Yep, there's great wine in Bali.


One of my goals for 2019 was to read more of wine books. It's a resolution to which I've stuck, and more of my recent favorites will be shared with you here in the coming months. Today's selection is Around the World in Eighty Wines by Mike Veseth. Inspired by the Jules Verne classic, Around the World in Eighty Days, Veseth takes us from Algeria to Portugal, Thailand to India, in pursuit of great wine. Here is a sample tract from the text, in which Veseth takes us on a brief jaunt through the wines of Bali.
Bali? Why is our next stop Bali? Well, I suppose a case could be made based upon historical trade routes. Many of the ships that called at Cape Town centuries ago sailed on spice trade routes that took them to this part of the world. Cape Town to Bali or thereabouts is not a ridiculous idea. But we are here for the wine.

Bali wine? Do you mean like Bali Ha’i, the brand of tropical fruit–flavored California wine that Italian Swiss Colony introduced to the U.S. market back in the 1960s? If memory serves (and it was a long time ago) it was a cross between sangria and Hawaiian Punch. No, I don’t think that wine had anything whatsoever to do with Bali itself. The inspiration was the famous song from the Rogers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific. There is wine in Bali and, against all odds, some of it is good enough to enjoy on your next enchanted evening. The fact of Bali’s location, just eight degrees of latitude from the equator, makes wine of any kind an unexpected find for the tourists who consume much of it. And the fact that Bali is in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, adds to the mysterious enchantment. There were six wineries in Bali in 2014 according to the Oxford Companion to Wine. Hatten Wines, founded in 1994, is the oldest and largest, producing a million bottles a year. Its Hatten label wines are made mainly from Belgia and Alphonse-Lavallée grapes grown on the north island using tropical viticultural practices including pergola-trained vines to cope with humidity and produce three crops a year. Its Two Islands brand wines are made from frozen grapes imported from South Australia.

Belgia and Alphonse-Lavallée are not exactly household names for wine drinkers more familiar with Cabernet and Chardonnay, but they were chosen because of their ability to resist tropical vine diseases and thrive in the warm, moist climate. Sababay Winery opened its doors (overlooking Saba Bay) in 2012, its website going live at 7 am on July 7th of that year (just for good luck). Sababay’s owners hope to open a new chapter in the history of Bali wine, with wine made from Vitis vinifera grapes grown to an international standard using sustainable practices. Quite a challenge. I was therefore delighted when I had an opportunity to taste their White Velvet wine made from locally grown Muscat grapes. It was light and fragrant on its own but really came alive when we tasted it with a curried seafood dish of the type you might be served in Indonesia. A nice surprise! I was fortunate when one of my former students, Ali Hoover, travelled to Bali in 2014 and agreed to visit Sababay Winery and report back her findings. Grapes are plentiful in Bali, she discovered, but not the good Vitis vinifera grapes you need for fine wines. She found instead that “low-quality grapes considered unfit for consumption flood the Balinese market, destined for the omnipresent sidewalk religious offering.” These are not the grapes you are looking for if you want to make quality wine and these are not the grapes used at Sababay. Getting good grapes took a determined effort. Climate might be a barrier to quality grape production in Bali, Ali wrote, but poor viticultural practices were also to blame, which limited both grape production and rural income growth.

In fact, a the local grape industry fell into crisis in the early 2000s due to a combination of vine disease, poor harvests, and marketing woes. Farmers borrowed at high interest rates and fell increasingly into debt. Evy Gozali and her mother Mulyati established the Asteroid Vineyards Partnership in 2010 to address this growing economic and even social crisis. In exchange for agricultural and technical support, 175 Northern Balinese grape farmers committed their crops exclusively to Sababay. Improved farming practices resulted in both higher yields and rising rural incomes for the partnership members. Who would have thought that wine would be the solution to the problems of struggling small farmers on a tropical Indonesian island? But wine grapes are obviously more valuable than low-quality grapes fit only for ritual use, and the Gozali family’s investment in modern and sustainable viticultural training, winery technology, and know-how obviously adds value all along the product chain. Wine is many things—an art, a craft, a healthy beverage, an intoxicating drink—and it can also be tool of economic and social change. Who knew that wine could do so much?

One of the things that Ali liked best about Sababay was that the wines seemed authentically themselves, with a strong Indonesian identity. “Sababay produces wine to match the cultural preferences and local flavors,” she wrote. “The [wines] designed to be poured young, are sweet, with low alcohol content, and are a perfect pair for the complex, spicy flavors of Indonesian dishes.” Ali’s favorite?

A sparkling Moscato d’Bali. The wine world is very small so perhaps it should come as no surprise that I would cross paths with Evy and Mulyati Gozali at some point, but who would have guessed that it would be at a wine tourism conference in Tbilisi, Georgia? Meeting them in person was wonderful and to make it even better they brought along a bottle of that Moscato d’Bali for us to taste. It was just as delicious as Ali said—sweet and softly effervescent with pineapple and papaya notes. It did in fact remind me of a Moscato d’Asti or maybe a tropical Fior d’Arancio. What a splendid treat!

Excerpt from the book Around the World in Eighty Wines by Mike Veseth. Used by permission of the publisher Rowan & Littlefield. All rights reserved.

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