Blue Nun was the gateway wine for a generation that wanted to dip its toe into the sophisticated sea of vino. It’s definitely cringe-worthy now, but back in the day, this sweet German concoction was the VIP pass to the wine world in Ireland.
According to John Wilson, the Irish Times wine guru, people can talk smack about it, but Blue Nun was the wine that got the party started. It was advertised relentlessly on TV in the 1980s, and most people who knew nothing about wine would have bought it for special occasions. In the same way, Viennetta was in the 90s. In short, we can thank this tat for the fermenting wine scene we currently have.
I was just a jam-handed páiste when my ma parked a bottle of Blue Nun inside our fridge door, right next to the ketchup and HP Sauce like it was the Holy Trinity itself. Fast forward to today, and the mention of “Blue Nun” still rings bells in that sort of wistful nostalgic way. It also seems to trigger embarrassment, disgust and delight, sometimes simultaneously. This wine, once as iconic as Elvis shaking his hips, has seen its fair share of eye rolls and chuckles from those who’ve moved on to more ‘sophisticated’ sips. It was the Dada of its day.
Blue Nun was the OG global wine brand that made wine cool before it was cool. Founded in 1857 by Hermann Sichel in Mainz, Blue Nun became the rockstar of the wine world by selling a mind-boggling 35 million bottles in 1985 alone. It featured a nun frolicking in the vineyards. She reminds me a bit of the “Flying Nun” television show (starring Sally Fields) that ran from 1967 to 1970. The wine was about as serious as the TV series. It turns out the blue hue was a printing oopsie that stuck. Sometime in the 1930s, the ink from the sky leaked, and the nun turned out blue. Printing was expensive, so the label with the blue nuns went out. And an icon was born.
But here’s the kicker: there never was a real nun. Nope, just a marketing ploy dreamt up in 1923 by the genius minds at Sichel & Sons. They figured slapping a habit on a label would sell more bottles. Their idea was clever, tapping into a centuries-old tradition when German nuns and monks were big players in the beer and wine business. Before modern quality controls and certificates, a smiling religious figure on the label was good enough for most people. Especially in pre-Christian Brothers scandal Catholic Ireland.
By the 1980s, Blue Nun was hitting the nightclubs like it owned the joint. Blue Nun was drunk very publicly by artists such as Elvis, David Bowie, Rod Stewart and Fleetwood Mac. Apparently, Blue Nun was one of Judy Garland’s favourites, according to one TikTok commentator. It was one of the few things that was associated with celebrity that real people could actually get their hands on in Ireland. According to Peter Dunner, Director of Mitchell & Son, Ireland’s oldest family-owned wine Merchants, Blue Nun ‘was the go-to wine in the nightclubs on Leeson street’, which would have been the height of glamour at the time.
It was the original mom wine, kind of the way Pinot Grigio is now. Leslie Williams, the wine critic of The Irish Examiner, remembers that when his auntie Dor would visit in the summer, his father would buy a bottle for the big lunch we would always organise for her. It was her favourite wine’. Which also means that this was likely the the first wine he ever tasted. According to him, he ‘actually remember(s) it quite well.’ Test it out yourself. Bring a bottle over or just say it to your mam now and watch her eyes glaze over remembering the tales of her own youth while she struggles with what to disclose to her progeny.
But just as the party was getting started, the ’80s ended, and the wine world got a sobering reality check. Some dodgy wine producers decided to spike their concoctions with antifreeze, leaving a bad taste in everyone’s mouth – especially Blue Nun’s. It was a helluva scandal, and some Boomers still won’t touch a German wine because of it.
Post-1980s, Blue Nun became the butt of jokes. Literally millions of them. In some ways it was a meme before memes were a thing. Blue Nun, it seems, was the original victim of the Curse of the Blue Nun: the simple, sweetish wines that make you will also break you. Cut to 2022, and Blue Nun attempted a comeback. But it seems to have flopped despite the huge brand recognition it had.
These days, Blue Nun is most famous as a joke. It’s an IYKYK reference that peppers through wine lore and into memes. One Tesco reviewer said, “An ideal wine to keep in the car in case you run out of windscreen washer… same colour, same taste… ;-)”
In the first episode of I’m Alan Partridge, Alan has a lap dance fantasy sequence with Tony Hayers, where he is hysterically laughing over the fact that Alan’s wine of choice is Blue Nun. The joke is that it’s a cheap, crappy mass-produced wine that nobody who is ‘into’ wine (e.g. Tony Hayers) would ever touch, but Alan doesn’t realise this. Alan thinks it is The Height of sophistication when it is, in fact, not at all. It’s like claiming to be a cheese connoisseur and then saying that your favourite cheese is Dairylea.
Alan Carr served Goldie Hawn a glass of it when she appeared on his Talk Show, where he commented on how well it went with Kebabs. According to David, Victoria Beckham ‘went through a stage of drinking a nice Blue Nun’.
I Spotted it on Big Wine Adventure BBC television show about wine. It was a miniseries featuring Oz Clarke, a British wine guru, and James May of “Top Gear.” Oz and James were touring California with wine expert Oz, trying to teach neophyte James a bit about wine. James resisted, put off by wine’s snobbish, elitist ways.
Blue Nun appeared in a sequence where James bet Oz $100 that he couldn’t identify an ordinary everyday wine in a blind tasting (from a plastic beer cup, as it turned out). Oz sniffed and swirled and made a bad face. Terrible, he said. Disgusting. It’s so bad that it couldn’t be from America. This could only come from the Old World.“Blue Nun!” he shouted, winning the bet.
The comedian Barry Took once joked that if it had been withdrawn, the British would have nothing to clean their hubcaps with. It crops up as a passing reference on Father Ted. Blue Nun even got a starring role in The Traitor’s UK this weekend just done.
Blue Nun joined prawn cocktail and black forest gateau as symbols of a decade that taste forgot. But as people ‘ironically’ get back into 70s food styling Blue Nun will probably remain confined to the annals of history. Maybe not, because TikTokers are drinking it with gold flakes.
The brand’s current push is with the Blue Nun 24K Gold Edition, a sparkling wine dusted with flakes of edible gold leaf. You can probably hear my inner wine geek screaming, “NOOO!” Why try to dazzle us with flimflammery like gold leaf instead of putting a better wine in the bottle? They tried this 14 years ago, but it didn’t catch on but now with the advent of experience-driven social media, maybe people will be dazzled by the gold flake gimmick, and we’ll see Blue Nun return hand in hand with the aspic she was designed to be paired with back in the day?