There is perhaps no better place than Myanmar to explore the limits of viticulture. The climate is a study in extremes. A rainy season from late May until October brings constant moisture to much of the country; the rest of the year can be bone-dry and scorching hot. Conditions for growing grapes are challenging. Conditions for growing mildew, the No. 1 enemy of most winemakers here, are ideal.
So it's no surprise that Myanmar, also known as Burma, is better known for rice and sugarcane—and rice wine and rum—than for grapes and wine. That has not discouraged some adventurous entrepreneurs from trying to create a local wine industry.
Their efforts come at a time when this country, closed to much of the world for years, is beginning to open up. While the military still holds great power, on March 30, Htin Kyaw was sworn in as the country's new president, selected by a parliament controlled by democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party. Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, will serve as foreign minister. Diplomacy with the U.S. and other countries is reconnecting Myanmar to the world.
While most people don't associate Southeast Asia with vineyards, the growing popularity of wine and belief in its health benefits have allowed viticulture to take hold. Today, the country is home to two wineries, which produce 37,500 cases of wine annually.
Both of the country's vineyards—Aythaya and Red Mountain Estate—are nestled in the low hills near Inle Lake, a fertile region in the Shan State, about 437 miles north of the country's largest city and former capital, Yangon. Traditionally agricultural, the area is an increasingly popular tourist destination.
The elevation—Inle Lake is 2,900 feet above sea level—means that visitors can enjoy (relatively) cooler temperatures, along with boat rides on the lake's hyacinth- and water lily–filled waters. The lake is best known for its floating gardens, villages of thatched huts built on stilts, and the traditional rowing style of local fishermen, who propel their canoes by balancing on one leg and wrapping the other around an oar.
One of the country's early wine visionaries was Bert Morsbach, a German who first came to Myanmar in 1989. A businessman with wanderlust, he was looking for a new challenge after selling his windsurfing company in Thailand. Sensing the potential for organic agriculture here, he started a business exporting organic rice. Later he turned to grapes, and in 1998 started planting vines imported from Europe in the Karenni state.
After regional conflict prompted Morsbach to look for a new location—Myanmar politics proved to be as much of a challenge as climate—he finally settled on Inle Lake. "You can do anything if you have good consultants," Morsbach told Wine Spectator, reflecting on the early days of his business, when most people he talked to considered him nuts. Today, Aythaya's profits are growing at 30 to 40 percent annually, according to Morsbach. "It's exploding," he said of the country's wine market.
That success can be linked to the country's ban on imported alcohol, tobacco and other luxury goods, which lasted from the mid-1990s until 2015. But last March, the Ministry of Commerce announced that it will begin allowing imported alcohol, including wine, in response to market demand and an increasing number of foreigners in the country. What this means for local winemakers, who sell all of their production domestically, remains to be seen.
The country's growing interest in wine can also be linked to an increased consciousness about health, as a little bit of wine everyday is thought to be good for longevity. South Korean television has also been an influence, said vineyard manager Hans Leiendecker. As more people have satellites and access to foreign TV shows, they are exposed to the way in which wine, particularly red wine, is glamorized.
About 65 percent of Aythaya's sales are red wine. In addition to the glamour factor, there's a more practical reason: According to the World Bank, over 70 percent of Myanmar's population lives without access to electricity, making chilling white wine difficult.
On a recent morning at Aythaya vineyard, the day was already off to a sweltering start. Banana, coconut, avocado and jackfruit trees surrounded a shaded terrace, home to a restaurant.
"This is very exotic what we're doing," said Leiendecker. "It only works as a package." By package, Leiendecker means not only turning wine into a more mainstream libation, but also turning wine into tourism. With this in mind, Leiendecker has big plans for the estate, including onsite luxury bungalows. There are also plans to plant a second vineyard.
The key to making wine in a tropical environment is experimentation, patience, and learning from mistakes. When Morsbach started Aythaya, it took five years of testing to find varieties that would survive the tropical conditions. Out of almost 100 varieties tested, only a handful survived, he said. Today the most successful varieties are Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Dornfelder, Tempranillo, Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc. The vineyard also makes a dessert wine from Muscat grapes, as well as a sparkling wine and grappa. Leiendecker is currently testing 15 new varieties that might be more resistant to fungus.
About 18 miles south lies Aythaya's only local competitor, Red Mountain Estate. The vineyard is owned by U Nay Win Tun, executive of a gemstone company who's estimated to be one of the country's richest businessmen. In 2002, French winemaker François Raynal was recruited for Red Mountain's wine project and 5 acres of vines were planted in 2003: cuttings of Shiraz and Chenin Blanc from Aythaya, and Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Tempranillo, Muscat and Roussanne vines imported from France. Red Mountain Estate started producing wine in 2007 and today makes more than 16,500 cases a year.
The vineyard is a popular stopping point for tourists who rent bikes from nearby guesthouses. On a recent visit, parched-looking tourists perused restaurant menus on a terrace overlooking parched-looking vines. Visitors can sample a tasting of four wines, including a Tempranillo and Shiraz blend, a Sauvignon Blanc, a Shiraz rosé, and a late-harvest sweet wine made from Sauvignon Blanc and Muscat Petit Grain.
The wines are a work in progress—the novelty of the vineyard draws most of its visitors. For the curious, tours are offered daily. The vast majority of visitors to Red Mountain Estate are foreigners. Aythaya, by contrast, draws mostly business people from nearby Taunggyi.
"Grapes are getting famous now," said Leiendecker, adding that demand for wine is growing all over Asia. And while imported competition is now arriving, Leiendecker is confident that Myanmar's local wine industry is more than a passing fad. "We want to have a piece of this cake because it's growing."