Why you should care
You didn’t expect this country would be the next big thing in wine.
“Beauty is meaningless until it is shared,” George Orwell wrote in Burmese Days. You could say the same thing about wine. Sure, it has value alone, but it’s even better as an excuse for gathering friends for celebration or a good meal — even a trip to a country that until recently wasn’t on the global wine trail.
Myanmar has beauty — lush jungles, valleys floored with ancient pagodas. Now it has wine too. With two wineries near the fertile but fragile Inle Lake region and seeing new demand in the country, it may soon be added to the checklist of travelers with a thirst. And while it’s early days, the area might just be prepped to become the Napa Valley of Myanmar.
The two wineries are now selling over 400,000 bottles a year of red, white and rosé blends.
Inle Lake is over 400 miles north of Yangon and 2,500 feet above sea level, making for a relatively cool, gracious climate. And a 30-minute drive from the northern bank is the Aythaya Vineyard of the aptly named Myanmar 1st Vineyard Estate. It was started by German businessman Bert Morsbach, a pioneer of Myanmar wine who imported thousands of vines from Europe in the late ’90s. After six years of trial and error, he introduced his first wine to the public.
But Myanmar would have been a wine country before he arrived on the scene, Morsbach says, “had there been the know-how to control fungus diseases.” Fungus is the enemy of wine in the tropics. And Myanmar’s rainy season is a full-scale attack. But the dry season is long, providing around 150 days of sun, says Morsbach, which can be very favorable for good wine. And the mainly clay soil with limestone bottom retains moisture for a healthy grape crop. “In a nutshell: Myanmar definitely is a good wine country if you know how to take care of some imponderables,” he says.
The real question is whether the taste of this “new latitude” wine matches its tropical region’s stunning views. And the answer may be yes. Red Mountain Estate, neighboring winery to Myanmar 1st Vineyard Estate, produced a 2010 Sauvignon Blanc that wine critic Jeannie Cho Lee says is balanced and “aromatic and zingy with vibrant herbal and lemongrass notes.” The two wineries are now selling over 400,000 bottles a year of red, white and rosé blends (for about $10 a bottle) at the vineyards and some markets.
Myanmar was largely closed off from the world during decades of totalitarian rule. But with an increase in tourism and economic development, it may be following Thailand’s lead in starting to produce regional wine that can compete with the likes of China. Still, it’s “a country where wine is practically unknown,” Morsbach says. “To change drinking habits is a major undertaking.” But there are those who are trying. Red Mountain vineyard employed similar tactics to Myanmar 1st Vineyard and hired outside help — French wine expert Francois Raynal.
Both vineyards give tours, in which visitors can stroll around the land, enjoy a tasting and learn about this new frontier in winemaking. Along the tour, workers can be seen collecting grapes with the Myanmar-signature yellowish paste made from ground tree bark spread on their cheeks for sunblock, their smiles beckoning you to come share in the beauty of their land.