By Jared Downing
The rows of neat grape vines, nestled in the Shan Hills and soft green in the sunset, were apparently worth a selfie.
Five young girls had lined up behind five full glasses of Ayethaya white wine. The estate’s founder Bert Morsbach looked on with pride from the end of the bar with a glass of his own rose.
“That is what I like to see,” Mr Morsbach said. “Wine culture in Myanmar.”
Wine culture in Myanmar is what the German entrepreneur set out to create when he started the vineyard from scratch in the 1990s. Now Myanmar 1st Vineyard Estate, located in Ayethaya, Shan State, just outside Taunggyi, is the largest of Myanmar’s two winemakers.
But Mr Morsbach and his partner Hans-Eduard Leiendecke didn’t just make wine, they made wine an attraction for the Taunggyi area. At Myanmar 1st Vineyard Estate I stroll through the budding grapes and vines, enjoying stuffed vine leaves in view of the green hills and valley, softened by a slight mountain haze, and wonder why anyone would skip over Ayethaya on their way to Hsipaw or Kalaw.
They have achieved Tuscany in Myanmar. But now Myanmar’s largest winemaker is aiming to shed its tourist-wine reputation.
Mr Morsbach wants to see the domestic wine industry double in the next few years and put Myanmar-made reds, whites and roses on the global menu.
It would be a feat that flies in the face of wine history.
“It is no accident that Myanmar has not had wine in the thousands of years humans have been making it,” Mr Morsbach explained.
Grapes simply do not grow well in Southeast Asia. Winemakers have only been able to pull it off in places like the Shan Hills, where there are cool nights and limestone-based soils. But the result of their persistence has been an entirely new category, the so-called New Latitude Wines produced in tropical climates.
“This is totally new,” explained Mr Leiendecke, the estate’s resident viticulturist, as he overlooked his rows of Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc. “This is a challenge for me to do pioneer work.”
There is a modest table grape industry in central Myanmar, founded by Italian interests in the 1960s, but Mr Morsbach first, and later Mr Leiendecke, had to learn to grow the delicate, complex grapes suitable for wine the hard way. Fungus, in a placed drenched with four months of rain, became a kind of supervillain. Sometimes learning a lesson cost an entire harvest.
After nearly 20 years, their products are beginning to gain traction in the Myanmar market. How the wine is received, of course, depends on the drinker.
An acquired taste
“They’re young wine makers. I don’t mean in the age of the people, but in experience. And I think it takes a while to get consistency,” said Jane Brooks, a partner of Sharky’s restaurants and artisanal food stores in Yangon, who oversees a growing list of fine wines from places like France, California and New Zealand.
Ms Brooks and Sharky’s founder Ye Htut Win have become famous for their relentless hunt for top-notch, Myanmar-made ingredients. But Ms Brooks isn’t interested in Myanmar products simply because they were made in Myanmar. She wants local products that are good in their own right, and Myanmar wine is not quite consistent enough for a sommelier’s wine list, in her opinion.
This is no fault of Myanmar’s winemakers, Ms Brooks emphasized, but simply an inevitable phase of an adolescent industry. For an industry dominated by centuries-old winemakers, Myanmar’s industry has started off comparatively well.
“I’m sure it will have a place on Sharky’s list,” she said. “I respect Bert and Hans and the Red Mountain people because they’re the experts. There are other hot country regions that have similar challenges and produce good wine, so I think it will come.”
Mr Leiendecke admits that Myanmar 1st Vineyard Estate could be producing finer products, but there is simply no demand. First Myanmar needs a wine culture, and this is slowly evolving, said James Ong, who operates Myanmar Fine Wines in Yangon.
When it comes to the quality of Myanmar wines, Mr Ong is a little more forgiving than Ms Brooks. “It’s pretty good quality,” he said. “Drinkable at that price.”
Mr Ong has spent the past two years trying to foster a wine culture in Myanmar. With the import ban lifted, he believes Myanmar’s own robust wine culture will come eventually, and domestic wine will shed its tourists-only reputation as Myanmar’s new bon vivants begin to taste and explore.
In the meantime, Myanmar 1st Vineyard Estate will keep supplementing its wine trade with its Sunset Wine Garden restaurant , luxury bungalows and planned spa.
“People come here and they say, ‘this is just like Tuscany’,” Mr Morsbach said.
Today, visitors are spending more time when they visit the estate – taking a winery tour, tasting the wines and enjoying a meal. Mr Morsbach explains the idea is not to just make and sell wine, but to gather people together and give them a chance to experience and enjoy the wine.
“Most people in Southeast Asia don’t know what wine tastes like, and once they have done this wine tasting, they say, ‘Wow, this is a good tasting drink’,” he said. “My message to the people at large, would be - give wine a chance.”