Yes, the Maldives were paradise – except for the wine prices. A version of this article is published by the Financial Times.
This year everyone seems to be doing what they meant to do in 2020. I had a special birthday to celebrate and had planned to take the whole family – all 12 from three different generations – to a resort in the Maldives, where I had been invited to host a couple of wine tastings. Everyone got extremely excited. Then COVID-19 hit.
This year, by which time our family group had swollen to 13, the trip looked more likely. But it was not until everyone had landed in Malé – after a school outbreak of chicken pox, widespread flight cancellations, a failed PCR test, and one grandchild having vomited multiple times the night before – that we truly believed we had made it.
The eco-resort-island Soneva Fushi turned out to be paradise and our son declared on the first day that I should regard being able to bring them on this trip as my greatest-ever achievement. I’m inclined to agree.
But of course I wanted to find out about wine in such an exotic location, and so quizzed the head sommelier Charles Brun mercilessly. Since the Maldives are virtually on the equator, no wine is made there – nor is there likely to be to any great extent since this is a predominantly Muslim country. The tax on imported wine is about 50%, meaning prices are steep. (One friend who had visited the Maldives once before tried to bring in some bottles for his and his wife’s own consumption, only to have them confiscated at the airport.)
The Maldives attract some extremely well-heeled visitors. Joyson Jose, Mumbai-born sommelier at the nearby Four Seasons Landaa Giraavaru resort, told me that a Chinese guest on their private island ordered no fewer than eight bottles of Petrus. He did not specify a vintage but even the youngest one costs an average of more than £4,000 a bottle retail, and Maldives mark-ups are terrifying.
On our first night at Soneva Fushi, I of course studied the extremely comprehensive wine list and found to my chagrin that only a handful of wines were less than US$200 a bottle. Four- and even five-digit prices per bottle were common. The son and sons-in-law were encouraged to drink beer.
The breadth of the list was extraordinary, however, considering that sommeliers in the Maldives – who seem to vie with each other for who can have the best selection – are at least 3,000 km (1,860 miles) from the nearest serious wine merchant, in either Dubai or Singapore, and far more than that from any serious wine producer. (As well as all the great classics and a general emphasis on organic and biodynamic wines, Brun had hand-picked top wines from Japan, China, Turkey and even Syria.) Moreover, even once a precious wine shipment arrives with an agent in Malé, it then has to be shipped to its eventual island destination. For Soneva Fushi this involves a 9- to 10-hour voyage on a traditional Maldivian dhoni in a temperature-controlled container.
(The main image above shows the jetty where all guests and deliveries arrive, and depart. Above are the somms and a few more staff waving us goodbye on our day of departure, which was cloudier than most. I am saving you more enviable images.)
Once the wine arrives, it has to go straight into temperature-controlled storage as the ambient temperature in the Maldives is in the 80s Fahrenheit or 30s Celsius – far too hot for wine.
This presents serious problems for wine service too. Because wine warms up rapidly in the tropics, Brun serves it in small but frequent pours, three or four degrees lower than the ideal temperature, and sets his fridges at 4–5 °C for whites and 10–12 °C for reds. Being committed to recycling generally and bottles in particular, Soneva Fushi has a glass studio where Brun has designed a special decanter with a cavity for ice cubes in it. (Any plastic brought in has to be taken away by guests themselves.)
The resort may be predicated on sustainability, but Brun admitted that they sometimes airfreight in very special bottles. ‘We have crazy wine requests here sometimes.’ For example, by the time we got there in early April, Brun had sold out of his high-season (northern-hemisphere winter) allocation of Petrus and Krug’s two single-vineyard champagnes as well as wines from the fabulous Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, having sold 10 bottles of DRC in February alone. ‘Once I sold a bottle of their La Tâche at 11.30 pm to a couple. The man asked me to be sure to bring a second glass and it turned out to be not for his wife but for me! It’s pretty rare for a somm to be invited to drink La Tâche. He was French.’
Brun himself is from Provence and has had an interesting career path from France to New Zealand, Los Angeles and, just before the Maldives, via a luxury icebreaker in the Antarctic where his problem was getting wine warm enough. ‘The wine cellar is always in the centre of a ship to avoid shaking up the sediment in the bottles’, he explained to me as we sat under palm trees by the Indian Ocean.
On the icebreaker ship, presumably for space reasons, he was limited to just 240 different wines, but in his five cellars on Fushi he has around 40,000 bottles of 1,100 different wines – though such is the thirst of his guests that he is always running out of stock. ‘We also have very special wines that aren’t listed. We don’t want people to order rare wines just because they can afford them.’
Obviously I must have looked awfully gauche poring over the detail of the wine list looking for the (relative) bargains. Brun claims that he knows the tastes of his guests and the contents of his cellars so well that 90% of the time he doesn’t even show them the list but makes specific suggestions. Some of the guests have been coming since 1995 when the resort opened (he arrived in 2013). About half the guests are repeat bookings and many of them come multiple times a year. He looks at which guests are expected and orders or sets specific wines aside accordingly. ‘Then I might make up a little cellar for them and send it to their villa for aperitifs or lunch.’
I said it sounded as though he needed a computer programme to work it all out, but no. ‘It’s all here’, he said with pride, tapping his head. ‘When I look every morning at what’s been sold the night before, I can tell you who drank what.’ (Under $200? That cheapskate wine writer presumably.)
The seven sommeliers who report to Brun (far right below), some at Soneva Fushi and some at the sister resort Soneva Jani, include Belarussian Pavel Zubrin on the left in the picture below and Mariko Watanabe, also in the picture, drafted in initially to supervise a collection of sakes from a 400-year-old shop in Japan. (All guests and staff at the resort are encouraged to dispense with their shoes. The doctor on the island is kept busy treating foot injuries.)
With 30 different nationalities visiting, Brun has to stay on top of varying preferences and budgets. According to him, ‘Russians spend nothing or everything, like the Chinese. Some Brits are now spending a fortune.’ (A Maldivian-UK economic index?) Many families sat out lockdown at the resort apparently. And, ‘lots of Russians cancelled in April’.
Wines to serve with spicy food
The Maldives are closest to Sri Lanka and India and much of the food served there is relatively highly spiced. These are Brun’s suggestions for the sort of wine to drink with such dishes, together with my specific recommendations at both high and lower prices.
Big reds, lightly chilled
Clos des Papes 2013 Châteauneuf-du-Pape 14.8%
£55 The Wine Society
M Chapoutier 2020 Côtes du Rhône-Villages 14.5%
German Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir)
Fürst, Bürgstadter Centgrafenberg GG 2014 Franken 13%
£84.95 Stroud Wine Company
Jülg 2018 Pfalz 12.5%
£17 Streatham Wine House
Domaine Weinbach, Schlossberg Riesling 2020 Alsace Grand Cru 13.5%
£316.07 per case of 6 Justerini & Brooks
Pewsey Vale Riesling 2020 Eden Valley 12.5%
£13.99 NY Wines, Noble Grape
Georges Vernay, Coteau de Vernon 2018 Condrieu 14.5%
£650 per case of 6 Millésima UK
Yalumba, Samuel’s Collection Viognier 2017 Eden Valley 13.5%
£18.54 Four Walls Wine Company