Extreme Viticulture in Nepal

It lives! After my last article in early October I’ve been travelling. The result will be a host of articles from Australia, though I hope that, by-and-large avoiding the obvious, I won’t be substantially repeating what others have written as I pass through Victoria and New South Wales. Before that, however, I have a very interesting book to (belatedly) review in my next article, and, er, this. I suppose you could call it a pet passion in a way, as much for the scenery as for the wine.

In this article I’m going to take you back to Pataleban. If you’ve been following this blog for a number of years you will be well aware that Nepalese wine, whilst not making a massive splash on the international wine scene, is far from being a joke. My first article on Pataleban back in 2016 asked whether this represents the outer edge of the wine world? We find viticulture and winemaking in many obscure parts of the planet, but Nepal faces a number of genuine barriers to success, and the quality of the wines, in context, is a testament to a genuine desire to make something of worth.

Pataleban is best known for now for its resort, a lovely hotel set in forested hills just west of Kathmandu, at Chisapani/Baad bhanjyang. It is here that the original small (2ha) vineyard was planted with Japanese assistance and mainly hybrid vines, in 2006/7. The resort thrives, having undergone substantial rebuilding after the major earthquake which hit Nepal in 2015. Guests staying here can take a variety half-day or one day vineyard trips, fully guided.

These might not be the highest vineyards in the world (Colomé claims 2,300 metres, doesn’t it), but they are some of the most spectacularly located. On a clear day you can see several of the great Himalayan ranges from the resort terrace.

The main vineyards are now further away (in theory 45 minutes drive) further west, on the road to Pokhara. The two main locations are Kaule (the site of Pataleban’s current red blend) and Kewalpur (Dhading District), where the new winery is situated, and where they plan to build another hotel.

The vines at Kaule comprise mostly Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Yama Sauvignon (the latter a Japanese variety, on which more later). At Kaule the desire of founder and winemaker Kumar Karki to minimise the use of sprays is usually confounded by fungal issues as the harvest takes place in the monsoon. The resulting wine is, in my view, pretty good considering trying conditions, which are in some ways not too dissimilar to those experienced in Japan.

The Kewalpur site, despite vines mostly planted at between 800 metres to 1,200 metres, is less affected by monsoon rains. It is here that most expansion is taking place, ever upward too. Kumar told me that they currently have around 40 acres under vine in total. Last year they planted 12k vines and the plan is to increase production by at least 20k bottles a year for the foreseeable future. In 2018 they produced 22k bottles and it looks like they will get around 40k bottles out of the 2019 harvest.

Pataleban is in good hands, and they have received assistance from two highly competent consultants. From the Swiss Valais there is Joseph-Marie Chanton, from a family who followers of my writings on Swiss wine will be aware of (one of that country’s finest producers, based at Visp). Chanton Weine is now run by Joseph-Marie’s son, Mario, giving “Chosy” (as he’s known) time to pursue other interests. He’s best known in Switzerland for his work saving several rare indigenous Swiss varieties from extinction.

He’s followed by Wolfgang Schäfer, of TVC (Tropical Viticulture Consultants). Wolfgang, who has worked extensively in India, runs that partnership with Hans-Peter Hoehnen, whose family is famous for having founded Cape Mentelle in Margaret River, and then Cloudy Bay Winery in New Zealand.

Before we look at the wines, I should mention the other issues Pataleban faces, aside from climatic ones. Consumer indifference is a major factor. If you say “wine” in Nepal, most people think of fruit wine. Divine is a major brand there, made from soft red/black fruits, sweet and slightly porty. And cheap. There is a real need to get out and educate. The Pataleban wines retail locally at between £7 to £14 a bottle, a big leap in price from the fruit wines and comparable to the branded wines which come in from India. Australian, French, Spanish and Chilean wines are easily available in Kathmandu. They have often sat in a bottle shop window in forty degree temperatures, or perhaps hail from a rather too old and dusty vintage, but consumers still assume foreign is best.

The government doesn’t really help. They show no current interest of offering assistance to such a niche product, yet Pataleban offers another welcome strand of tourism, with a lovely hotel close to the capital, fine food and wine, easy attractive forest walks and vineyard tours. Perhaps things will change as the vineyard’s profile increases.

Pataleban wine is currently available in a number of Kathmandu’s top hotels, and in a small number of retail outlets. Try Vino Bistro just off the major Lazimpat Road (towards the bottom, on Kumari Mai Marg, down the south side of the Big Mart supermarket).

Chairman and winemaker Kumar Karki and director Janapal Thapa gave me a wonderful tasting at Kewalpur, in the current makeshift shed of a winery, thankfully well insulated and wonderfully cool. The equipment is all imported from
Europe, of high quality, and I was very excited by the level of improvement I saw since my first acquaintance with the wines. The wine samples below were tasted from tank and come from the 2019 harvest.

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Kumar Karki and Janapal Thapa

Solaris If you know English wine you’ll possibly know Solaris. I was only praising Daniel Ham’s Devon-grown Solaris petnat in my August “Recent Wines” roundup. Solaris is officially a vinifera variety (formally acknowledged 2001), but it certainly contains hybrid traces in its convoluted parentage. It’s a good variety for organic production in wet or damp climates, hence its planting here in Nepal. A simple wine, yet very fresh and fruity, it makes an impressive start to the tasting.

Phoenix and Orion – blended in tank, two more obscure varieties making for a scintillating contrast to the Solaris, because this is less fruity, drier and more mineral. They probably plan to bottle the Solaris as a varietal, but I’m not sure what their plans are for this tank.

Chardonnay – Chardonnay is such an adaptable variety, and it proves this here. In tank the aroma was not fully developed, though it shows a little arrowroot biscuit, but it has clear varietal definition, especially on the palate. Alcohol will turn out around 11-12%, they say. I’m already acquainted with this variety in the Ashish blend from bottle and this 2019 is probably a step up again, worthy of a single varietal cuvée. The Chardonnay vines are planted lower down (750 to 800 metres), and I wonder how the blend would develop if they pushed that envelope just a little higher? Still, it is on the leaner side, no bad thing, though it’s early days. I challenge anyone not to enjoy this.

Heida – yes, Heida, aka Savagnin. Perhaps this is Joseph-Marie Chanton’s influence? I’d never tasted their Heida before, except in a blend, and in some ways this was the tank sample which impressed me most. If Kumar and Janapal are reading this, I should point out that I am something of a Jura fanatic. Don’t expect anything jurassically oxidative, though. There’s a bit of savoury nuttiness but I’d describe the style as more “traminer” (cf Stéphane Tissot), and definitely ouillé. It might end up in a blend with Gewurztraminer and Chardonnay again…we shall see. I’m guessing “Heida” would be a somewhat harder sell than “Chardonnay”.

Merlot – Although this variety may not always appeal to some wine obsessives, it clearly has a lot of potential to get Pataleban established on local markets. Another wine that exhibits clear varietal traits (I think the nose gives it away), it is quite hearty, aromatic, and with soft fruit on the palate. Not complex but easy to drink, in a good way.

Yama Sauvignon – Never heard of it? Even more obscure is the fact that this hybrid variety is a crossing made at Yamanashi University (Japan) between Cabernet Sauvignon and Yama Budou, the latter being a vitis coignetiae variety (I swear I’m not making that up, it’s a wild forest grape, big leafed and a prolific climber in its natural habitat). The grapes give a ruby red juice, resulting in genuine fruitiness but with quite pronounced acidity and a bit of grip. It makes for a fascinating, and pleasurable, glass of red on a warm Nepalese autumn day.

Fortified Merlot – This final sample is estate Merlot fortified with grain spirit from Nepal’s Terai region (the plains in the south famous for tiger and rhino). The resulting alcohol is 17% and the wine is rich and fruity, like a ruby port. It can’t be released until the bureaucracy involved in obtaining a different licence is completed, but I’m sure this will be a hit.

I also drank several bottles of the Pataleban Kaule Red Blend whilst in Nepal (40% Merlot, 30% each Cabernet Sauvignon and Yama Sauvignon), which is a tasty, smooth red, easy going but in my opinion way ahead of most of the European and Indian branded wines you find in Kathmandu, certainly with more personality.

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After the tasting we enjoyed a bottle of Pataleban Ashish White Blend (40% each of Chardonnay and Gewurztraminer with 20% Heida), another genuine hit. Both wines seem to get better every year and their future is bright if the locals can be educated as to the value of well made grape wines. I hope Kumar’s amazing vision is rewarded.

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Pataleban is an exemplary estate, bringing wine tourism to Central Nepal, and giving work to around thirty villagers in the vines alone. Naturally you’ll have to go to Nepal to taste them, but the attractive countryside and the resort hotel make it a tempting venue for a weekend or a couple of days away from the pollution of the capital city, without travelling very far.

Check out the resort web site here, not least for the photos. We made a one day trip, warmly hosted by Janapal and Kumar, but I would certainly like to go back for a night or two. After returning to the resort (a three hour traffic jam caused by road resurfacing led to them sending rescue motorbikes to whisk my wife and I back to Chisapani), we had some delicious food. The momos are particularly recommended.

I guess you’d like to know whether I hit the Tongba again whilst in Nepal (a few people read that article every week)? Of course I did, but oddly without the mildly hallucinogenic effects of previous encounters. We travelled east of Kathmandu, to an area not very much frequented by western tourists, first to Charikot, where at the Charikot Panorama Resort (2,000 metres, amazing mountain vistas looking into Tibet) we encountered the wines pictured below, along with that lethal spirit, Himalayan Aaila (48.5% so you have seriously been warned)…

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…then we headed up to Kalinchowk, on roads that were like white water rafting on dried mud, and where we drove for hours at not much more than walking pace. Our destination was one of Nepal’s great shrines (Kalinchowk Bhagwati Dharsan). At lunch we partook of Tongba in its natural habitat. The mountain people consume this fermented millet drink  to keep warm in the freezing temperatures (we even had a gentle light snowfall as we stood at the shrine, at an altitude of 3,800 metres above sea level). It certainly performed that task as intended. We all had a warm glow but no one ended up horizontal. It was served not in the traditional wooden jar (like I’ve pictured before), but in a more standard, but more easily cleanable, stainless steel vessel.

Visiting the shrine is an amazing experience. It feels like a special place. Most of the ascent from the village can now be made by a new cable car (a welcome addition at this altitude), but you still have a bit of a climb at the end, in the thin cold air.

Millet from which Tongba is fermented

The business end of lunch in the cold Himalayan afternoon

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The shrine, sitting atop a peak of 3,800 metres

Charikot Panorama Resort

A final Charikot medley

 

 

About dccrossley

Writing here and elsewhere mainly about the outer reaches of the wine universe and the availability of wonderful, characterful, wines from all over the globe. Very wide interests but a soft spot for Jura, Austria and Champagne, with a general preference for low intervention in vineyard and winery. Other passions include music (equally wide tastes) and travel. Co-organiser of the Oddities wine lunches.
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