Myanmar may be best known for its decades of junta rule, but behind the bamboo curtain, maverick entrepreneurs have toiled for years to put the nation on the map for the quality of its wine.
Vines cascade down terraces overlooking the vast mirror of Inle Lake in northeastern Myanmar, an unlikely setting for a budding wine industry tempting the tastebuds of tourists now flocking to the country as it opens up.
“Everybody is surprised to see a vineyard here in the middle of Myanmar with all this modern equipment,” said Francois Raynal, winemaker at the Red Mountain Estate in Shan State.
The vineyard, which produces about 120,000 bottles a year that fetch approximately 10,000 kyat (US$11) apiece, has itself become a draw for foreigners intrigued that vines could grow in the tropical country.
Many visitors are Europeans with a “strong wine culture” who want to try the local tipple, said Raynal, a Frenchman who has worked at the winery for a decade.
Myanmar’s wine pioneer was Bert Morsbach, a German who spearheaded the country’s original vineyard, Aythaya, after a colorful career in Southeast Asia.
He began working in Myanmar in 1989 exporting organic basmati rice, but turned to vines after the business was confiscated by a Burmese government minister.
In 1998, he planted 4,000 vines imported from France in eastern Karenni State, but a simmering insurgency between the Burmese army and ethnic rebels flared in the area and the government forbade him from tending his vineyard.
“That was my first experience with wine. Then I said: ‘I like it here, so much that I will give it another chance with another region up there in Shan State,’” Morsbach told media.
The challenges of wine-growing in Myanmar are not just related to its complex political history.
Although it is known for its fertile soil, the country’s tropical climate and relatively short days during the June to July peak budding period mean that only a few grape types are able to thrive.
“Fungus is our biggest enemy. Greenhouse conditions here mean it often grows much better than grapes,” said Hans Leiendecker, the director of wine operations at Aythaya, which expects to have sold 100,000 bottles last year and double that amount this year.
Shan State’s clouded hills give the vineyard an elevation of about 1,100m above sea level, meaning the vines enjoy cooler temperatures than in other tropical areas.
“It’s cold and that produces the nice aromas,” Leiendecker said.
Consumers seem to have more of a thirst for red wines than white and Aythaya has found that Shiraz grows well. It is also testing German Dornfelder, Tempranillo and Chianti.
Myanmar’s winemakers have by necessity been “very experimental” and could develop well in the coming years, following in the footsteps of China, Thailand and India, said Denis Gastin, a writer specializing in Asian wine.
He said the success of Myanmar’s trailblazing vineyards has encouraged a number of smaller operations to bud — a situation likely to please hoteliers clamoring for local wines.
“We are happy to present a product from our own land. Also, it is a quality product. It is fantastic wine,” said Yin Myo Su, who runs the posh Inle Princess Hotel. “I hope we won’t be limited to two vineyards — we could have 20.”
Myanmar’s international image has improved dramatically as it emerges from military rule, with Burmese President Thein Sein taking office in 2011 and overseeing dramatic political reforms.
Foreigners have enthusiastically flooded in, filling hotels.
Red Mountain, owned by a Myanmar businessman, sells its wine predominantly at the country’s tourist hot spots, such as Yangon, Mandalay and the ancient temple complex of Bagan.
However, rival Aythaya’s vineyard and restaurant is close to Taunggyi, the bustling capital of Shan State, where the majority of custom is from locals, including wealthy businessmen.
The long-term nature of the business — the number of bottles produced depends on crops planted several years before — means that even if tourism soars, it will take years before it flows through into production.
And is the wine good?
Gastin tested the Red Mountain range at a tropical wine symposium last year and said he was “pretty impressed.”
“I was quite shocked about the Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir, I thought they were really very, very good,” he said.
At Red Mountain, Swiss vineyard owner Serge Heymoz — who was visiting the estate while on holiday — also gave the wine his seal of approval.
“It is very interesting indeed, but let’s be clear — interesting in a good way,” he said.