Dublin is a city known for its booze; the lifeblood of the place has a blood alcohol level that wouldn’t pass a breathalyzer. From the hundreds of proprietor-named pubs — McNeills, Walshs, O’Reilly’s, Flanagans — that scatter every block to the black gates of the Guinness brewery at St. James’ Gate, its influence is everywhere. But amongst the old bars, whiskey bottles, and pints of plain, there’s an exciting wine scene taking off.
Enrico Fantasia, ringmaster of specialist wine importer Grapecircus, has seen it ignite firsthand. Originally from Venice, Fantasia has been importing wines to Dublin since he moved here in the early 2000s.
“When I arrived back in 2003, people were mainly drinking French wine,” explains Fantasia. “White was Burgundy, red was Bordeaux. There was a little bit of Spanish — mainly Rioja and Ribera del Duero — and lots of New World.”
With a laugh he adds, “All the cheap stuff was New World.”
How things have changed
Like many great movements, the Irish wine scene has been reinvented by crisis. The 2007 financial crash hit Ireland hard. In the recession that followed, the government had to step in and bail out the banking sector, unemployment rose to almost 15%, and hundreds of thousands of people emigrated in search of better opportunities. Things were dark for a few years. Ask many Irish people and they’ll insist they’re still dark now — complaining is practically a national sport.
It’s those same emigrants returning that have brought so much vibrancy to the wine industry, according to Fantasia. “In the last five or six years the Irish wine trade has changed dramatically,” he says. “After the recession we had loads of young people move back to Ireland, guys that were working in London, Rotterdam, Paris, New York, Australia. They were coming back with lots of experience.”
Some of them opened restaurants, cafés, and bars here in the city. Some of them just wanted to drink nice wines like they’d experienced abroad.
“It was cheaper to start a business in Dublin than, possibly, anywhere else in Europe,” says Fantasia, adding they were part of a new generation that didn’t consider “If it’s French, it’s good, if it’s not French, it’s less interesting, and they were open to experiment and experience.” The scene, he says, went from quite boring to very exciting almost overnight.
“There’s a greediness to our customers,” says Fabian Beickhorasani, manager of Loose Canon, a wine bar just off Grafton Street. “They come in and they want to try something new every single time. People are definitely getting a lot more adventurous.”
So what are these adventurous Dubliners having?
“Sparkling wines have skyrocketed in popularity. It’s no longer for special occasions. It’s something that people drink day to day,” says Beickhorasani. “I think people are looking for a reason to feel good.”
He’s also serving a lot more Germanic and Eastern European varieties. Things like Zweigelt and Blaufränkisch and “white varieties that are not Riesling.”
Wines made with skin contact are big too. “We used to have people come in and say, ‘Oh, what is orange wine?’” says Beickhorasani. “Then after the 2020 lockdown, people were coming into us and saying, ‘Oh, do you have orange wine?’”
Fantasia is selling lots of wine from the south of Italy. And from the north, but “not from the classic appellations, Barolo and Barbaresco.”
“The amount of Brunello di Montalcino I’ve been selling has been quite impressive,” he explains, “and I wasn’t expecting that, so I think Tuscany is back, big time.”
Greek wines are also flying out which, again, surprises him. “I have no idea what’s happening out there,” he explains. He no longer tries to second guess what will move now that people are so open-minded. “I only put wines on my list that I like and want to drink, and that are made by people that I like.”
Of course, old favorites like Rioja are still there, and French wines aren’t going anywhere.
“We’ve had a big explosion with Burgundy,” says Beickhorasani, but the variety of options is so much broader than it ever has been before.
“After the recession we had loads of young people move back to Ireland, guys that were working in London, Rotterdam, Paris, New York, Australia. They were coming back with lots of experience.”
The city returns to life
The Covid-19 pandemic has done nothing to stifle the city’s newfound drive for wine. If anything, it’s amplified it.
“Ireland discovered that you could buy wine online in the first couple of months of the first lockdown,” says Fantasia. “If there is anything good that came from the pandemic, it’s that it got people to drink even better wines. Because they were all sitting on the couch, watching Netflix with a laptop on their knees, and ordering wine online.”
And they were stuck drinking wine at home for a long time. Ireland had some of the most restrictive lockdown measures in Europe. Some pubs closed in March 2020, and didn’t reopen until June 2021. Some haven’t reopened at all. As much as the measures have saved lives, with death-per-capita figures almost half that of the neighboring U.K., they shook the culture of the city. No live music, no crowded bars, and no loud American tourists? Going out was no, as locals would say, “craic” at all. Craic being a somewhat indecipherable Hiberno-English word meaning fun, mostly in a pub, almost certainly drunken.
Those restrictions, though, are finally gone — at least in most practical terms. And, like a herd of wildebeest returning to the watering hole after a lion attack, Dubliners are carefully, on shaky legs, hitting the town properly again.
Of course, what you experience on a night out very much depends on where you go. Dublin is a lot of things: international tech hub, major tourist destination, student city, and capital of the country, all rolled into one. You’re as likely to run into an impeccably dressed German financier as you are a Scottish rugby fan wearing a kilt, or a local for that matter.
Wine bars like Loose Canon, Table Wine, and Love Supreme offer a modern take on the old romance of Europe. Great wines, cultured company, and, let’s be honest, plenty of French, Italian, and Spanish patrons. Yes, you’re in Dublin, but close your eyes and you could be smelling the Seine River, not the Liffey. They’re a wonderful sign of the multi-cultural mixing pot that Ireland is becoming.
The old Dublin hasn’t exactly gone far. Pick a decade in the past two centuries and you’ll be able to find a bar with decor to match. There are still plenty of raucous pubs with daily trad music sessions, carpeted floors, and cigarette smoke stains on the walls, despite the fact smoking indoors has been banned for almost 20 years. Go to the right/wrong place and you’ll meet patrons who have been holding down the same seat for decades. Not only will the Guinness beer be great, you can find the best pubs like this by checking out the weird world of Guinness reviews on Instagram.
It’s this contrast that’s really at the heart of what Dublin is. An old city with a lot of painful history and culture, that’s finding its place in a global world. A beer and whiskey city, that’s slowly realizing the joys of wine. An exciting city — and a weird one. There’s really nowhere else like it.
3 wine bars to visit:
Just off Grafton Street and about five minutes’ walk from Trinity College, Loose Canon is bang in the middle of Dublin. It’s a super casual spot to grab a glass of, almost exclusively, low intervention wine and some cheese or a toasted sandwich before — or after — doing some shopping or hitting up a tourist spot.
Temple Bar is known for its pubs but tucked away in one of the quieter corners a stone’s throw from Dublin Castle is Piglet Wine Bar. Its wine list is a “carefully selected mess” of funky natural wines, championed by Fantasia, and classic European appellations, championed by his French business partner, Thibaud Harang.
A third-wave coffee shop by day, a natural wine bar by night, Love Supreme has something to offer whatever time you visit. Its Stoneybatter neighborhood isn’t a regular tourist destination so a visit to Love Supreme is a great chance to check out a slice of regular Dublin on your way to more popular spots like Phoenix Park, Collins Barracks, or the Jameson Distillery.