Penang’s wine scene has come a long way. James Springer takes a closer look at this particular tipple’s rise to fame.
Since discovering the majestic island of Penang on the north-west coast of Malaysia, I have been astounded by the cultural revelry that has developed in the last couple of years. Georgetown holds its own festival. Boutique hotels continue to spring from the ashes of previously derelict shophouses. The number of restaurants, not mention the quality and variety of food, has truly improved Penang’s epitaph of ‘Food Capital of Southeast Asia.’ Straits Quay has another theatre and Penang PAC is revitalising the arts and stage scene.
And the next surprising addition to Penang’s neo-colonial resurgence is the developing wine culture. In the broader scheme of things, Penang pales slightly to Singapore, Hong Kong and even Kuala Lumpur with its representation of wine… well it did a couple of years ago.
After the establishment of That Little Wine Bar, local Penangites seemed to have grasped wine by the stem with a firm yet considerate grip. Talking to Chef Tommes, celebrity Chef and owner of That Little Wine Bar, the local adoption of wine has not gone unnoticed. “ Depending on the season, we can have a 80%-20% crowd; 80% local Chinese and 20% Western,” said Tommes of the type of crowd the restaurant attracts, “and whether they are a group of girlfriends, a table of businessmen or a couple on a date, more often than not they order a bottle or more!”
Tommes’ dream was to always open a wine bar, but why do it in Malaysia? Being a country of predominantly Muslim religion and with stringent import taxes on alcoholic beverages, it was certainly not an obvious decision. And more to the point, why in Penang? Out of all of South-East Asia, this small bastion of comparative Western development in Malaysia was not, even 5 years ago, nearly as developed as Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. Would not have those more accustomed to wine in Asia made a better target market. “Well, you’re right. Even when we opened in December 2009, the local tipple was still whiskey and beer so it was an uphill struggle. However, four years on and after our wine classes have gained traction, not only are more locals drinking wine but more places opening are offering it.”
This being a crucial point. The Cellar at Macalister Mansion, The Wine Shop, Suffolk House as well as many other establishments are all now open with wine as the only beverage on offer, or at least the most noticeable one. Also, more evidence of wine in Penang, is the energetic enthusiasm from local middle-class, Chinese Penangites at the constant calendar of tastings held at various wine sellers throughout the year. Flights of Bordeaux tastings, sometimes containing more than 30 different labels, are enjoyed by all guests and add fuel to their already curious fires. It is these wine classes, wine tastings and wine and food pairing events which are making the local population realise that wine is not a snooty, inaccessible and overpriced luxury good, but an enjoyable experience and something which can be explored, analysed and even criticised in a fun a relaxed environment; by drinking it.
Gradually, Penang’s knowledge of wine is beginning to rival its neighbours, adding another leg of strength to a culture, sector and network in Malaysia seeking recognition. Professional organisations such as SOMLAY (Sommelier Association of Malaysia), Court of Master Sommeliers, Wine Academy Malaysia and Hospitality and Tourism Consultancy (HTC) in Asia are all beginning to make an impression in the international wine market and a presence in Malaysia. Having spoken to Roderick Wong, President of SOMLAY and Wine Academy, it is clear that his influence is growing in creating the bright, young wine professionals of the future. Having just prepared and finished judging the Malaysia Best Sommelier Championship 2013 his schedule takes another impressive turn as he reveals he has just flown from Spain and France after joining Fenavin and Vinexpo whilst also accepting membership to the General Assembly of Association de la Sommelierie Internationale.
It is the professional aspect of wine which is beginning to take hold in Penang and Malaysia. With institutions in Penang providing hospitality, culinary and management courses to the young aspirators of the hospitality sector, it is encouraging to see these courses and modules touching (if only a little briefly) on wine knowledge. Wine tuition in Penang is making inroads into providing young professionals leaving college or university with relevant and specific wine knowledge to use in their respective careers in the food and beverage industry.
Lastly, is the slow but gradual realisation for many Penangites and Malaysians of the wine tours available at such close proximity as in Thailand, Burma and Vietnam. Wine Advisory, a wine consultancy company based in Penang, has begun working with wineries and vineyards in Asia to raise their profile to Malaysians as perfect holiday destinations and quick getaways. Normally close to a golf resort and definitely no more than 3 hours from a major city centre, Thailand’s wineries and vineyards, such as Siam Winery, Hua Hin Hills Vineyards, PB Valley winery and vineyard and GranMonte, are the epitome of unique travel experiences nestled in stunning Thai, rural scenery and replete with elephant tours of the vineyards, tastings, presentations and even private bottle labelling to fill up the average tourist day out.
So, wine in Penang has certainly begun to rear its velvety head. Whether red or white, dry or fruity, full-bodied or light, the world’s drink is now a regular companion for those Penangites who have braved the gauntlet of terminology and specificity of wine’s complicated nature and come out the other end unscathed. In Southeast Asia in general, like most things Western, wine has joined the slow migration of commerce, manufacture and economy to the east like swallows searching for more promising climates.