I was born in Mayo, that’s where my mother is from. A curious thing is that there is no farming or land in any of my family. I realised relatively recently why that is — my great grandfather was an immigrant from Wales and when you immigrate to a country, you don’t have a farm.
From childhood I was interested in nature. I was torn in secondary school between a few options. I had no practical experience of farming, so I decided to do a horticulture course in Warrenstown.
I went to Germany on a Macra na Feirme work placement. I was particularly interested in organic food growing and Germany was leading the way. Certainly there was nothing going on in Ireland. I was 20. It was my first time living away from home.
It was down in the south, near lake Constance, almost on the border of Switzerland. It’s a really fertile, beautiful part of Germany. Forests, meadows and orchards with apples and pears. It was a little paradise. It was accidental that it had vineyards too.
I became fascinated by the grapevine, it’s such a beautiful plant, and also the fermenting of fruit and the making of wine. It was such an interesting field and it seeped into me. I started to ponder the crazy notion of whether we could do this in Ireland.
I came back and did an agricultural science degree at UCD. After that I started to work for an apple grower in north Co Dublin.
When I came back from Germany, I had started researching growing vines here. I got cuttings and young plants of dozens of different grape varieties and planted them in my parents’ garden. I was making small amounts of wine from those vines if they produced anything. All the time I was learning.
When I got my own piece of land for the first time 20 years ago in Lusk, I decided I would plant a little vineyard with the intention of selling the wine — if I could make wine that was good enough to sell. I had my first vintage in 2005. I started getting good feedback which was great reassurance. It took a while to gain the confidence that I could say, yes, I can do this.
The name Lusca was a suggestion from a friend. He said, why not call it “Lusca”, the Irish for Lusk. I’ve been making red wine solely for the last 10 years. I make a sparkling wine too.
Ireland is not known for wine growing, so you would expect there would be something characteristic running through the flavour. People familiar with my wine say there is something in there that is a running comment — you can’t pinpoint that, but you can put it down to the terroir — whether that’s the soil or the climate.
We are just a few kilometres from the sea, and that’s important. If I was just a bit further inland, I would have great difficulty. I’m far enough from cool sea breezes and near enough to have the frost-preventing effect of the sea.
There are several tricky times of year. The season of growing vines, in Ireland anyway, is like going on a trip in a little sailing boat across the Irish Sea. You have to be on your guard the whole time. You don’t know when a storm could come. It could be just when you leave port, or at the last minute, before you arrive on the other side. That could be a spring frost or nasty weather during flowering in July — vines don’t like cold, wet windy weather during the blossom. Then running into autumn, they need good weather to ripen the grapes so they don’t rot before they are ripe. Then there is the threat of birds eating your grapes. It is like a journey through the seasons where there is peril around every corner.
The time when you can rest easy is after the leaves fall off the vines in the winter and they are just sleeping. Nothing can happen to them between November and March. When they start growing you set off on your sailing boat again.
It’s like a hurdle race where you have 15 hurdles to jump and if you knock one of those hurdles, you are disqualified. Something can happen in the field or in the winemaking process — a mistake you make, or some bad luck can destroy the wine. You could have the most beautiful grapes to start with, the potential for an excellent wine, and you could get to the final hurdle and make a mistake.
To do this in Ireland, you would have to be a little bit crazy. You’d have to be the kind of person — and I think I am — who is able to cling on to a tenuous hope. You’d have to like a challenge and be prepared for failure, and at the same time, be a bit of a perfectionist, striving for the best.
When you know you have a nice wine, safely in the bottle, that’s satisfying. But I think the top of it all is seeing somebody else genuinely enjoying the wine; when you see someone saying, wow, that’s delicious.
— In conversation with Joanne Hunt