In Vino Veritas: Lusca Wines


Posted October 21, 2017 in Food & Drink Features

Whether you label yourself a vino-sampling connoisseur or a terroir tenderfoot, it will likely come as a surprise to most that Ireland – gale-force winds and lukewarm temperatures notwithstanding – is officially classed as a wine-growing country by the European Union. Less surprising are presumptions that any Irish-based vineyards must be exclusive to West Cork, whose distinctive microclimate has spurred a cluster of wine-making attempts by earnest hobbyists – most of which wind down as quickly as they have sprung up. Yet Ireland’s most successful vigneron – by a sizeable distance – doesn’t reside on the southernmost tips of this island, but some 400 kilometres further north (and a hop, skip and jump from Dublin’s city centre).

 

Having just completed fifteen years at the helm of his flourishing enterprise, David Llewellyn single-handedly spearheads a business narrative that is anything but facsimile. His six-acre fruit farm is based in the western reaches of Lusk, encompassing Llewellyn’s Orchard – a burgeoning apple-and-pear operation that concocts critically-acclaimed juices, ciders and vinegars – and Lusca Wines, considered a micro-micro boutique vinery for its current output of 500 bottles a year (to put into context, the small-scale vineyards of Bordeaux and Burgundy individually yield around 10,000 bottles annually). Following experimentation with white-wine grape genres, Lusca now specialises in a compact assemblage of red-wine grape varietals – from the uber-resilient, yet unexpectedly smooth Rondo, which miraculously thrives outdoors thanks to its durable nature and, most importantly, Llewellyn’s pioneering care, to the softer Cabernet Sauvignon which holds court in Lusca’s expertly-regulated greenhouse.

 

My visit is timed on the cusp of harvest season, which will come a week or two early for Lusca this year – as this article goes to print, Llewellyn will commence his gathering of these perfectly-formed, violet-hued grapes with only a few part-time helpers in tow. As winds howl around the impenetrable fortress that houses Lusca Wines’ covered vineyards, Llewellyn waxes lyrical on his somewhat circuitous route to viticulture. It was a work experience trip in the late 1980s to a German fruit farm that first piqued his curiosity: “I found myself, by accident, working with a wine-grower. It turned out that the farm didn’t just have fruit – they had a small quantity of vineyards as well. I was obviously roped in to help with all of that during the harvest season, and knew absolutely nothing about wine-making. I had absolutely no initial interest in it either, I had never even grown a vine in the back garden at home. It wasn’t until I was exposed to this environment for a certain period of time over there that a real interest in vine growing awakened in me, and at some stage out there, I did wonder, ‘could we do this in Ireland with the right varietals and the right locations?’”

 

Llewellyn wasted no time on researching vine potential on Irish soil upon his return home, unearthing a small number of mixed-success stories dotted around the country. As a side project, he began growing vines in his family garden, “making a litre here and two litres there” for his personal consumption. As that hobby began to increase its momentum, he rented an orchard to cultivate apples and pears in 1999; first intending on simply selling them fresh at farmers markets, then deciding to try his hand at juice-making and, following a natural sequence, cider and vinegar making. Though a West of Ireland native, Llewellyn found himself working in the Lusk neck-of-the-woods when a few acres of land – his current base – came up for sale in 2002. There was perhaps no better location in the country for him to set down roots: even Dutch settlers of yore, hailing from the world epicentre of horticulture, favoured residing in this area. “North County Dublin – even more towards the coast than here, where I am – is really the hub of fruit and vegetable growing. Historically, I suppose because it’s on the doorstep of Dublin city and, closer to the coast, the soil is very light and sandy which makes it suitable for growing vegetables, particularly root vegetables, and cereals as well. The land is also very early – so called because it warms up early in the spring. It’s also an hour’s donkey-and-cart ride from the city markets”, his regular frequents being the weekend gatherings at Temple Bar and Dun Laoghaire, though these better serve as a podium for his apple and pear-based produce.

The six-acre purchase is what Llewellyn considers the catalyst that shifted his wine-making from growing hobby to commercial endeavour. Given that he was heading into unchartered territory as a one-man operation, however, he proceeded with some caution, “because I still didn’t know whether or not Lusca Wines would work. When you’re a vigneron as such, you’re growing the crop and you’re making the wine – you’re not just a grape-grower. Most grapes in the world are grown by farmers who sell them off to a large factory, which then turns them into wine. So in doing this with no outsourcing, you have two substantial fields which are totally different. The production of the crop is a challenge here – and you might be able to grow fantastic grapes, but that’s only the first half of the story – you have to have the wherewithal to produce an equally fantastic wine.”

 

Lusca’s inceptive years saw Llewellyn embrace his natural penchant for experimentation – “I think that if I hadn’t ended up doing this, I would have been in a white coat in a research lab somewhere!” – by planting a myriad of grape varietals, white and red, dessert and table, which he carefully assessed the performances of and slowly weeded out his selections. “2005 was the first vintage I produced that I started to sell. It was a small quantity, of course, and I was also in the very early stages of my wine-making skills. Since then, there have been good years and bad years; less of which I’d say was to do with the climate, and more to do with my own management of the crop and deficiencies in my knowledge and skill-set of wine-making. Over the years, there would be times when what I made just didn’t turn out to my satisfaction at all, and in those cases I just wouldn’t have sold the wine. It wasn’t really until the 2013 vintage that for the first time, in all those years, I was myself 100% happy with what I had produced.”

 

Unsurprisingly, ever-increasing interest in Llewellyn’s two-pronged initiative is palpable with domestic and international consumers alike. We briefly pause our conversation as Llewellyn takes a call from a new Belgian client, a cider cognoscente visiting Ireland for land-surfing championships. She’s researching the cream of the crop in Irish ciders, and has sought Llewellyn out to sample some of his regaled brew during her trip. Lusca has nurtured a few good retail customers up to now, but its strongest connection visibly lies with the Celtic Whiskey Shop on Dawson Street – their in-house experts rightfully championing the fruits of Llewellyn’s labour.

 

With Lusca Wines a “continually evolving process, always open to more experimentation” that will increase its annual production to 2,000 bottles once its most recently planted vines come to fruition, it’s quite remarkable to think that Llewellyn’s skill-honing has been essentially all self-taught. Nevertheless, an invaluable ally can be found in his wine-making friends in Germany from the late 80s, with whom he still fosters ongoing contact: “If I have a serious question that I can’t find an answer to, either in a book or online, I can give a call to them and ask what they would do in my situation. Also, every one or two years I make a trip out – basically a busman’s holiday – visiting my wine-making colleagues there. I’d bring them my wines and I’d get them to evaluate them honestly for me.”

Llewellyn concludes on a thought-provoking note, one that should prompt reading critics to reflect: “It’s very reassuring to have a wine-maker give you the thumbs-up on what you’ve done, because they understand the process and they understand that a good wine doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone’s going to like it. They can see that it’s clean and of good quality. You could have a wine expert who has a passion for Bordeaux or Burgundy, and while they could talk ’til the cows come home about wine, they may not like my wine because their palates simply aren’t used to it – this is something new for them, there are no other commercial examples in Ireland to acclimatise them. They judge it by making comparisons with other, better-known regions overseas, but the terrain here is different – the soil, the ground is different. It’s bound to be different.”

 

In a domain too often governed by reputation (rather than taste)- based consumer choices, Lusca Wines represents a welcome antidote for minds routinely emblazoned by the leading – or loudest – brands of the wine industry.

The elegantly-bottled Lusca Wines (alongside Llewellyn’s Orchard) can be found at the Temple Bar Food Market on Saturdays and the Dun Laoghaire Farmers Market on Sunday, while their city-centre stockist – Dawson’s Street Celtic Whiskey Shop – is open seven days a week. Online purchases can be made via celticwhiskeyshop.com – direct purchases through Llewellyn’s farm itself can be arranged by contacting david@llewellynsorchard.ie or phoning 087-2843879.

Words: Amelia O’Mahony-Brady

Photos: Malcolm McGettigan

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