Skip to main content
City Scene Travel

The Insider’s Wine Guide to Colombo

Sri Lanka’s capital offers a developing wine scene alongside its vibrant food culture

Zinara Rathnayake By December 7, 2021
Colombo city center with the Buddha statues of Seema temple in the foreground
Colombo city center with the Buddha statues of Seema temple in the foreground. Photo by MediaProduction/iStock.

To be Sri Lankan is to eat well and drink well.

Ask a Sri Lankan how often and well they drink and they would pause. Islanders often hang back and hesitate to agree, but Sri Lanka has a strong drinking culture. Although wine is not new to Colombo’s shelves, it’s sometimes been lapped up with love, and at other times, greeted with raised eyebrows — blame politics, temperance movements, and a three-decade-long civil war. 

But since the post-civil war tourism boom in the last decade, wine has slowly returned to Colombo’s drinking scene. And after four COVID-19 lockdowns that put the country into inflation, wine is still here — and it’s here to stay.

“There’s a lot of love for wine and it’s only growing stronger,” says Sydney Rathnayake, sommelier at Rockland Distilleries. “Almost two years into the pandemic, customers are still thirsty.” This thirst, Rathnayake says, is not just for the wine, but also for learning about wine. While online orders went up during the pandemic, people also joined online wine tasting events. 

A foodie paradise

Even before Sri Lanka was colonized in the 16th century, liquor aligned well with Sri Lanka’s love for carb-heavy meals fattened with wild meat and the islanders’ craving for slow living. But wine was mostly a colonial introduction. When the Portuguese came to Sri Lanka in the 16th century, Port wine grew in popularity along the coasts. Later, during the British colonial rule, Colombo came to embrace an active wine culture, with local elites sipping wine. But new government policies and temperance movements post-independence in 1948 discouraged drinking. 

After a long period of political instability beginning in the 1970s, a declining economy, and brutal war, tourism gradually began to propel Colombo’s renaissance. 

The city comes to life at nighttime when roadside stalls and holes-in-the-wall dish up street snacks like spicy beef samosa, a triangular-shaped baked pastry and vada, or deep fried lentil fritters. In the hubbub of the city, the Old Colombo Dutch Hospital — a 17th-century hospital restored as a heritage building — houses several dining spaces: There are open-air restaurants like The Ministry of Crab specializing in Sri Lankan crabs, along with tea-themed cafés and bars with live music. Now, with recent developments like high-end shopping malls, luxury hotels, and skyscrapers dotting the cityscape, Colombo also bustles with newfound affection for foreign cuisines.

As to what locals drink, Shiyani Saranapala, wine educator and the head of portfolio development at Decanter Wine Holdings, a wine importer in Sri Lanka, says they drink everything. “But yes, customers, young and old, are picking up on sweeter wines. They are much easier to appreciate and enjoy. Sri Lankans naturally have a sweeter palate. Let’s face it, we always take our tea and coffee with sugar. Not to forget that our food is spicy, so sweeter notes pair well.” For example, people enjoy their red wines with kottu roti, a quintessentially Sri Lankan, spicy, and greasy street meal made of chopped flatbread, meat, and fresh vegetables. 

Chilean Merlot is filling up the supermarket shelves in new chain stores like SPAR and Glomark that have extensive wine collections, but Argentinian Malbec is her bestseller, says Saranapala. 

She adds that people love Merlot because it’s smooth with sweet-spice notes of cloves and vanilla. Rathnayake agrees. “We are also very familiar with the aroma of Merlot — for us, it’s like the Christmas cake our grandma bakes with prunes and plums,” he says. 

But things are evolving.

People are now in love with New Zealand Marlborough, while demand for Pinot Grigio is growing as it pairs well with spicy food. Prosecco is giving more expensive Champagne a run for its money. “But customers are also picking up on complex, more fruit-driven wines coming from Portugal that match with both our taste and cuisine,” says Saranapala. 

Two groups

“Colombo’s wine market is two-faced,” says Rathnayake. “We’ve one upmarket niche group who are wine collectors. They are well-traveled or either lived abroad. They are back home and don’t want to give up on their darlings.” This clientele looks for Bordeaux, expensive bottles from Mondavi, and classics from Chianti. “They are looking for dry white wines like Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand,” he goes on, “our tropical temperature is hot and sticky, and our cuisine dishes up a lot of seafood, so those who know, know that these white wines pair well. We also sell a bit of Chablis.” 

The other group is made up of novices, who are curious about what’s on the shelves. They start with red wines like Merlot and Malbec and move onto Australian Cabernet Sauvignon. “And no matter what it is, Colombo drinks wine chilled because of the scorching weather,” says Rathnayake. 

If you want to identify yourself as a wealthy wine connoisseur in Colombo, you are supposed to brag about your ability to sip dry wines like Sangiovese, talk about your summer trip to Tuscany, and explain why some foods pair better with certain wines. You might as well casually boast about the $100 wine-tasting event you joined last weekend in the South of Sri Lanka filled with tourists, discuss why Pinot Noir is too light for the Sri Lankan taste, and at your best, look down upon those who drink supermarket-bought Merlot while discussing your expensive Spanish Cabernet Sauvignon. 

“The way tourism is moving after the pandemic, I’m certain that the wine culture is taking a new high,” says Rathnayake. 

People are returning to restaurants, and instead of opting for bottles, they are ordering wine by the glass, says Saranapala. “Wine culture is changing. People are enjoying wine with their food. Hotels are hosting wine pairing events where chefs and sommeliers explain, teach, and educate their clients.”

New regions like South Africa are gradually entering the wine scene. Light-bodied wines like Pinot Noir and Grenache coming from South Africa are gaining fame, says Saranapala. “We were so concerned about the basics earlier that we would limit ourselves to a glass of red wine but now people are having fun and enjoying a glass of sparkling and sweeter and fruitier New World rosés.”

“South African Chenin Blanc and Italian Pinot Grigio are popular on our list because of their tropical fruit profiles and medium to higher acidity that cut through well with the majority of our food,” says Dilin Peiris, general manager of the South East Asian restaurant Monsoon Colombo in Park Street, a chic, vibrant pathway dedicated to dining and entertainment. 

“Of course people love their pork ribs and chicken wings with Pinot Noir from Chile or New Zealand, as well as Malbec from Mendoza,” he goes on, “Our weekend brunches are famed for the Sangria mixes with Shiraz rosé and bubbly Italian Prosecco; they go well with bao buns and yum cha baskets.”

People are returning to restaurants, and instead of opting for bottles, they are ordering wine by the glass, says Saranapala. “Wine culture is changing. People are enjoying wine with their food. Hotels are hosting wine pairing events where chefs and sommeliers explain, teach, and educate their clients.”

The upmarket side

The pandemic has also opened a niche market for premium wines in Colombo. 

“Recently I have customers who spend $1,500 for vintage wines. Quite a few wealthy Sri Lankans have traveled far and wide, gone to vineyards, and purchased wine directly from the stores in Europe. They have the money, but they don’t have the chance to explore now,” says Saranapala. 

This is Colombo. Pandemic or not, the love for wine is still there. In between supermarket wine buyers and vintage collectors, soju and sake are also catching up thanks to the city’s growing East Asian community.

3 places to visit in Colombo:

Café Français

 


Colombo’s only dedicated French bistro restaurant and bar, Café Français, sits along the Park Street Mews strip that houses upmarket restaurants, bars, and event venues. Hailing from France’s Hérault region, owners and brothers, Jacques and Laurent Pourcel, belong to a family of wine-growers. This chic spot hosts over 50 carefully selected French wines, including Champagne, Burgundy, and bottles from Languedoc-Roussillon. 

Monsoon Colombo

inside Monsoon on Colombo's Park Street

Inside Monsoon on Colombo’s Park Street. Photo courtesy of Monsoon Colombo.

Serving dishes from the vibrant Asian countries Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam, fine-dining spot Monsoon Colombo shares the same street as Café Français. The place always buzzes with upmarket diners chit-chatting by the semi-marbled tables and waiters hurrying for their next order. Neighbor Rare Bar + Kitchen is also worth a visit for their take on modern Sri Lankan dining paired with a solid wine list. 

Barefoot Garden Café

A little oasis in the bustling capital, this is where to go for daytime drinks. The Barefoot complex includes The Barefoot Gallery, a noted art exhibition space, as well as a store selling clothing and souvenirs, and a bookstore. Barefoot is also well known for its Sunday jazz. Reserve a table with your friends, sit, and sip wine on a lazy Sunday.