The Grape Trail
by Danny Davino
If you’re old enough, those words might take you back to 1955 and the song of the same name, sung by one Richard Wayne Penniman, better known as Little Richard except perhaps to his mother. Tutti Frutti of course means “all fruits” in Italian and it was the singer’s first major hit. And talking of fruit, you cannot fail to have noticed the enormous number of so-called fruit wines lined up on Thai supermarket shelves. They don’t advertise themselves as such, but look at the back label and you’ll see the words “fruit wine” in minuscule print. Until recently, fruit wines attracted a lower rate of duty which is why they are so cheap, mostly around the Bt 300 mark. In Thailand, fruit wines first emerged at Siam Winery when they introduced Mont Clair, that good old work-horse wine of all the bars and cheap caffs in town. Several other similar products followed, among them Mar Y Sol, Peter Vella and Berri Estates to name but three.
There are cartloads of so-called fruit wines coming in from South Africa, Australia and even Vietnam. To qualify for the lower rate of duty, fruit wines are supposed to have a proportion of concentrated fruit juice added into the grape juice. But does every foreign winemaker really go to all this trouble, especially for the comparatively small Thai wine market? I’m not so sure. Some time ago I saw a bottle of ordinary cheap French wine on which a tiny sticker bearing the words “fruit wine” had been hastily slapped on the back. To my mind, that rather gave the game away.
Anyway, these so-called fruit wines won’t be cheap for much longer. In September 2017, the Thai Excise Department revised the entire system for applying excise to wines and mostly eliminated the preferential rates applied to so-called fruit wines. The result is that most wines, whether they claim to be fruit wines or not, will be subject to duty and taxes that amount to a staggering 430 percent. When the present stocks are exhausted, the prices will soar. You may have noticed that Mont Clair has already taken a price hike. By the time you read this article, the prices shown here may be just a fond memory.
A few weeks ago I saw a bottle priced at about Bt 230. I knew it would be rubbish but in the pursuit of knowledge I was compelled to try it. And of course, it was awful; a horrid bitter thing that was quite undrinkable. Even the dogs turned it down. It might have been quite useful for cleaning out a tractor gearbox, but not much else. In contrast, here are two wines which are really splendid value and easily available.
Robertson Winery Chapel White, South Africa (Bt. 299 @ Villa, Friendship)
This attractive gold-coloured wine is a light-bodied blend of Colombard and Chenin Blanc and made by Jacques Roux of Robertson Winery. Cheaper wines tend to have a one-dimensional quality to the aroma, but not this one. There’s a refreshing lemony aroma with a touch of peaches and pomelo and a good bit of tropical fruit on the palate too, with hints of lemon and honeysuckle. As you might expect, it’s a dry wine and the Chenin Blanc brings a crisp bite of acidity. It comes at 12.5% ABV and there’s a long and persistent finish, an unusual feature for a wine in this price bracket.
If you find it a bit assertive to drink on its own, it would be ideal with food. Fish or chicken dishes spring to mind. It would enhance simple chicken dishes and it would certainly jazz up that British Friday night favourite, fish and chips.
Camden Park Smooth Reserve Red, Australia (Bt. 309 @ Tesco-Lotus and others)
This dark red wine is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Tempranillo and it has pleasing aromas of sweet, jammy, dark fruit with strawberry and plum. It’s smooth to the taste with plenty of fruit and it’s pleasantly light bodied too. At just 12.5% ABV it feels like those southern French reds and there’s just a delicate touch of tannin which helps to give the wine a firm body. At this price, it’s a terrific little wine. After it’s had air contact for about fifteen minutes you’ll notice that some secondary aromas start appearing including a faint minty smell which I’d guess comes from the Cabernet Sauvignon. This is why I always suggest sniffing the wine at regular intervals. But there again, I was a dog in a previous life so I probably appreciate smells more than most people.
Tasting this against a glass of Mont Clair, it really is streets ahead. If you enjoy light, dry reds this should be right up your soi. Stock up with a few bottles before the price goes sky high. But keep this snippet of advice to yourself. If all the wine has gone when I get back to the shop, I’ll never speak to you again.
And by the way, can you recall the lyrics of Little Richard’s song from over sixty years ago? They began, “Tutti frutti, aw rooty, Tutti frutti, aw rooty, Tutti frutti, aw rooty, A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-wop-bam-boom”. Roll over Milton, Shakespeare and Wordsworth. You know when you’re beaten.