|Thursday, 02 February 2012 20:15|
Do Indonesians enjoy wine? Typical answer: No. Real answer: More and more. I traveled to Indonesia to check it out and spoke with local sommelier Yohan Handoyo. Yohan recently wrote The Secrets of Wine which won Gourmand International's award for best educational book and is now the sommelier at Decanter Jakarta in Indonesia.
"There is a growing interest in wine here, due to cheaper airline tickets so Indonesians can travel, but also because of the Internet, the influx of expats, and the proximity to Singapore," Handoyo said, "Right now, the government is the only showstopper."
Indonesian cuisine - complex, full of spice, and varied across the thousands of islands on the archipelago - pairs well with wine, at least with a particular kind. According to sommelier Handoyo: "Indonesians are not familiar neither with tannin nor with acidity. Also, they like a fair amount of residual sugar as well as wine that is chilled because of the climate."
Muslims are, for religious reasons, in theory not permitted to consume any alcoholic drink. That much is relatively clear from the Koran. Ninety percent of Indonesia's 250 million people are Muslim, meaning there are more teetotaling Muslims here than in any country in the world. All of this means the country's alcoholic beverages sector is small relative to its large population. The Indonesian government imposes steep duties and taxes on imported wines. The alcoholic drinks industry is tightly regulated by the government for moral and social reasons, slammed with a hefty several hundred percent government tax. In a number of regions the sale and consumption of alcohol is banned.
However, wine consumption is growing among affluent Indonesians, mainly in Jakarta and the Hindu majority tourist island of Bali. Hatten Wines on Bali, launched in 1994, is the only Indonesian vintner of some renown. The tropical climate of Bali makes for the unique character of winemaking in Bali: grapes are harvested year-long from evergreen vines and wine can be produced in several vintages per year (every 120 days, in fact) instead of the traditional yearly vintage production of other wine areas. This feat was deemed nearly impossible, due to equatorial heat, monsoons, fast growing fungi and voracious root-munching termites. (And Indonesia's persistent political and economic turmoil did not help.) Hatten Wines buys its Alphonse-Lavallée grapes from several growers but has its own vineyards for the Belgia white grapes, a Muscat grape family member. The wine is tropical and pleasurably sweet. Hatten Wines' Don Buchanan makes red, pink, white and Méthode Champenoise sparkling wines, plus a Pineau des Charentes-style apéritif.
For centuries, the Indonesian archipelago, 17,000 islands, have looked abroad for wine for religious services. In 2011, the Catholic Bishop of Purwokerto (Java island), in collaboration with Austrian wine makers, priests, agronomists, NGOs, business men, university students and a Trappist nun, Sister Martha, has begun planting a vineyard just in front of the monastery of Gedono in Salatiga, on the hills of Mount Merbabu, to be exact and in case you want to visit. The challenge was to find vines that could withstand the hot and humid climate. There were also some political obstacles, I am sure.
A few years back, some tourists died of poisoned Arak, which neither helped tourism nor alcohol consumption among the latter. However, around Indonesia or indeed the rest of southeast Asia, wine is typically casually consumed by expats, tourists, Catholics, the young and the rich. Wine used to only be available in hotels, but this is changing. According to Handoyo, "Before 2000, only seniors and expats consumed wine and there was limited selection, essentially French and lousy Australian. Wine was only available in upscale supermarkets and French and Italian 5-star hotels at ridiculous prices. By 2005, the starting age had dropped to college students, and a wide international selection sold in convenience stores and cinemas at lower prices because of competition. The economic growth and recent investment upgrades are changing the game. By 2011, there were 18 importers instead of one and seven wine houses in Jakarta even on one main street. With Asian-aware wine commentators like Jeannie Cho Lee, Debra Meiburg and Ch'ng Poh Tiang, the language might slowly change from "gooseberry" and other metaphors that are foreign to Asians towards more down to earth vocabulary. Though some Asians will still have trouble pronouncing Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande (what delightful stuff, though).
Muslim countries are not at all the same when it comes to wine. Whereas there may be differences between countries and cultures, some things are for certain. There are loopholes. There is curiosity. Wine education seminars and wine tastings are changing the game. Sommelier Yohan Handoyo is part of that change. For better and for worse, wine definitely extorts with the GDP of Indonesia, a secular country with a Muslim majority.