I’ve spent the last week or so in Laos, joining adventurers Ron Rutland and James Owens on part of their cycling journey from Twickenham to Tokyo, an almighty rugby pilgrimage through some exotic parts of the world. The cycling was brutal, but the beauty of Laos made for a rich reward, as did visiting ChildFund’s Pass It Back project, using rugby as a platform for education and social change in south-east Asia.
But my maiden visit to Laos also meant an opportunity to explore the local food and wine. Sticky rice headlines most meals (grabbed by the handful from a small communal basket and used to sweep up whatever else you’re eating), along with fluffier rice, noodles, plenty of pork dishes, and loads of vegetables, adorned with lashings of garlic and chilli. It’s not the Thai approach, though – the chilli is subtler, and the flavours richer for it. If you’re vegetarian or vegan, you’re in the right place. There’s also a love of omelettes and a fair amount of chicken. All told, lots of fresh fare in generous portions, and an endless stream of rice.
It’s also where I tried a glass of lao-Lao, a clear rice whiskey made locally. The nose of industrial cleaning agent should have warned me off trying it; the palate of sulphuric acid, aviation fuel and septic tank almost killed me. Nothing – not the strongest mampoer, not Ethiopian red wine, not even the bottle of Thai liquor with a snake in it I once drank in Bangkok – has wreaked quite such havoc on me, setting fire to my mouth and sending my surroundings spinning.
So, what’s the best drink to accompany the local cuisine? Beerlao, the national lager, is ubiquitous and a pleasant-enough counter to the heat and humidity of the region. In my opinion, lao-Lao is best avoided, and although it was said that Laos does make wine, I couldn’t find any. This meant a search for the imported stuff.
In the delightful little town of Luang Prabang on the Mekong River, where we started our ride, I found a dusty bottle of Robertson Winery Cabernet Sauvignon that had somehow made its way to a tiny corner store in rural Laos, available at 140 000 kip a bottle, or R280. Restaurants and cafés generally had a few bottles of nondescript Chilean or Australian, or a generic house wine of uncertain origin. It was only in a surprisingly good Italian restaurant in Phonsavan that some more memorable options appeared, a conversation with the chef resulting in two excellent bottles of 2008 Leonardo Brunello di Montalcino.
But the wine highlight of the week in Laos came on the final night. My gift to Ron, who’d celebrated his birthday a few days earlier, was a magnum of 2011 La Vierge Pinot Noir, picked up last year at the estate. Not as well-known as the Hemel-en-Aarde big guns, but just a few kilometres from Bouchard Finlayson, Hamilton Russell and Newton Johnson, it’s an estate that quietly produces some excellent Pinot. And so the magnum gave La Vierge (I suspect) a maiden appearance in Phonsavan in north-eastern Laos, in the best of wine settings: a group of friends, celebrating the end of a memorable trip, and toasting the occasion with an excellent bottle of wine. It had aged nicely, was as soft and elegant as imagined, and gave an international crowd a fine introduction to the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley.
What I’m drinking this week: South African Airways doesn’t get much good press, and for good reason, but its crew is generally friendlier than those of many other international airlines, and there’s also been a consistent commitment to supporting local wine on board. My flight into Hong Kong offered eight options, including Cap Classique and Cape Vintage. I snuck in a couple of glasses of Stellenrust Sauvignon Blanc – crisp, fresh and with a gentle acidity that doesn’t overwhelm, making for a nice companion to both the kingklip served for dinner and Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga’s ‘A Star Is Born’.
Want to see what else Dan Nicholl has been drinking? Watch his latest episode of Dan Really Likes Wine!