973, Baron Edmond embarked on an extensive programme to upgrade the vineyards. Since his death in 1997, the wines have continued to improve under the guidance of superstar consultant Michel Rolland. Château Clarke 2000 is sumptuously rich, with the concentration, fleshy texture and supple tannins that are the Rolland hallmark (from Mitchells of Kildare Street, 27.50). I also love Le Rosé de Clarke 2003 - a deep-hued pink with heaps of flavour and balancing acidity (Mitchells, €14.95). Tip from the baroness: put a drop of it in champagne to make a stunning aperitif.

BLOOMSDAY BOTTLINGS

With their legendary sense of timing, the Swiss have launched in Ireland a wine billed as James Joyce's favourite, just as plans are taking shape to celebrate the centenary of Bloomsday. I haven't ploughed through Finnegans Wake to find Joyce's endorsement of Fendant de Sion, a white wine made from the Chasselas grape. I'll focus instead on the liquid in the rather flashy commemorative bottle released by Provins Valais. Fendant de Sion Cuvée James Joyce 2003 is a light, refreshing mouthful with a pleasant, lemony tang - not a bad summer buy at around 10.95. I couldn't work up much enthusiasm for its red partner, Dole de Sion Cuvée James Joyce 2003, however - a fruity, rather sweet young Gamay and Pinot Noir-based red tasting a bit like a raspberry and chocolate cordial (same price). Both wines will be widely available well before the entire country bursts into Bloom.

BLOOM'S LANE BLOOMER

I sampled lunch the other day at the new Italian wine bar, Enoteca della Langhe in Bloom's Lane off Lower Ormond Quay, Dublin. Lovely line-up of Lombardy wines and the food was OK, but the glass of white wine I ordered was oxidised - suggesting the bottle had been open too long. The Italian waiter replaced it, after a struggle to understand the complaint - but knew nothing about the wine in question. Disappointing.

CORK ALTERNATIVE AT LAST?

Yes, maybe! RM Wines, small and excellent Dublin-based importers of quality German wines, unveiled the glass Vino-Lok stopper at a recent Riesling tasting. Unlike screwcaps, it looks extremely stylish - like a modern take on a Victorian glass stopper. It's reusable, too, sitting on to a thin band of colourless PVC to create an airtight seal. And as glass is neutral, it has no adverse effects on wine. The Vino-Lok was pioneered by Alcoa, a major supplier of screwcaps. Let's hope that production speeds up and prices come down, making the Vino-Lok viable.

PORTUGUESE PROGRESS

Although it still sells more wine here than New Zealand, Portugal's impact on the Irish market has been fading, with market share slipping from 1.9 per cent in 1990 to around 1.3 per cent today. What's going on? A tasting at the Portuguese Embassy showed a mixed line-up of about 60 wines, with many inexpensive bottles below par and some expensive ones (30-60) overwrought (too much concentration, oak, alcohol). In between, however, were some impressive modern wines, especially from the Douro. Look out for Redoma red, white and rosé from port producer Dirk Niepoort (Wicklow Wine Company and others, 31.95, 17.95 and 13.95); also smooth, rich Castello d'Alba 2001 (Galvins, Cork; Sky & Ground, Wexford; Halpins Gorey, 13.99) and meaty Carm Classico 2001 (same outlets, 15.99).

SUPERQUINN'S NEW WORLD SIZZLERS

Fired with new enthusiasm for South Africa since Cape Wine 2004, I'm delighted to see this country starring in the Superquinn New World Wine Sale. In addition to our value-beating red Bottle of the Week, there are three other crackers from winemaker Marc Kent: Porcupine Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon 2002 (down from 11.02 to 8.99); Boekenhoutskloof Cabernet Sauvignon 2001 (from €31.99 to 27.99) and Boekenhoutskloof Syrah 2001 (from 32.59 to 27.99).

Also worth rushing out for is Iona Elgin Sauvignon Blanc 2003 (down from €20.29 to 16.99) - the best Sauvignon Blanc I have tasted this year, and a true bargain. Other goodies include two Australians - last Saturday's Bottle of the Week, Peter Lehmann The Barossa Shiraz 2001 (from 12.99 to 9.99) and Riesling (from €9.99 to a magical 7.77); one Chilean, Errazuriz Merlot-Cabernet Sauvignon 2002 (from €8.65 to 7.59); and a final South African, barbecue-friendly Bellingham Pinotage 2001 (from 9.79 to 7.99).

BORDEAUX 2003s

By the time you read this, all of the wines in the 2003 Bordeaux en primeur campaign will have been released. The consensus is that the Médoc fared better in this blisteringly hot vintage than St Emilion and Pomerol. Berry Bros & Rudd has been quick off the mark with an extensive offering at more competitive prices than in the past. Contact Clare Burke for an e-mailed report and updates: clare.burke@bbr.ie, 01-6773444.

BURGUNDY 2002s

Although these were launched a couple of months ago, some excellent wines are still available. Remember, 2002 was a below-average vintage in most parts of northern Europe - but not in Burgundy. "To me, it's the best since 1990 and as good as 1999," says Conor Richardson of Burgundy Direct. You'll find exuberant wines from 13 to 25 as well as higher up the ranks. More details from Burgundy Direct, www.burgundydirect.ie, info@burgundydirect.ie, 01-2896615, or other leading merchants.