Sunday, 18 February 2024 16:25

Wild Irish dreaming

Written by  Claire Finlayson
Brian Shaw and Alan Brady. Photo Credit: Rachael McKenna. Brian Shaw and Alan Brady. Photo Credit: Rachael McKenna.

When two Northern Irishmen born 50 years and 50-ish kilometres apart from each other fall for the same beguiling grape, 20,000km from home in Central Otago, the only decent thing to do is become firm friends. Claire Finlayson talks to Alan Brady and Brian Shaw about a company that’s name is a nod to their collective pluck.

Say Alan Brady’s name out loud in Central Otago and the landscape near quivers in recognition. As one of the region’s early wine pioneers, he helped prove its worth as Pinot Noir terroir when he planted some of Central Otago’s first grapevines on an arid plot of land in 1981 and founded Gibbston Valley Wines. For this boldness he was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 1996 (the first of many such career-saluting gongs). He went on to establish Mount Edward Wines in 1997 and the Wild Irishman boutique label in 2006.

Alan, now 87, says this latter venture was supposed to be “the vehicle for a cruisy little ride into the sunset”. But the appearance of a younger compatriot — Brian Shaw — turned that cruise into an invigorating canter. In Brian, Alan spotted something of his younger self: a fellow Ulsterman with no viticultural background but plenty of keenness. Both men had set off in other career directions before the mystique of winemaking snagged them (Alan was a journalist and Brian toyed with acting before enrolling in a Public Relations degree). “He’s the guy I was when I came to New Zealand with all the enthusiasm and passion”, says Alan. “He reminds me so much of myself at that age. We’re both dreamers, really — visualisers.” Brian agrees: “We’re the same person — just 50 years apart”.

The pair first met in 2013 when Brian was holidaying in New Zealand and casting around to find work in a winery. In his 20s at the time, his prior wine experience consisted solely of a part-time job in a small wine shop in his home town of Magherafelt. “The magic around turning a bunch of grapes into a bottle of wine drew me in. I knew I wanted a career in wine, but what chance does a young Irish kid have? There’s no wine production in Ireland really — just a couple of small vineyards but no commercial enterprise.” He found that shiny chance at Amisfield winery in Central Otago. It was there that he struck up an instant bond with a man in his 70s: cellar master Brian Dennis who introduced him to a fellow septuagenarian friend, Alan Brady. “I’ve always gravitated to people much older than me”, Brian says. “These guys have lived colourful lives. They’ve been there, done it and got the T-shirt.”

Alan, for his part, was impressed by the younger man’s initiative and vim: “He was in the winery for five minutes and was climbing up ladders and getting himself on the end of a shovel and hose. I thought he’d make a good cellar hand.” This supportive camaraderie seems typical of the wine industry. Alan says he’s certainly felt it from his peers over the past 42 years. “There’s a strong sense of tradition and hospitality that expresses itself in a collegiality that perhaps many other industries lack. When we were starting out all those years ago, the famous wine names never allowed their scepticism about our chances of success get in the way of providing encouraging words and a genuine interest in what we were doing.”

Alan paid some of that collegiality forward by inviting Brian to take part in a vintage for Wild Irishman in 2014. The experience left Brian so irretrievably grape-smitten that he returned home to Ireland, got married, studied for an oenology degree, and popped back across for another Wild Irishman vintage in 2019. When this further increased his Central Otago fervour, there was only one sensible option. He emailed Alan in the middle of an Irish night with a cheerful proposal: “Hi mate, listen, I have an idea. Let me buy half the company and be the winemaker.” Alan’s reply: “Thought you’d never ask.”

And so it was that a wine label originally named as a nod to matagouri/tūturi (a thorny shrub nicknamed ‘wild Irishman’ by European settlers) proved itself brand-perfect by seamlessly accommodating a second wild Irishman. Alan’s little retirement project grew energetic new legs, becoming Wild Irishman Wines in 2021, and Brian moved to Central Otago with his young family the following year. Of their serendipitous encounter, Brian says: “I honestly believe our paths crossing was already predetermined. Something or someone wanted us to meet.”

The pair are currently awaiting the completion of a new ‘rustic’ winery. And while production has ramped up (from 700 cases of wine in 2019 to 3,000 cases in 2023) the actual processes around winemaking have been pared back. Alan describes this low impact approach as “wine without cosmetics” and counts his friend François Millet (“a rock star winemaker from Burgundy”) as hugely influential in this regard. “His philosophy is about humility and not imposing our own ego on the wine”, says Alan. “François taught us to step back a bit and allow nature to make the creative decisions for us.”

Alan and Brian are fully aligned in their devotion to the specifics of terroir. “We both have this unrelenting desire to make Pinot Noir that displays the exact place it’s from”, says Brian. “I’m not talking about a region or even subregion — I’m talking about the exact piece of dirt the grapes are grown on. We can stick our nose in a glass and know which vineyard the wine is from.” At tastings, Alan likes to describe the Wild Irishman Pinot Noir range as a sort of geography/geology lesson in six glasses: “It’s a journey down two rivers — the Kawarau and the Clutha, from Gibbston to Alexandra. Six single vineyards take you from 480 metres above sea level and 700ml of rain to 150m above sea level and 300ml of rain. Over a distance of no more than 60km as the crow flies.”

Alan has been entranced by this wily grape for more than four decades now. It still bewitches him: “Pinot Noir is a variety where perfection is most elusive. It’s the heartbreak grape. It teases and taunts us a little bit. It’s different for each season and from each vineyard. That’s what makes it fascinating. It’s relatively easy to make decent wine but it’s incredibly hard to make transcendent wine. But by golly, you know it when you get a glimpse of the transcendent — it’s special.”

He’s thrilled that he has someone to pass the Wild Irishman baton to: “This is succession for me. I’ve got somebody that I respect running the business into the future and a daughter and son-in-law who own one of the vineyards. It’s a rather neat closure of the circle.” As for the man at the other end of the baton, he couldn’t be happier: “Alan’s opened up his 40-plus years of winemaking and grape growing knowledge to me. He’s a walking Central Otago encylopaedia. I know how lucky I am to have him as a friend and mentor. I really do have to pinch myself.”

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