Workmen unobtrusively scurry between the old Karma Kandara wine bar and the new lounge just a few metres away, to be completed by the time you’re reading this. Below, an uninterrupted view of the Indian Ocean and vast blue sky stretches into the distance, a light breeze stirring the tropical humidity.
It takes no effort to imagine whiling away a decadent afternoon sipping a chilled glass of white wine at the new bar, perhaps moving on to a bold red as the sun dips into the horizon and one mulls ordering dinner at adjacent Di Mare restaurant.
Wine is a passion of Karma’s owner John Spence, and it’s his philosophy, encompassing the idea of the road less travelled, that drives Karma Kandara’s entire approach to wine, says wine curator Maria Lurighi.
It’s a philosophy that will see Karma blaze a trail in Bali, with the island’s first Enomatic wine serving system poised to be set up here. This system, which uses argon gas preservation to protect wines from oxidation, allows bottles to be opened and served over a period of more than three weeks, with the wine still tasting as if the bottle has been freshly opened. Most connoisseurs wouldn’t keep a wine bottle open for longer than one to two days, even stored using technology other than the Enomatic.
What it means practically is that Karma will be able to offer the world’s finest premium wines without fear of wastage, with guests able to sample wines they would otherwise never dream of trying, says Raymond Saja, Karma Kandara’s former executive chef, who has just joined Karma Samui as general manager.
“We’ve got a bottle of 1998 Penfolds’ Grange in there which – I don’t want to be assuming, but probably none of us around the table here gets to drink that often – you’ll be able to get a taste of for whatever it is, 25 or 30 bucks,” he explains.
Aside from that, the eight-bottle system will allow particular kinds of promotions to be planned, say for wines of the Rhone, or Tuscany, or New Zealand.
“We can run the gamut, whether it be just whites or reds or both,” Raymond says.
Robert Ring, Karma Kandara’s general manager, says the move to buy the Enomatic was “a good business decision as much as a wine consuming decision.” Karma currently has two reds and two whites on their house by-the-glass list, with perhaps one of each set to be used with the Enomatic, he says.
“There’s really not a lot of life in wines once you open them and in the tropics of course, as much as you want to air condition things, a lot of the environment is unairconditioned, which is not kind to wine,” he ventures.
Karma’s full wine selection is constantly changing, thanks to the difficulty of importing the wines you want into in Indonesia. The import duties on wine run close to 400 percent and there is only one wine importer working in Bali, with a couple of suppliers, making it a challenge to import small quantities of wines from select vineyards.
What Karma wants to offer to its guests are the products of small, up and coming winemakers, like the Australian “Young Guns” who were showcased at the fourth and most recent of Karma Kandara’s renowned wine dinners.
“We try to get things that are a lot more boutique-y, smaller houses, the smaller chateaux… Chances are the owner is the winemaker and they get into it because there’s a lot of passion behind it,” Raymond says.
“It’s always ongoing,” he says of the wine list. “The one thing about the wine in Bali and obviously Indonesia is that you can’t get anything with great consistency and great regularity. So in a way, that will be a good thing for the Enomatic, because we’ll just keep rotating through wines.”
It’s a challenge, but one can rise to the occasion, he adds.
“It’s a Muslim nation, and we live in a den of iniquity,” Raymond quips, referring to the freewheeling reputation the Hindu enclave of Bali has in the rest of Indonesia. “It is what it is and we make the most of it – it can still be spectacular.”
One of the spectacular aspects of wine and Kandara are the extraordinary wine dinners, where a series of wines following a theme are matched with a menu specially designed by the executive chef.
Such pairing dinners can be a challenge behind the scenes, says Raymond, who points out that he usually doesn’t get to taste the wines before designing the menu.
“I was always under the impression that there was this painstaking process of having all the wine open in front of you and the kitchen just produced different things and you’d sit there, tasting the wine and tasting the food and then alter it, and try again,” he confesses. “That’s not necessarily entirely true.”
The chef needs to refer to the extremely subjective tasting notes of the wines, as well as draw on their knowledge of the typical characteristics of the varietals, which can vary somewhat.
“Then you kind of depending on how you want to do it… you can build on that and you either build on the tastes in the wine to reinforce them, or to counterplay them. It has happened where what I was expecting a riesling to be was not even close to what I thought it was going to be.”
Simon Blaby, Karma Kandara’s new executive chef, chimes in with a tale about how sometimes it just doesn’t matter what the chef thinks.
At one of his previous restaurants in Bali, a minister from a Southeast Asian nation ordered the final two bottles of two precious cases of 2004 Grange Hermitage that had been gradually consumed by patrons over four years.
“And he ordered barramundi with it. He enjoyed it thoroughly. He really enjoyed it. If someone’s ordering a bottle of Grange, I’d say order whatever you like – if you want a bowl of French fries with it, knock yourself out!”
Nevertheless Simon will be carefully planning the next wine dinner menu on January 5, when Australia’s Peter Althaus will be presenting a series of Bordeaux wines. Musician Peter Tanfield will play Bach D Minor Sonata for Solo Violin during the dinner, adding that touch of magic for which Karma’s wine dinners have become renowned.
“It’s exciting and daunting at the same time,” Simon says of his wine dinner debut. “It’s good to be getting the small boutique-y wineries as opposed to the larger scale stuff. It’s pushing me out of my comfort zone, that’s for sure.”
For Maria, it’s the focus on the up and coming winemakers that makes the affairs so special.
“Working with small single vignerons means that the stories that are told are genuine and sincere, and we try to respond spontaneously on the night to our guests in bringing them together at this extraordinary site,” she says.
“The event programmes are truly a commitment to the cultural landscape of life in Bali.”