The Life of Wine

 |  May 27, 2011

This month’s question: Why is wine so expensive in Thailand? I have exhaustively researched this and the answer is: It just is, and for now, get over it. Complaining about it is as useful as telling a stall holder in London’s Camden Lock that you expected change from a tenner for those embroidered fisherman’s pants which cost 50 baht on the walking street in Chiang Mai. Thankfully, more and more wines are coming onto the market for 500 – 600 baht which aren’t Jacobs Creek fruit-grenades or concocted in the vats of Bangkok’s Siam Winery and shipped out in bottles the size of a pig.

This month: Sweet wines or ‘stickies’ as the Aussies call them, making them sound a bit like a slightly embarrassing accident. As you really shouldn’t be able to remember, I touched on sweet Rieslings with very long names from Germany last time we met. This time I’m going to talk about a rather unattractive infection called Botrytis which produces some of the finest wine on the planet and why we should all be drinking much more of it.

Botrytis, or noble rot, as someone wisely decided made this type of mould sound slightly more regal and less like something that needs a dose of antibiotics, is something the makers of the greatest sweet wines pray will afflict their grapes. This ugly looking fungus basically attacks and sucks all the bland water out of a grape leaving something more akin to a raisin with a high concentration of tasty sugar in it.

Not all the grapes on a vine rot at the same time, meaning pickers will pass through a vineyard selecting the rotten grapes individually time and time again. Showing our appreciation for all this hard work is one reason we should drink more of it. If you’ve ever squished a raisin, and we all have, you may remember that there’s not a lot of juice meaning one nobly rotten vine may only produce enough liquid for a single glass of wine.

Making botrytised wines is a high risk game, reliant on the right weather conditions. It requires a battle to get the fermentation right and the wines need to be looked after extremely carefully once in the cellar. All of this hard work does somewhat up the price tag when compared to wines made by pressing whole vines into a steel vat.

Sweet wines are dear, but not as expensive as they appear. Yes, they are more than a pig of Mont Clair and they do tend to come in smaller bottles than most of us are used to. But they taste so good that it could be worth foregoing three bottles of something unexceptional which will leave you with a horrible feeling you might have gone to Spicy for something that you may actually remember and which will definitely give a new perspective on what wine makers can achieve with a grape.

There are other ways of making sweet wines: Grape concentrate, a few bags of sugar or by simply leaving the grapes to shrivel on the vine. There is also the slightly more imaginative process of allowing grapes to freeze on the vine and then crushing all of the ice out of them leaving the sweet, concentrated juice which becomes Eiswein. However, it really is the botrytised stuff which deserves the most admiration.

So why aren’t we cracking open a sweet wine at the dinner table to accompany our chicken, fish, seafood, cheese or foie gras – when we can get it. Although they are amazing with pudding, calling them dessert wines does nothing to help. They are no more dessert wines than red wines are exclusively beef wines or whites are fish wines. Wine should compliment a dish as a dish should compliment the wine. A pile of sugary profiteroles and a Tokaji may just end up overwhelming each other or cancelling themselves out.

According to wine writer Hugh Johnson, some of the best sweet wines are the perfect accompa-niment to a good television programme.

Royal Tokaji ‘Birsalmas’ 5 pittonyus 1999: Because Tokaji is truly one of the world’s greatest wines, almost mythical. A bucket list wine. 1,900 baht

Klein Constantia Vin De Constance 1999. 1,800 baht. Muscat. Gorgeous.

Chateaux Coutet 1995: A delicious accompaniment to a sizable lottery win. 13,000 baht

Westend 3 Bridges, Golden Mist 2008. 1,200 baht. Same grape and rot as the Coutet, but Australian and much cheaper.