Wines of Bali – The Search for a Decent Tipple

After almost a year living in Bali, trying – and being disappointed by – both the local and imported wines, I discovered a bright shining light for the future.

I like to live my life by the principal “Life is too short to drink bad wine”, although that now comes with the caveat “...unless you live in Indonesia”.

I knew Bali was not well-known for it’s wines but I held out some hope that through persistence I would find something decent eventually. 

Life is indeed too short to drink bad wine, provided good wine is easily available and reasonably affordable. As a Brit who has lived the past 15 years in Spain, I have cultivated a mediterranean palate for a fine wine, whilst still maintaining my very English tendency to knock it back like it’s going out of fashion. However, neither quality nor quantity are well served on the Island of the Gods, as I was to gradually discover.

Imported Wines 

With 150% import tax on alcohol and a personal limit of 1 bottle when entering, importing your way around the problem is not really an option. Due to this heavy duty on alcohol, importers favour the cheapest most undrinkable wines in order to maximise profit. Yes, Jacob’s Creek for €20. It’s just wrong!

Undeterred, I figured that some half-decent cheap wines must have made their way in. I fantasised about. So, armed with my Vivino wine app, I worked my way around the most well-stocked wine shop I could find to see if there was any hidden gems. If you’re not familiar with Vivino, you simply photograph the label and it gives the wine a score out of 5, based on reviews, along with the UK retail price.

So, around the store I went, snapping away and gasping in astonishment.

An example of some of my finds:

  • Sacred Hill Cabernet Merlot – Rating: 2.9, Av price: €2.77, price in Bali: €20 – That’s a x7 markup! For a shit wine! We’re not looking for perfection here, 3.5 would be more than welcome.
  • It goes on; Umamu Estate, worth €2.81 and selling for €18,50, Monkey Puzzle with a score of 2.9 and selling for €20.

But on I go, snapping desperately, in search of the mother lode, until….success.

Chilean Ventisquero Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva with a mighty 3.7 score is going for the comparatively reasonable sum of €15 and worth the same back home, according to my app.

IMG_9146
‘Cheap’ wine in a Bali wine shop

However, when I get it home and get stuck in, something doesn’t seem right. Is this really a bottle of €15 wine? Well, in my excitement I had failed to read the reviews, which revealed on closer inspection that this wine was sold only in Bali, thus the price reflected what is what sold for here. I’d been duped!

Local Wines 

Hatton and Plaga

So, despondent and defeated, I decided it was time to try the local wines. Despite all I had heard to the contrary, there must be something half-decent.

‘Local’ wine is sometimes made with local grapes, harvested, fermented and bottled here. Another method is to import the concentrated grape juice and then to just ferment it here.

Two Islands uses Aussie grapes and makes the wine in Bali (hence the name), and is the best local wine I’ve found, particularly the Pinot Noir and Merlot. However, I wouldn’t dream of paying €15 for them back home, which is what they cost here. Still, when in Rome..

Plaga, located in the northern Bali region of the same name, imports concentrated grape juice from Australia then adds the flavour in Bali. More laboratory than winery, what they manage to produce is palatable in small quantities. Positioned between Two Islands and Cape Discovery, it’s preferable to a Hatton, but that is not saying much!

When desperate, drink cold.

Hatton wine is the locally made version of Two Islands. This is the kind of wine that would lose you friends if you brought it to a dinner party. Avoid!

Isolá Wine and Cantine Balita Winery

Cantine Balita

I first came across Cantine via their very impressive rosé; Isolá, which I found on the menu at Baracca pizzeria in Uluwatu (fantastic pizzas – try the Tataki tuna with mango and ginger!). Impressed that this wine – which was head and shoulders above anything else I had tried in Bali – was locally made, I was keen to find out more and managed to get in touch with winery manager, Giotto, who invited me up to their Cantine Balita winery in the North of Bali, not too far from Singaraja.

It took me a while to finally make the journey; tucked away up in the mountains, it is a fair old trek from Ubud along treacherous roads and with very unpredictable weather conditions. In the end I took advantage of a visit to nearby Bedugul to go and visit the winery, and it was with luck that Giotto was there to welcome me. Usually based out of their offices in Denpasar, the day-to-day of wine production is generally left in the capable hands of Agung (who is busy today doing chemical analyses of the new batch of wines). The setting of the winery is pretty impressive, perched atop a hill with fantastic views. Giotto explains how the plan is to eventually do visits and tastings up here, and below us they are busily clearing the undergrowth to make way for the planting of vines. The actual vines used to make the wine are a few kilometres to the north, but this is the base where the wine is produced.

We go downstairs to the production centre. Empty bottles are piled high, ready for the next bottling “How many bottles are here?” Asks Giotto “Already 1000“. “Wow, we are gonna need a lot more, where will they all go?”

Giotto also shows me his new, increased capacity tanks. Production is up and the winery is planning for a growth in demand.

The Rosé has been doing well but with the Red and the White also starting to make an impact, they can now offer a full range to compete with the other local producers.

The Rosé can be found on some restaurant wine lists but not at all in retail outlets – and the Red and the White are even harder to find. Personally, I’ve come here as a super-fan of the Rosé, but it’s actually the white and the red that win me over.

The White in particular surprises me, as I have yet to try a white wine from Bali that I can drink a full glass of. Giotto explains that the local grapes are indeed better suited to reds. However, he has a dry muscat which is wonderful – fantastically crisp and dry but with notes of pear (sorry to get all poetic but seriously, it’s the first white that actually tastes like wine that I have tasted in almost a year!). I’m impressed to put it mildly. If this is possible with local grapes, what is the excuse of wineries such as Plaga and Hatton who are putting out such undrinkable excuses for wine?

Giotto tells me that they grow all their grapes here in Bali, unlike many other wineries, who either buy the grapes in – thus having no control over the process – or import them in the form of concentrate from Australia. He explains how the concentration process basically kills the whole character of the grape – the aroma, the taste, but allows the winery to put the sought-after ‘Chardonnay’ or ‘Cabernet’ label on the bottle.

The flavour, he explains, is added in the form of artificial packet mix. Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée this is not!

Another factor in the problematic landscape of Balinese wines is the lack of regulation. As a very young industry, wine growing is not subject to the usual rigorous processes and guidelines as those in Europe or the new world, which control elements such as the use of pesticides, the length of time the wine spends in the barrel, sulphite content, etc, hence the poor quality wines (and bad quality hangovers) associated with them.

Giotto explains that their wine contains the minimum amount of sulphites required to get the wine to it’s customer without degrading – the levels only slightly above those required for ‘organic’ status in Europe – and that they stop using any form of chemicals on the vines a full 2-3 weeks before harvest – a relief for anyone who has suffered a sulphite-fuelled hangover.

So, after the surprisingly good muscat, we move onto the reds. Giotto has a local red, another using Italian Malvasia vines and a third which is a mix of the two. We try the local wine first and once again, I am astounded. It has nothing in common with anything else I have tried out here in Bali; even imported wines here seem to have no discernable flavours, this has bags! The nose already has me salivating, it’s chocolatey with vanilla and red fruits. I’m not the only one who’s pleasantly surprised; Giotto excitedly tells me that this wine has only been in the barrel for 3 months – it still has another 5/6 to go – “The first lot of red at 3 months was undrinkable and the wine turned out OK, this one is going to be great.”

He tells me this is only the third batch of red they have made.

We only harvest twice a year. We skip rainy season because the humidity is a problem, you have to use fungicides and we don’t want to do that.” 

Yet another factor that sets this winery apart; putting quality above quantity is not a practice that’s seems to have been adopted by any of the other local wineries.

We also try the Malvasia and the mix but both agree that the local red has the edge – go Bali Red! I’m excited already about this wine. A good red is worth waiting for.

In terms of distribution, Giotto has a very socialist approach “I sell at the same price to everyone, whether you are a private buyer, a wine shop or a restaurant and if you buy a box, I’ll deliver it to your home, anywhere in Bali.

I order a box and, to tide me over, I pile as much wine onto my bike as I feel I can carry whilst negotiating the windy mountain roads on the way back. In terms of the future, Giotto has it clear that he is not trying to compete with the big winemakers but, in offering such a superior quality product, he is forcing the others to up their game.

I leave with a sense of hope for the future. The only problem; if Bali now has good wine, how will I ever leave?

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