Hidden treasure

Hidden treasure

When it comes to liquid refreshment on a tropical island, chances are your thoughts will wander towards a long drink of something tall and cold. It could smell of coconuts, arrive with a flotilla of fruit, or be served in a hollowed out pineapple. Either way, chances are it’s going to be crammed with ice and have an umbrella sticking out the top. No sir, island cocktails have never been big on subtle understatement.

But what if the thought of a piña colada in the tropics turns you cold, and all you want is a glass of good Pinot. A G&T may be fine in the bush, but what if to properly toast a tropical sunset only a decent Grenache will do? Well, happily, the answer lies at 4° 2’ 18”S, 72° 55’ 11”E

That tiny dot of Maldivian island is where you’ll find the Constance Halaveli resort; a 25-minute seaplane flight from the capital Male, but a world away from the hum-drum of daily deadlines and to-do lists.

And that’s why travellers from across the globe flock here: for a week or two of pure unadulterated escapism. Villas that float above crystal-clear seas, private plunge pools for when you don’t fancy feeling like a salt lick, outstanding scuba diving, and gourmet restaurants set on sandy beaches under starry skies.

Like many other resorts in this nation of over 1000 perfect islands, Halaveli ticks all of these boxes. Five-star luxury is certainly not hard to come by in the Maldives, but – perhaps surprisingly – a decent glass of wine often is.

Offering thirsty holidaymakers a little more than a house red or white has become a hallmark for Constance Halaveli… and I say that with a heavy pour of understatement. For if you want to combine a tropical idyll with a heady wine adventure, Halaveli is the island to head for.

‘We have the largest wine collection in the Maldives: more than 15 000 bottles from 800 labels, split between two cellars,’ explains Cedric Jacob, sommelier at Constance Halaveli and the man with the key to the cellar door. ‘Although some resorts have a few more labels, in terms of the quality of wines offered we are definitely the best in the Maldives.’

It’s all the more impressive considering that the island is just 500 metres long by 200 wide, with climate-controlled cellars created both on the island and in the over-water fine-dining restaurant ‘Jing’. 

Even the water jetty that stretches off into the Indian Ocean – water villas sprouting like palm fronds from its sides – is nearly twice the length of the island; the longest in the Maldives at 900 metres. 

And the devotion to wine extends into the 86 water and beach villas. While a mini-bar takes care of soft drinks and water, every villa boasts a dedicated wine fridge. In my fridge on arrival, alongside a Billecart-Salmon Brut Reserve, are a 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon from Waterford, and a Waterford Chardonnay 2009. Impressive.

‘We import our own wine container with around 8000 bottles every four to five months,’ continues Cedric, an amiable Frenchman whose passion for wine is evident whether he’s talking to a nosy journalist or love-struck honeymooner. 

‘It helps us to have a larger variety of wines, but also a great variety of vintages within that wine. We like to have four or five vintages of each wine, and we always make sure to hold back a case or half-case of each wine to ensure we build up a collection of older vintages.’ 

And while the wine list starts at a very reasonable $35 for a Brampton Sauvignon Blanc, it climbs all the way up to Château Margaux, Château Mouton Rothschild and a Pessac-Léognan Château la Mission Haut-Brion; the 1982 vintage of that selling for an eye-watering $9700. Incredibly, a bottle was opened not long before my visit and the empty bottle – signed by the guest – takes pride of place in the display of famous vintages in the Jing cellar.  

La Mission Haut-Brion is the pinnacle of Cedric’s cellar for now, but if there’s a special vintage or château you have your heart set on he can – with a few days notice – arrange to have it flown in from their network of wine merchants across the globe.

‘We have very good connections in Europe, which means we can import wine from very small producers; we have wines that restaurants in France would dream of having!’ he laughs.

But with taxes, duties and transport adding around 250 percent to the price of every bottle that arrives at the resort’s jetty, it’s unsurprising that it’s more affordable New World wines that are increasingly sought-after.

While professing his love for the wines of his homeland – ‘I particularly love the south of France; Provence and the Languedoc’ – South African wine is the second-largest seller on Halaveli, with over 50 labels from South African vineyards on the island. 

‘For me, as a sommelier, South Africa is the country from the New World that is really giving Europe some competition. And perhaps, sometimes, they are even beating us,’ he smiles. 

‘The wines that really work here are the likes of Kanonkop; the Kadette and the Paul Sauer; Rustenburg, Warwick, Meerlust. Ataraxia makes a wonderful Chardonnay, and we love all the wines from the Sadie family; Columella especially, but I also love the Sequillo, it’s very typical of the wines from the Rhone Valley.’

‘Many of our guests are from Europe, so when they come away on holiday they are interested to try something new; something different to the European wines they are used to. And in terms of quality and price, South African wines are hard to compete with,’ adds Sampath Kalpage, a sommelier who hails from Kandi, Sri Lanka.

Four sommeliers – trained through the Wine & Spirit Education Trust – work alongside Cedric in looking after over 160 guests across three restaurants. Many vinophiles come here for the irresistible mix of tropical paradise and fine wines, but the sommeliers also go out of their way to ensure everyday punters are looked after. 

‘We do want to change the way a sommelier acts in the restaurant,’ says Cedric. ‘In France sommeliers can be seen as arrogant and hard to approach, but here we want guests to talk to our sommeliers about what they want to enjoy, and we can guide them in that.’

But stocking and cellaring the world’s greatest wines is of little use if no thought is given to how they will be enjoyed, and the high temperatures and sticky humidity of the Maldives are a far cry from the cool constant temperatures wines are happiest at. 

‘Room temperature? What is room temperature?’ laughs Sampat. ‘We obviously can’t be serving our wines at 30 degrees Celsius! The best temperature for red wine is 16 to 17 degrees, which is how we cellar them. Our white wines are kept at between three and four degrees, so that once it is opened and poured it will have settled at the correct temperature after a few minutes in the glass.’

Keeping every sip at the optimal temperature is a serious business for the likes of Cedric and Sampath, with an array of decanters, coolers and ‘vinocchios’ on hand to ensure the wine is both allowed to breathe and served at an optimal temperature.

‘The moment you pour the wine into a glass here its temperature immediately climbs by a degree. And after five minutes it climbs another four or five degrees,’ explains Cedric. ‘Vinocchio decanters allow us to keep white wine – and even our Pinot Noir – on ice after we have decanted it.’ 

‘Pinot Noir is very weak to heat and oxygen, and here in the Maldives it suffers. Depending on the wine, it can be oxidised after just 45 minutes on the table. So we always prefer to keep the wine on ice between pouring, to avoid that happening.’

And because Maldivian resorts are a haven for holidaymakers looking to do little more than eat, drink and relax, it’s no surprise that food and wine teams work closely together. 

‘The pillars of Constance are food and wine, and obviously you cannot have one without the other,’ explains Cedric, who says that the chefs and sommeliers collaborate on food pairings, whether it’s at the upmarket buffet of the Jahaz restaurant, or an al fresco seafood meal on the terrace of the gorgeous over-water Jing.

As there is no shortage of coconuts or tuna in the Maldives, these two ingredients loom large in the local cuisine. 

‘Tuna meat is a little heavier than other fish – the meat and flavour are almost like a steak – so we usually pair our tuna with a full-bodied Chardonnay, or a light red wine like a good Pinot Noir,’ explains Sampath.

‘We’re not afraid to break a few rules here,’ agrees Cedric. ‘We’ll serve a Pinot Noir, or a light young Syrah which has lots of fruit and spiciness. If we go for white we’ll look at a Burgundy white, or a Sauvignon Blanc from South Africa. Something like Southern Right; we sell a lot from Hamilton Russell.’

But the skill of Cedric and his sommeliers really comes to the fore with the bespoke wine tasting dinners offered in the main island cellar. 

In one of the world’s flattest nations underground cellars aren’t feasible, but the aboveground storage cellar has been carefully transformed into a cosy and charming escape from the relentless heat outside the door. Wine boxes and favoured bottles line the walls, while a chalkboard lists interesting new wines alongside a vast world map detailing where in the world you’ll find the planet’s best vineyards.

Surrounded by wine and blissfully cool air-conditioning, the wine dinners – arranged on request – ramble through five to seven courses, with each course paired to suitable wines. Of course, Cedric or a sommelier is on hand to put it all in perspective. 

And perspective is sometimes in short supply on this island overflowing with otherworldly-escapism. While most travellers visit the Maldives for the world-class diving or idyllic beaches, few expect to find one of Asia’s finest wine collections beneath the waving palm trees of an island in the Ari Atoll; perhaps as far removed from a temperate vineyard as it is possible to get. 

But then, perhaps it makes perfect sense. 

A holiday in this island nation is all about suspending reality for as long as possible. Some stay for weeks, others just a few days. Whichever you choose, once the reefs have been dived and the squeaky sands admired, remember that there is only one place to escape the fiery tropical sun: Cedric Jacob’s hidden treasure of wine.

Travel File: 

To book: Contact Constance Hotels on 011 678 1682 or visit www.constancehotels.com

Getting there: While direct flights from South Africa are rumoured for 2013, the best way to get to the Maldives is via the Middle East on Emirates, Etihad or Qatar Airways. From Malé, Constance Halaveli will arrange transfers via seaplane or speedboat. 

Visas: South African passport holders do not require a visa to visit the Maldives, with a 30-day entry permit issued free on arrival.

First Published: 2013-02-01 Classicwine Magazine

Who is OnAnotherPlane...

RIchard Holmes headshot web smallRichard Holmes is a freelance travel, food and lifestyle writer based in Cape Town, South Africa. His work on African and international destinations has appeared in a wide range of consumer publications both in South Africa and abroad.