Take a fish out of water and it stops breathing, but what happens if you place an avid wine drinker into an environment where there frankly isn’t much wine, or at least not the kind of wine readers of this blog might want to drink. Nepal is many wonderful things, truly, but it is not yet a mecca for great wine.
First of all, there are a few local drinks to slake a thirst for an alcoholic beverage. I’ve written about Tongba before (Tongba: A Study of Emptiness), but this millet-based brew is more mildly hallucinogenic than alcoholic. Okay, I’m exaggerating somewhat, but a session usually ends with me lying on the floor hardly able to move, without feeling the slightest bit drunk. Actually, as an aside, the article linked to, posted in January 2016, still gets several hits every week.
Another Nepali home brew is Chang (sometimes written Chaang). It’s not the well known Thai beer brand you can find in Tesco and other UK supermarkets, but is a traditional “rice beer” drink of the Newari people (sometimes Newar), who are the original inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley.
It’s made by fermenting rice, usually in a series of large, purpose made, metal containers, although home brew versions as often use plastic. As with Tongba, water is progressively added to the brew, and so the first batch tends to be the most alcoholic, with the third batch (the weakest) often being given in small amounts to children as well as the still thirsty adults. It’s milky to look at, like cloudy sake, and it tastes mild and very pleasant. Of course, it smells of rice, a bit like sake without quite so much of the alcohol punch.
The alcohol content of Chang is quite low (not that anyone measures it). Like Tongba, it produces more of a warm glow, though in my case without the mild paralysis. Any inebriation comes from the tradition of drinking it in fairly large quantity. Because it tastes mild and pleasant, this is not hard to do over an afternoon session, but I had no negative effects from the few cups I drank, no hangover. The reason it is allowed to children is because it is said to have health giving properties. It is also said to help stave off the cold in winter.
Drinking Chang at the famous Bisket Jatra festival in Bhaktapur. Chang fermenters bottom left
Beer is ubiquitous in Nepal, and reasonably cheap (less so as time goes by). There is always a selection of international beers, from Carlsberg to Duvel (Belgian monastic beers are very popular). Tuborg is so common that many Nepali people seem to believe it is a Nepalese beer, not Danish. I prefer the real Nepali beers, and my two favourites are Gorkha and Sherpa, the latter describing itself as a craft beer.
Nepalese brewing is taking off and there are always new brands. My son-in-law has been commissioned to design the label for another new one, with a suitably Nepalese themed name. I probably shouldn’t disclose the details, but I love the playful design and will be looking forward to trying the new beer next year.
When you get to the heart of a Nepali man you realise just how popular spirits are in the country. If whisky is the most popular, the Old Durbar brand is seen almost everywhere. This has at least been partly made in Scotland, with (they claim) English Grain Spirit blended with “glacial water from the Himalayas”. A bottle of 8-year-old Old Durbar costs around £14 in a supermarket or liquor store. Old Durbar “Black Chimney” is a smokier version, a few pounds more expensive, still with around eight years ageing in American oak.
A lot of Indian-produced whisky found in Nepal is actually made largely with spirit distilled from fermented molasses with around 10% or so added malt whisky. Rum is very popular in its own right, with Khukri one of the best easy to find brands, an oak vatted dark rum made in Kathmandu. Khukri comes in three versions: XXX, Coronation and “Spiced”. The Coronation, launched in 1974 to commemorate the Coronation of that year, comes in a 375ml bottle shaped like a traditional Gurkha knife, the kukri. Expect to pay around £40 in the UK for the dagger bottle if you can find one. My daughter told me that apparently it was on sale in a London bar for £300. The XXX will set you back a whole lot less in Nepal.
If you happen to be in Kathmandu and you want a really good, friendly bar (I’m not talking smart hotel bars here but somewhere that tourists and locals mix in more gritty surroundings), look no further than Sam’s Bar in Thamel. You’ll need to ask for directions, but it’s pretty central in this backpacker district.
Sam’s Bar, Thamel, Kathmandu
But what of wine, you ask? Wine is popular in Nepal, of course. It’s on sale in all the smarter restaurants, and even in the tiny liquor stores which appear every hundred metres or so on the main roads and in the smaller neighbourhoods. That said, I don’t think the Nepalese get a great deal when it comes to wine. The big brands sit in the sun-soaked shop windows (if you think the spot lighting in some European wine stores is bad for the wine, think what a Kathmandu summer is like). As you will see in the photo, you get French, Spanish, Chilean and lots of Australian branded wines, plus of course the Indian brand, Sula. I found a big pile of empty Lindeman’s bottles hidden away in an otherwise beautiful village in the hills, which I annoyingly forgot to photograph.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with these wines. I’m no wine snob. But these beverages don’t necessarily provide great value, especially when import taxes are piled on. I’ve not seen any “fakes” yet, despite the proximity of Nepal to China, which is at least one source of relief (though maybe I’m not looking hard enough).
Wine knowledge in the country is fairly low, but there are attempts to rectify this. Sometimes the best intentions are slightly askew, as in the helpful poster below, where Pinot Noir is described as a grape variety/wine from “US West Coast, Germany, Australia” (poor Burgundy, and I’m confused by some of those fruit indicators). And as with storage issues, vintage issues are a serious problem. In a shop specialising in French and Italian products not far from the French Embassy, I spotted a magnum of Moulin-à-Vent from the Hospices de Romanèche-Thorins. I was almost tempted, until I saw it was a 2008, which might actually have tempted me (around £12) in a cool French wine shop, but in Kathmandu I was more cautious.
All is not lost on the Nepalese wine front, though. If you have been reading my blog for a long time you will know that wine is made in Nepal. If you want to read more, follow the link here to Is This the Outer Edge of the Wine World? and scroll down about half way. Pataleban Vineyard is, so far, Nepal’s only commercial vineyard. It was founded in 2007 with outside help and investment from Japan, and at first they concentrated on hybrids and crosses which would work in the climate of the Kathmandu Valley (where winters can be cold and summers steamy…not forgetting monsoon season). But as we saw during our trip to Japan last year, European varieties can also be successful in difficult climatic conditions.
Now one of the benefits of living in a part of Kathmandu where there are embassies is that the affluent Westerner does get catered for (although there are plenty of affluent locals with their Range Rovers secreted away in smart gated developments). Just up the road from where we were staying (in Lazimpat/Pani Pokhari) there is a very good Saturday farmer’s market. You can buy some delicious local produce (including various yak cheeses), and after an hour’s shopping at the stalls, retire for brunch in a smart cafe set in a Tokyo-esque low rise square of nice shops.
One of the stalls at the market was selling Pataleban wines. I picked up a bottle of their Chardonnay-Sauvignon Blanc white blend. They also had a Cabernet-Merlot, but we only made it there on our last weekend and I was cautious about bringing some home, being unprepared for wine transportation. This means I can’t share the experience with anyone, which is a shame: the wine is actually pretty good, so long as you are not expecting Puligny. I’ve certainly drunk worse in Burgundy in the past.
First of all, it is not difficult to spot the varieties. The Chardonnay is identifiable on the nose, slightly buttery, clean and a little nutty. The Sauvignon Blanc adds freshness but isn’t especially acidic. When I arrived home I reached for my last bottle of the De Moor’s Melting Potes, which blends Grenache Blanc, Clairette and Viognier. We all love this wine, don’t we, but it makes no claims to complexity, just freshness and, yes, glouglou. It struck me that Pataleban’s white blend is the same sort of thing. At £10/bottle at the market I’d not hesitate to buy some more. Had my suitcase not contained a few things I couldn’t risk getting ruined I’d have brought back a couple of bottles to introduce to the world. I kind of wish I’d risked it now.
There is at least one other vineyard project close to Kathmandu, and we had hoped to get out to see it. It will have to wait for another time. But home made wine is no less popular in Nepal than anywhere else. The plum wine below tasted like a sweet Ruby Port with a rich fruitiness and a touch of spirit on the back of the throat, if a tiny touch of oxidisation as well (it was hand bottled and stoppered with, I suspect, corks cut down to make three from one). Now you will say that I’ll drink anything, and to a degree that is true (or, at least, I will try anything…in the name of research). But this was rather palatable (and reasonably alcoholic, though no one was measuring).
Perhaps some palate adjustment on my part will be necessary over the coming days. Normal service should hopefully resume. Next week Otros Vinos has its portfolio Tasting at Duck Soup in Soho. The following week there’s a big Canadian Tasting in London, and on May 21-23 it’s the London International Wine Fair, where I shall mostly be inhabiting the “Esoterica” area. I shall also be trying to fit in a piece about Vegan Wines (which have been getting a bit of publicity all of a sudden), and a visit to Ben Walgate’s setup, Tillingham Vineyard. I want to finally stick my nose into his qvevris.
Himalayan sunrise. Go on, you know you want to…