When Carl Lonergan’s wife, Sara, was pregnant with their second child he found himself drinking alone a lot.
When that stopped being fun, he threw a message out on Facebook to see if any friends would be interested in getting together once a month for a nip and a natter about his favorite topic — wine.
Within 10 minutes more 50 people had responded, including this writer. And so, Dublin Uncorked was born.
“There’s a massive appetite out there for people our age who want to learn more about wine,” he tells me over an Austrian Riesling.
“We all drink wine at home or in restaurants. And wine lists can be intimidating. But if you’re spending, on average, €45 on a bottle of wine when you eat out, you want to have some idea about what you’re getting. Wine clubs are a great way of expanding your knowledge instead of just going for what you know, every time.”
Seeming exclusive to those on the outside, people fear wine clubs as they’re afraid of being foolish in front of a group of toffs. “That’s why it’s great to set one up with friends. We’ve all seen each other make a show of ourselves at some point or another so it takes the edge off.”
The idea is simple enough. Once a month a different person offers to host, putting on a spread and handling the washing up.
A theme is selected (in our group after much debate, derision and threats on social media).
Maps and tasting notes are downloaded from the Internet where members can take down their thoughts — as well as basic information such as where the wine is from, the grape used, the year it was produced and the colour.
You can tell a lot about a wine by looking at it: “Basically, a dark wine will most likely be made from a grape that has dark, thick skins which impart a lot of flavour and body during fermentation.
"A light coloured red will either be made from a grape with light, thin skins or the juice will have spent only a short period of time on the skins so not as much flavour has been transferred.There are exceptions to all that but it’s a pretty good barometer” says Carl.
Set a budget for the wine club that people are happy to pay. “€20 or €25 gets wines in a good range of prices. There should be a noticeable jump in quality from wines that cost less than a tenner to wines that cost €15 and again when you spend around €25. For me the best value is around the €15-18 quid mark.”
You should also limit the number of people in attendance, for practical reasons. “We run the club on a first come first serve basis,” Carl says.
“Never to have more than 12 people at any one tasting. The more people there are, the more the level of disengagement rises and when people can’t hear you they start their own conversations.”
He advises to have one glass per person, one glass per wine, or a glass for each colour. And use maps to help members understand a wine.
“Wine is an expression of the land it came from and the people who made it. People using the exact same grape on different plots of soil, with different starting tools will produce totally different products.
"If you like the grapes from one region, you might like ones from this cheaper wine region that’s just nearby.”
He gets animated when discussing how dismissive people can be.
“People who say ‘I don’t like white; I don’t like red’… that’s a very broad statement to make. You may have had a Riesling which you may not have liked and decide you don’t like all Rieslings. But you can’t say that.
The spectrum of flavors in Rieslings is boundless. They go from bone dry to unbelievably sweet. It’s like saying ‘I don’t like fruit’.”
Carl used to work for Donnybrook Fair’s off-licence, and while his knowledge has proven invaluable for us when it comes to sourcing, purchasing and postulating about the product, he says such experience isn’t essential.
“There are so many really good independent off-licences out there and their knowledge of wine is unbelievable.
"They are so passionate about what they do and love talking about it. So all you need do is go into them and say ‘I’m hosting my group’s wine club this weekend.
"We want to do a Spanish theme, or a Portuguese theme or a Malbec theme’ and they will pick the wines out for you, tell you about them and they will spend a lot of time with you in the store so you have the knowledge you need.”
For people who might not have the time or interest from friends to form a club there are plenty of mail delivery clubs, such as winesdirect.ie who have hundreds of members around the country in their Wine Explorers Club.
“A lot of our members don’t have the time to go shopping,” says Neil McGouran, digital marketing manager.
“Or we have a large rural base for people without access to good off-licences. Each month we send six different bottles, either red, white or mixed, along with tasting notes about our independently sourced wine makers and the wines themselves.”
The oldest wine club in the country is based in Cork. The Cork & Bottle Club was formed 30 years ago and has about 40 members.
They run from September to June and meet at least once a month.
“Our youngest member is 35 the rest of us are a bit further on from that,” says Arthur Caroll, the club’s secretary. “We’re all different sizes, all different shapes and ages, bound together by a love of wine.”
The club tastings are run much the same way Dublin Uncorked’s are, but it’s the merchants who select the wines and presents the information on them. “We taste and give feedback and at the end of the evening they might give special prices if we want to place an order.”
A mystery bottle is presented at each tasting which members have to try to guess what it is. Not just what region and grape, but the brand and year. “There are some very cultured palates,” laughs Arthur.
For novices, it might take a while to develop the language, but the more times you attend a meeting the more fluent you’ll get. To develop your pallet, Carl suggests swirling the wine around in your glass for a while before taking a tiny sip and holding it on the front of your tongue, then sucking air in. “When air gets at the wine, it lifts the flavors and you get a much better, more concentrated flavor profile. It fills up your whole mouth and helps you pick out the secondary flavors. It’s the same affect as decanting it.”
Allow enough time between each wine so you’re not overpowering the flavour. And, of course, start with the lighter wines before going richer.
But be careful when selecting the grub to go with your fermented grape as flavoursome food interferes with the taste of the wine. Asparagus and red wine in particular are not good palate buddies, while coconut coats the tongue and masks flavors.
“A selection of cheese and meats is best,” says Carl. “And water biscuits are incredible, the way they totally cleanse your palate between drinks. “
“People don’t know they are bored of something until you show them something else,” Carl concludes.
“They don’t know what they are missing out on. Wine clubs help people become more confident and adventurous.
"There’s so much more stuff out there and so much more value to be had with lesser grapes and lesser-known regions and it was a nice way of seeing peoples knowledge and taste evolving.”