The Wine Economist’s chief Hanoi correspondent Ali Hoover recently visited Bali, Indonesia and volunteered to investigate the local wine sector, focusing on Sababay wine. Here is her report.
A decade ago, one of my personal favorite wine celebrities, Jancis Robinson, wrote about a new breed of wine emerging on the market – New Latitude Wines. Joining existing wine region categories of Old World and New World, New Latitude’s name suggests it all: these alternate regions seek to break out from the +/- 30 to 50 degree latitude belt considered the bookends of quality viticulture, due in part to climate change, but also enabled through increasing human understanding of how and when vines grow and advancements in refrigeration and irrigation techniques. Jancis ended her article with hesitation, though, admitting “I still find it hard to believe that New Latitude Wines will ever be seriously good, but then that’s what was said about New World Wines not that long ago.”
Since then, wine has begun to pour into the international market from a myriad of unexpected places. I certainly didn’t think Kenya, Azerbaijan, or Thailand were producing wine, and apparently I’m not alone; the Wine Explorers estimates 80% of wine producing countries are poorly known to the general public.
Among the surprisingly extensive list of non-traditional wine producing countries is equatorial Indonesia, and Bali in particular. After my visit to Bali last month, I’m happy to report it deserves the overuse of the word “paradise” in reference. Despite a confluence of tourists and a disproportionate amount of surfer types, Bali has preserved much of its cultural essence. The crowd favorite ‘homestay’ accommodation looks more like a new-purposed temple, replete with impressive stonework, koi ponds covered in lotus flowers, and breakfast served on sunny patios in the morning. Crystal blue water, lush green vegetation, infamous coffee shops, yoga retreats, and small boutiques have created a getaway nothing short of idyllic. The abundance of fresh fish and produce, coupled with the laid-back attitude and stunning views lends itself all to easily to a crisp glass of wine, but producing local wine posed its own difficult set of challenges.
The Sababay Project
At a mere -8 degrees latitude, low-quality grapes considered unfit for consumption flood the Balinese market, destined for the omnipresent sidewalk religious offering (pictured below). But it turns out climate wasn’t the biggest barrier to quality wine – education in farming sustainability and viticulture standards was. Seeking to use these advances in modern technology to contribute to their native homeland, Evy Gozali and her mother founded Sababay Winery and the Asteroid Vineyards Partnership. In exchange for agricultural & technical support, Northern Balinese grape farmers commit their yields exclusively to Sababay—the 175 farmers currently producing have experienced yield increases of up to 50% in the first year alone with the new viticulture practices, and some have even reported a ten-fold annual profit increase since engaging in the partnership.
What struck me most was Sababay’s strong Indonesian identity, a true achievement in an industry with a constant tug of war between terroir and global appeal. Beyond their tangible contributions to local agriculture, Sababay produces wine to match the cultural preferences and local flavors. Marketing wine to the largest Muslim country by population in the world is no small feat, but the demand is growing, and Sababay provides an alternative to these new consumers who’re looking for a twist-top wine that tastes good with dinner. The resulting 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.
Think Global, Act Local
Sababay does not currently export its wines – they’re 100% focused on local consumers. In keeping with advancements in technology and understanding, they have machinery imported from all over the world and a French winemaker to make the magic happen, but in all other facets of their operation they maximize Indonesian involvement in their leadership, staff, production, branding, and promotion. Sababay’s focus is a wine for the people, as opposed to an award winning wine – though they’ve incidentally done that as well! Their sparkling Moscato d’Bali (my personal favorite) recently won the silver award at the WSA Wine Challenge 2014 in Singapore.
As wine expands its boundaries, both in terms of production and consumption, I believe local identity and alternative branding will play a critical role in New Latitude’s potential success. There are untapped demographics with unique preferences and flavors, and New Latitude presents an opportunity to break out not only from geographic constraints, but traditional flavor profiles as well. In our increasingly global world, it seems the time is right to engage these regions and step outside our delimiting 30/50. Rather than expecting New Latitude to produce “seriously good” wines by our preexisting standards, I think we ought to encourage them to create “seriously relevant and unique” wines that appeal to emerging demographics and engage local consumers. So keep your eye out for these intriguing New Latitude wines on your next vacation, it’s bound to shake up your wine experience and add an extra dimension to your cultural experience.
Update: All of the Sababay wines entered in the Chine Wine & Spirits Awards competition have received medals. The Sababay Pink Blossom received a double gold! Congratulations to Sababay on this international recognition. To see the details click on the awards link and search for Sababay.
Thanks to Ali for her report. Here is a photo of Ali (red blouse) and the Sababay team.
I’m also impressed by the Sababay wines and also by the values they embody. Here is the winery’s mission statement (taken from the website):
Our mission is to elaborate local products of international standard that are accessible to all to enjoy and to give back to the land and to the local community.
Developing a diversified and performing agriculture in Indonesia with reduced impact on the land.
Recycling solid and liquid wastes at every steps of the production.
Social responsibility in the local community by creating jobs.
Constant training of the work force.
Harmonious relationship with trading partners and consumers.