Archive for May, 2012

Classic Vietnam – driving the Ho Chi Minh Trail in an ex-US Army jeep

One of the joys of travelling is the mementos you bring back with you. No, I’m not talking about rashes and bites (although we managed to get those as well) but the special things you pick up along the way. Like the skeletal remains of a lion’s jaw we picked up on the Serengeti, or the book on Everest that I just happened to be reading when I bumped into Sir Edmund Hillary. This time that “something special” came in two forms.

Firstly, our proper Vietnam Driving Licence – our group were the first foreigners to ever be issued with a driving licence without being a resident or doing a test (the BBC Top Gear team couldn’t get a licence and didn’t drive a car), and the licence is a hoot. The passport picture I forwarded to the authorities was PhotoShopped so that my neck is thinner (no bad thing) and I’m in a white shirt and tie. Some drivers were even put in a suit. My wife is smiling which she never does for her passport photo. A true treasure.

Secondly, on the last night, we were presented with the number plate of our jeep. That’s going straight to the pool room!

So what’s it like driving yourself in Vietnam?

I’m reminded of an ad for the Navy in Australia a few years back, where the punchy line went – “you’ll be wet, you’ll be homesick and frightened but the pride of the fleet will be you”.  I think that sums it up.

Wet certainly. None of the gauges in our jeep worked and it’s not hard to see why. During several torrential downpours, the water flooded through the bulkhead behind the instrument panel and straight on to our feet. And I’ve got to tell you that when you’re sitting in an open jeep with your feet in several inches of water, on top of a mountain pass, there’s something sobering if illogical about that very near flash of lightning. That was one of the frightening bits.

Homesick? Well, certainly pining for some decent Singapore tucker a few times. We shouldn’t complain as we were off the tourist track much of the time and the local hotels were the best available. But in true Steve McCullach fashion, you can’t say he doesn’t warn you. His description of the beds in the hotel at Khe Sanh was “these will be the hardest and worst beds you’ve probably ever slept in”.  Not the Thomas Cook tour then.

And frightened? Just a little bit. The traffic is not so bad if you’ve driven in India (we have), maybe a little more cavalier but it’s the fact that as a foreigner, you’ll always be in the wrong that focuses the mind. Your peripheral vision needs to work overtime to catch that moped, carrying a family of five, as it swings into your path with nary a glimpse your way from the rider. Oh, and the time that the mechanics put a mobile phone into (yes, into) the petrol tank and turned it to torchlight mode to check the fuel level. Yes, that was a little frightening too.

Our trip, 13 jeeps in all, started in Hanoi and over the next 11 days (7 of them driving days) we made our way down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, via Mai Chau, Vinh, Phong Nha, Khe Sanh, Hue, Danang and Hoi An often hugging the Laos border and mostly on very rural roads. It is a truly fantastic experience. Yes, it’s hot in the jeeps (if you need aircon, stay home) but there’s plenty of air passing through the vehicle, they’re much more comfortable than they might look, and they’re the perfect vehicle for travelling the HCM Trail with a sense of occasion. The Vietnamese people appreciated the occasion too, smiling, waving, and giving us the “V for Victory” sign just to remind us who won the war.

We’d been to Vietnam four times before but as tourists driven around, we were voyeurs. This time we were participants.  Can’t recommend the trip highly enough. If you’re interested, have a look at www.classiccarjourneys.co.uk but you might have to be patient. I think there’s a waiting list for next year already.

And the wine? Well, someone did try some Dalat, but not me. As you can imagine, the selection wasn’t great once we left Hanoi and until we got to Hue and Hoi An. We stocked up with some  Saint Clair Omaka Reserve which kept us pretty happy for a few nights. I won’t tell anyone if you won’t but a bottle of Banrock Station Chardonnay passed our (very parched) lips in Vinh, but things looked up in Hoi An where we managed to find a decent wine bar (White Marble) with a good selection of Australian stuff. We still had a few days to go, so after some discussions with an Aussie expat, I set off on what seemed an endless trek to find this highly recommended wine shop. Turned out to be what we would call in Singapore a “provision store”, and despite reservations about the vintages (nothing seemed more recent than 2008) and the sun shining on many of the bottles (and no aircon of course), I purchased a Yalumba Shiraz Viognier and a d’Arenberg Grenache, both of which held up well. The power of screwcaps perhaps.

But without a doubt, the best drink at the end of each driving day was an ice cold beer.

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Anyone know of a good Vietnamese wine? Anyone know of any Vietnamese wine?

Reviewed wines on offer by Artisan Cellars, Cornerstone Wines, Eve Spirits, Le Vigne, Underground Wines

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This will be the last blog for a couple of weeks. We’re off to Hanoi to pick up our ex-military jeep and then drive ourselves down the Ho Chi Minh Trail to Hoi An.  Add it to the list of other drives we’ve done – an Ambassador taxi in Southern India and a bakkie in Lesotho, all arranged by the ever-so-patient Steve McCullach of www.classiccarjourneys.co.uk  – and you can gather we’re hooked on this type of adventure. Steve has a knack of achieving the impossible, and in this case, it will be the Vietnamese driving license we will be issued with.  So no blog (and worse, probably no wine!) for the next two weeks.

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Warning: what you are about to read contains disturbing content.

Just perusing the Wine Australia “The Australian Wine Export Market Snapshot” for the year ended February 2012. Here’s the good news. Exports to China grew by 40% to A$207 million. Are we done with the good news?

Make of the rest of the news what you will:

Bulk wine exports exceed bottled wine exports. That’s right, bulk. Bulk was 50%, bottle 49%. And I don’t think bulk means cask. Think tanker.

62% was red, 38% white. 37% was shiraz-ish, and 21% was chardonnay-ish.

83% of bottles exported listed region as “South Eastern Australia or South Australia”.  “What about the regions?” I hear you say. Yes, well Barossa Valley was listed on 2.3% of bottles, McLaren Vale 2.1% and Victoria 1.3%. Seems regional expression or “terroir” has a way to go then. If we assume the bulk wine is not regional specific, then yep, of the A$1.9 billion total wine exports, over A$1.5 billion came from an area similar in size to Western Europe. Imagine buying a wine that just said “Europe”. You’d think – “they’re hiding  something”.

If you’re afraid of figures, look away now!

90% of wine exported (expressed f.o.b, meaning wholesale price before freight and insurance) was under A$5 a litre. Er, that’s A$3.75 a bottle. That’d be about a $10 bottle retail in Australia.  There’s a lot of people drinking what I’m not drinking. In fact, the people drinking what I’m drinking (and I assume dear friends, what you’re drinking) are just 2% of drinkers outside the big island. Only 2% of exports were over A$10 f.o.b a litre. Very happy to be in the top 2%!

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Wine reviews, as usual, in ascending order of comparative value (the Bastard Box Index of price, quality and relativity to the domestic RRP)

2008 / Bell Hill / Waipara / Pinot Noir / S$224.70 at Artisan Cellars – I first thought this was a misprint but I’ve been back to check. This is one pricing I can’t figure, so if anyone can help me understand why this wine should be S$225, please let me know. Yes, it gets 91+ pts from Lisa Perotti-Brown at Wine Advocate, but that doesn’t make it that unusual for a Kiwi Pinot. And according to all my data, its RRP is/was NZ$95 so that would suggest a S$ price of around S$110. Can someone explain the extra S$115?

2010 / Squawking Magpie / The Chatterer / Hawkes Bay / Chardonnay / S$31.50 by the case at Underground Wines – 88 pts from Bob Campbell is OK, but nothing startling. Retails for NZ$20 so price here is acceptable but the quality/price trade-off slips it into this spot.

2009 / West Cape Howe / Mt Barker / Rose / S$25.40 at Le Vigne – I’m a big fan of Rose but have to admit I don’t know this one. Most Roses struggle to get above 90 pts (Ashton Hills is one exception) and this one struggles too, getting 89 pts from James Halliday and 4 stars from Epicure.  With a RRP of A$18, the pricing is very keen, I’d only be worried about the vintage.  I like my Rose “fresh” so I’d try a bottle of this first, and if it still ticks your boxes, you know you’ve got a good deal.

2008 / Sandalford / Prendiville Reserve / Margaret River / Cabernet Sauvignon / S$99.90 at Eve Spirits – A big jump in quality and (Bell Hill Pinot aside) a big jump in price. But “you gets what you pays for” and here you’re getting a wine that gets 96 pts from Halliday, 94 from Huon Hooke, and 95+ from Gary Walsh at Wine Front. One for your old age or your kids 21st as it’ll drink to at least 2020 and maybe to 2030. RRP of A$90 makes it a great deal here.

2009 / Aurum / Madeleine / Central Otago / Pinot Noir S$80.25 at Artisan Cellars – And the winner is…..from Artisan Cellars who carry the Bell Hill. Go figure! Michael Cooper 5 stars with recommended drinking to 2026. With a RRP of NZ$85, what’s not to like.

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WINESPEAK 101 – Today’s word – RASPBERRY

“This wine doesn’t shout; it purrs. Nor does it sit still. It rolls around over raspberry bliss, under a supple caress of tannins, through an earthly chocolate and mushroom savor.”

Makes you want to drink it, doesn’t it? It is 2006 Grange, as described in Wine & Spirits in October 2011

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TASMANIA UPDATE

Very excited to announce the arrival of a range of Stefano Lubiana wines at Tiger Wines. We’ve got the Brut Reserve Sparkling, the 2010 Riesling, 2008 Estate Chardonnay, 2009 and 2010 Estate Pinot Noir. Have a look at www.tiger-wines.com for the pricing.

“The Estate range of Stefano Lubiana wines, grown on the vineyards’s gravelly slope, is faultless……..” Max Allen – The future makers, Australian wines for the 21st century.

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Red is the breakfast of champions.” – Anders Ousback writing in Wine & Spirit Buying Guide, January 1979

 


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Wine quotations

"A good bottle of wine contains more philosophy than all the books in the world" - Louis Pasteur

“The unexacting palates of the masses…are content to ask no question [on origin] so long as a florin or half-a-crown will purchase a roomy flagon of strong , full-bodied, fruity wine” – CE Hawker writing in 1907

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