For a grape to be good for winemaking it needs to struggle, really struggle. That’s the reason vineyards are typically situated on hills. When it rains, water seeps into the ground, and the vines’ root stocks burrow deeper into the soil to reach it. The deeper the roots need to go, the more minerals the grapes are able to absorb, and this struggle makes for complex wines.
In the Philippines, where farmers are blessed with an abundance of rain and rays, you easily grow big grapes that are fantastic for eating but lack complexity. Consider it a rare instance where being blessed with tropical growing conditions can be a disadvantage.
It’s a blessing and a curse, but also an opportunity, if you’re Christopher Quimbo, president and general manager of Novellino, the Philippines’ number one winemaker. The makers of the most popular, locally produced wines didn’t take Mother Nature’s no for an answer. Instead, they found a creative way to popularize wine appreciation among the Filipino public, and in the process made wines that suit a sweeter palate.
So, when you can’t grow grapes locally, how do you recreate the complexity necessary for winemaking? If you’re Novellino, then the answer is deceptively simple: you outsource the struggle. Importing from traditional winemaking countries like Spain and Italy allows them to choose grape juice that’s right for their purposes. Of course, grape juice isn’t wine yet (far from it), and selecting the right juice isn’t as simple as tasting a few samples.
As Quimbo describes it, winemaking in the Philippines is by sheer necessity a scientific process: “The actual selection is done by our oenologist. We have an Italian oenologist, which is more than a sommelier, a doctor of food science, and he developed this method of analyzing grape juice. We get samples from all over the world, our grapes come from Chile, Argentina, Italy, Spain, even California, and we test them against these qualities: color, sugar content, tannins. Our objective is to source the best quality for the best price. Because we’re trying to make a wine that’s affordable, too.”
Once their wine expert has selected the grape juice, the actual work begins: fermenting the juice. While it takes winemakers one week to fully ferment a batch of dry–i.e. non-sweet–red wine, Novellino monitors fermentation and arrests the process when the sugar level is right, which happens after around three to four days. At that stage, their red is sweeter than your usual dry wine, and the alcohol level is at 7.5%, which suits Filipino preferences for a lighter wine.
Afterwards, and this is the abridged version, the fermented wine goes through a centrifuge to remove solids and yeast, is transferred to a sedimentation tank, goes through green and micro filters and is then chilled, bottled and labeled, whereas dry wine can simply be allowed to fully ferment until the yeast has eaten all the sugar.
It takes passion and a healthy amount of stubbornness to make wine this way, but that’s how Novellino came into being in the first place, Quimbo tells us. In the early 2000s, his father Vincent brokered a deal between a large Italian winemaker and a major Philippine investment company to establish a locally made wine brand.
When after a year or so, the investor decided to sell its beverage portfolio, the young wine brand was seen as an afterthought, but not by Quimbo Sr., a wine enthusiast who strongly believed that winemaking had a huge potential in the Philippines. Then a lifelong corporate executive without any entrepreneurial experience, Vincent Quimbo put up his entire savings and struck out on his own, purchasing the winery’s Italian-made equipment and remaining stock.
Blessed with—or hampered by, if you will—agricultural and mineral riches, our economy still depends on exporting commodities. But it’s the foreign companies that process the raw materials we produce which profit the most. Novellino’s business, on the other hand, happily depends on importing raw materials from the Old and New World. With their wines, the profits are made where value is added, which happens right here in their Canlubang, Laguna winery.
Novellino Winery in Laguna
With the Philippine economy growing at a steady clip these past few years, there’s a fast-growing, lifestyle-oriented customer base ready to try both local and imported wines. In fact, wine consumption now outpaces economic growth, and Novellino is the top-selling wine brand in the Philippines.
As Christopher Quimbo puts it, “[t]here’s no one wine brand in the world that owns more than 1% of the global market. Even in individual countries, you usually have a huge selection of wine brands. But in the Philippines, probably the only country in the world, you have a small number of dominant wine brands.”
What’s remarkable is that their wines have captured a third of the Philippine market with just one production facility and fewer than 20 employees. And while the country is still a young market in terms of wine consumption and appreciation, more and more imported wine brands are entering the market every year, eagerly competing for Philippine palates and wallets. Novellino, with its wallet-friendly sweet wines, has found its own, local formula for success, and that’s something which can’t be easily replicated.