La vie en rosé: Karl swaps Limerick for rural France to set up wine business

Mike Dwane


Mike Dwane

La vie en rose: Karl bottling with Gaillac winemaker Sebastien Cabal. Roses of the region he says 'are dry and fruity and not sicky sweet and sugary' like too many on the Irish market
OVER 100,000 immigrants may have left these shores since the crash but not many set out for sleepy hamlets in the south of France.

OVER 100,000 immigrants may have left these shores since the crash but not many set out for sleepy hamlets in the south of France.

Some might consider the sun-drenched department of the Tarn a nice place to retire to but Karl Hanlon has uprooted his family and swapped Limerick for Denat - population 500 - to set up in business.

Karl worked for many years in Limerick as a freelance journalist for the national newspapers but had always had it in his head to work in the wine business. A lifelong oenophile, he worked in co-operatives in Bordeaux as a young student 25 years ago,

“That was the plan when I gave up the journalism, to do something with wine. Then I had a sabbatical for two or three years with Cahill’s (tobacco shop) on Wickham Street, which when I look back on it taught me an awful lot about business, about prices and margins. It was in March 2011 when I moved out here with the whole family.”

He is on the road when the Limerick Leader calls on Wednesday, an Irishman selling French wine to the French.

“I’m up the walls at the moment, stretched in a lot of different directions. But it’s summer and it has to be like that. The wine trade is very seasonal. I’ve just bought a new van so I’m on the road making deliveries. And I’m getting ready to do a market in Albi this Friday when the Tour de France is passing through.”

Albi, a UNESCO world heritage site, will be a name familiar to many Munster rugby fans and is about 15 minutes from home. And Castres, which Munster fans will know better still, is about the same distance in the opposite direction.

But the Tarn is a region perhaps better known for its rugby than its wines. Gaillac and Marcillac, appellations from whose producers Karl sources his wines, are relatively unknown even in Paris, never mind Patrickswell, he says.

For the average Irish wine drinker, grape varieties like loin de l’oeil, mauzac, braucol and duras don’t trip off the tongue as readily as syrah or merlot. But they are sensational on it, he says.

“My interest in wine was always very much geared towards the smaller producer off the beaten track and that is part of the reason why I chose this region. In Ireland, the market is very much dominated by consumer tastes and the big producers from France, Spain and Italy.”

In and around Denat and throughout the southwest into Gascony are the small artisan producers Karl is most interested in introducing to a wider audience. He arrived in the Tarn in 2011 trying to “bluff” his way into a job with the French degree he earned years ago.

“I went door-to-door to about 25 vineyards in the Gaillac region looking for a start - they all thought I was nuts. I quickly realised that most of the vineyards were small family businesses and even if they wanted to hire someone, they wouldn’t have the resources,” he says.

He did manage to find work exporting for two producers before setting up on his own as a négociant en vin or wine merchant.

Now he is involved in a number of strands of the business, selling wholesale to restaurants, hotels and bars and directly to the consumer at markets. And he has also set up a website for Vinitek Sudouest which does home delivery to Ireland and elsewhere.

Whereas a decent Bordeaux or Rhone would set you back over €25 in an Irish supermarket, a bottle can be bought for less than half the price in France – and that is “at the higher end of my prices”, says Karl evidently well-accustomed by now to the role of salesman.

Wife Natasha, who is also in the import-export business, helps out with the company website and social media while four-year-old daughter Darya has taken to life in rural France.

“She started school last summer with hardly any French but now she is speaking it with a strong local accent, which is fun to watch.”

Karl, too, has taken to Denat and the locals, despite taking a while to get used to one of the few foreigners in the village, have warmed to the Hanlons. The local cafe is now stocking canned Guinness if he wants to forget about wine and starts to pine after Nancy Blakes.

The website is now up and running and wines can be delivered to Limerick within three or four days of orders being placed.

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