Tuesday, 28 August 2018

Made in Bali

Located just south of equator at 8ºS, Bali is known for growing rice and exotic fruits. But wine grapes? Most wine professionals will tell you impossible because it is just too hot. In fact, Bali has been growing table grapes since the beginning of the 20th century and like rice, there are three harvests per year as there is no winter for the vines to be dormant. However, this doesn’t stop some forward-thinkers (or you can say stubborn) to try making wines in this tropical island that attracts tourists from all corners of the world including Jakartans.

Hatten Wines is the pioneer of Balinese wine. The winery was established in 1994 and the vineyards, around 35ha in total and expanding, are located in Singaraja, northeast of Bali where it is the driest. At the beginning, Hatten only made Rosé (still and later a sparkling) from local table grape Alphonse-Lavallée of French origin. Only after the 100th harvest in 2001 then Hatten its portfolio using local grapes including the near extinct Probolinggo Biru, and Belgia in the Muscat family. The portfolio now has seven wines: sparkling made in traditional method (white Tunjung and rosé Jepun), dry Aga white, semi-sweet Alexandria white, semi-sweet Rosé, light Aga Red, and solera-aged fortified wine Pino de Bali.

Sababay Winery, the second oldest Balinese winery, was born in 2010 out of the urge to help local grapegrowers after Mrs Mulyati Gozali visited their farms. Set up in a cooperative framework, about 300 farmers provided local grapes Muscat St Vallier and Alphonse-Lavallée from some 80ha of vineyard in the north to make seven wines: White Velvet from 100% Muscat St Vallier (aka Belgia), Pink Blossom Rosé, reds Black Velvet and Reserve Red, Moscato d’Bali, semi-sweet Ludisia and ruby port style Masscetti. Probably of its close involvement with the farming community, Eva Gozali, daughter and CEO, is super-excited that Sababay has been invited to partner with Wonderful Bali, the tourism body, to promote the island/country.

Isola Wine by Cantine-Balita, an Indonesia-Italy partnership, soon joined the duo in 2012. In addition to Muscat St Vallier and Alphonse-Lavallée, the winery also grows Malvasia Nera and some Syrah.  At the moment, only three wines are made: Isola white (Moscato), Isola Rosé and Isola Red.

Winemakers from all these wineries agree that growing grapes is the most challenging in Bali. James Kalleske, Australian winemaker at Hatten, said the company spent the first 10 years of trial and error to finally come to where it is today. Balinese vineyards use Pergola system, an overhead trellis where grapes are hung below the leaves. The system keeps workers shaded and cool, and at the same time protects the grapes from sunburn and rain. While the white varieties, Probolinggo Biru and Belgia grow reasonably well, the red Alphonse-Lavallée often struggle for phenolic ripeness. Hatten has a 10 ha R&D vineyard where James and researcher Jeremy Pramana
experimented with over 40 varieties in Vertical Shoot Positioning (VSP) training and alternating long and short pruning to limit harvest to only once a year. Because of the high vigour, vines develop apical dominance where the distal few buds are most advanced comparing to those near the trunk head. Jeremy bent the cane upward to form an arc that slows down the flow of nutrients/water to the end of the cane enabling the nodes in the middle of the cane to develop properly. Tempranillo is a disaster but James is happy with the progress of Chenin Blanc and Syrah.

Nicolas Delacressonniere, the French winemaker at Sababay, echoed James. To improve grape quality, Sababay limits harvest to twice a year and does not pick in wet season. The farmers are compensated by receiving a higher price per kilogram of grapes. While Alphonse-Lavallée can be made into a delightful rosé, it is not ideal for a world-class red and therefore, like Hatten, Sababay is working with farmers to grow other varieties. Nicolas is tired of the old style thinking and rigid regulations in France that restrict competitiveness of French producers, and love the challenges in Bali as he has freehand to use innovative techniques to improve the wine quality. His motto is, ‘yesterday’s innovation is today’s tradition’.

From the onset, Cantine Balita planted Malvasia Nera to give more colour to Alphonse-Lavallée and to increase fruitiness. Italian winemaker Giacomo Anselmi and assistant Agung Willys, while work closely with farmers to implement strict vineyard practices such as green pruning and restrict harvest to two times per year to improve grape ripening, also plan to experiment with other Italian varieties including Glera, Nero d’Avola and Primitivo to up the quality of wine.

Indonesia has 90% import duty on wine and there are also excise and GST. Considering the fact that average income of Indonesian middle class is around US$250/month, even very basic entry level imported wine, retailed between 360k-400k rupiah (US$25-28) per bottle, is a luxury item for most locals. Holidaymakers also find wine too expensive comparing to their home countries. Balinese wine, at around US$20 per bottle, therefore is an attractive option for them. All these three wineries cited local market is their focus, with the majority of sales come from Bali, Jakarta trailed behind.

When there is a will, there is a way. Round about 2000, producers were determined to make quality wine from only international grapes to compete with imported wine. Instead of planting vines in Bali, they import raw materials from other grape growing countries and process them in Bali. Australian Mitch Hayhow from Cape Discovery explained that on one hand there are surplus grapes in some wine producing countries and on another hand, there are emerging countries that are asking for reasonably priced quality wine. What he does is to bring these two sides together. Cape Discovery imports frozen musts and clarified juice from vineyards in West Australia, the US and New Zealand and make wine on demand. Cathay Pacific Hong Kong International Wine & Spirit Competition. As a matter of fact, Hatten Wine also has a second label called Two Islands where wines are made from imported Australian juice.
Mitch said that even though he is not making terroir-driven wine, he has people on the ground to make sure the grapes are harvested according to his specifications. His goal is to make good quality wine focus on varietal distinction. Priced between Balinese wine and entry level imported wine, it won universal approval on price to quality ratio from a group of Malaysian wine professionals including importers, sommeliers and educators that I showed the wine to. Cape Discovery wines also won a few medals from international wine competition including

Plaga Wine is another producer taking advantage of the much lower import duty of non-alcohol raw materials to make wine in Bali. Headed by a spanish speaking team including marketer Juan Diaz from Chile, winemakers Plabo Gonzalez from Argentina and Jordi Moreno from Spain, the company imports both grape concentrate and juice from Central Valley in Chile, Sicily in Italy, and La Mancha in Spain with on-the-ground quality control at harvest. Plaga’s primary target is young Indonesian and the retail price is in par with locally grown wine. In the true Latin spirit, their message
is upbeat — to have fun and celebrate anytime, anywhere. Juan showed me the video of the soon-to-be-released Moscato and I have to say it is spot on in engaging his consumers.

There will always be debate about making wine using grapes from third countries. However, grapes are often transported from across regions to the cellars for processing. Transporting musts and juice in frozen state should in theory preserve the quality (and some may even argue preserving terroir). Urban wineries where grapes are sourced often from different countries are sprouting in metropolitan cities such as London, Sydney, Vancouver and Washington’ and we have our own Urban Project in
Hong Kong. If consumers think urban winery is hip, there should be nothing wrong with Cape Discovery, Two Islands and Plaga.

After discussing with the winemakers, observing the local market and trying all the wines, I can only respect  these Balinese wineries and what they are doing. Like other Asian countries, Indonesia has not developed wine culture yet and imported wine is largely beyond the reach of average consumers. However, these should not stop curious locals to taste and enjoy wine without feeling intimidated. Alphonse-Lavallée or Belgia may not be mainstream wine but so be it if Indonesian like them. If wine made from imported raw materials is as good as wine made from
grapes in the same country, why should we challenge it? It’s much better than a lot of products making from synthetic materials. Perhaps the wine industry is lagging behind other industry in terms of creativity and innovation?

Where to buy in Hong Kong:
Hatten Wines: Vines and Terroirs (available at Hotel ICON and The Peninsula)
Sababay Wine: Whole Green Peonies

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