Italy and France aren’t the only destinations a world-travelling wine lover should have on their bucket list. We explored three of our favourite unexpected Asian wine destinations, with the help of our own wine connoisseur!
Earthen-yellow fields sewn with precise rows of grapevines stretch across rolling rock-strewn hills to the horizon. Mere meters away is a well-equipped winery complete with a visitor center where patrons can sample a variety of locally produced wines paired with fine cheeses and hors d’oeuvres. It’s a familiar scene –perhaps you’ve seen it before on the canvasses of Monet or Van Gough; Provence, Tuscany, or maybe even Napa Valley.
A closer look reveals something those post-impressionist artists would have been baffled by, though. Lining the roads here are small spirit houses filled with Buddhist offerings of fruit and incense. The landscape is dotted with the spire of ancient pagodas. Monks with their bronze-hued robes can be seen bare-footed, collecting alms from worshippers.
The woman describing the vineyard to you in perfect English is wearing what appears to be tribal face paint –and not as part of a theatrical performance.
This is not the south of France, Italy, the West Coast of the U.S. or even Chile –it’s Burma. A place which, not too long ago, was referred to as the “Hermit Kingdom,” and was almost entirely off-limits to outsiders. To be sipping a surprisingly complex locally-produced wine while staring off into this picturesque and foreign landscape is simultaneously amazing, surreal… and a bit bewildering.
Since the mid 90’s, the nascent wine industry of Southeast Asia has grown mostly under the radar. From the pioneering visions of self-confessed Francophiles and other mostly Western-educated locals, a verdant industry has risen from the ground producing wines that, year by year, mature drastically both in scale and complexity.
The region may be more synonymous with exotic culture, beautiful beaches, and tropical climates, but its burgeoning ability to produce quality wine is an exciting proposition for anyone interested in wine. Not only are most people entirely unaware of it, but those who are seem to scoff at the idea.
But, in a sense, that’s what makes the experience more exciting. Even if the wine you’re sipping may not be the finest in the world, it almost feels like you’re taking part in a journey to that end.
And, besides, who amongst your friends can say that they’ve indulged in a Burmese Grenache in the Land of a Thousand Pagodas, or watched the sun set over the Mekong River while sipping a Vietnamese Petite Syrah or Thai Viognier? It’s worth the experience, if for no other reason, just to have these bragging rights.
So if you’re planning a romantic getaway, you’re a wine connoisseur who wants to be able to say you’ve had it all, or just interested in sampling some unique wine in unique destinations, here’s what you should know about wine in Southeast Asia and where to get it.
Khao Yai, Thailand
Believe it or not, there’s more to Thailand than just beaches and jungle. In fact, Thailand is home to what many consider to be Southeast Asia’s most promising wine region. Most of the wine production is centered on an area known as the Phurua Highlands of Khao Yai, Isaan –an area which also happens to be world-famous for its wildlife. With a climate that closely approximates the south of France, with considerably less rainfall than the rest of Thailand, conditions here are said to be ideal for classic varietals.
After a few years of experimentation, the area’s first and most well-renowned winery, GranMonte Asoke Valley Winery produced its first premium vintage in 1998. It has, since then, refined its techniques and is said to have state-of-the-art facilities capable of producing world-class wine –mostly Syrah, Petit Syrah, Tempranillo, Chenin Blanc and Viognier.
The production, though, is mostly geared at satiating the demand of Thailand’s rising middle and upper-class, with a mere 20% of its output reserved for export –so if you’re keen to try some, you’ll probably have to head to Thailand to do it!
Inle Lake, Burma
Burma is relative newcomer to the game, only producing its first marketable wines in 2010 after a lengthy trial of some 10,000 vines imported from France. But while Burma is new to the game, it may very well be the region’s dark horse.
In an area known as Red Mountain, a mere 20 kilometers away from the thriving (and amazing) tourist center of Inle Lake in the Shan State, Red Mountain Estate is already producing wines that are praised by critics as being on-par with the Old World wines of Europe. Sitting at around 1200 meters in elevation, its cool climate is said to give the grapes a distinct and pleasant aroma.
Red Mountain’s 2010 Sauvignon Blanc received an 83 out of 100 from acclaimed critic Jeannie Cho Lee – a score high enough to earn it a bronze medal in the World’s Best Chardonnay Competition in 2013. Red Mountain is also highly acclaimed for its Muscat, and produced 11 different wines in all, including a fantastic Pinot Noir that the author can personally vouch for.
The winery has become a popular attraction with tourists in the area. Complete with a visitor center and its very own resort, it has a surprisingly pleasant atmosphere that will be sure to add some variety to your Burma Tour. It’s exceedingly easy to pair a trip to the utterly astounding Inle Lake with a visit to the winery for a sample of its offerings. As of now, Burmese wines are sold in Burma and nowhere else –so it’s a unique opportunity!
With a long-established and well-known French influence, it should come as no surprise that Vietnam is home to a viable wine industry. The cool mountainous highland region of Dalat, not far from the renowned beaches of Nha Trang, is area that is known for its favorable growing conditions for wine.
While there has been a push in recent years by the country’s more reputable brands such as Premiere Vang Dalat and Dalat Wine Company to produce higher caliber vintages, the market in Vietnam is mostly dominated by table variety wines which are known to be slightly sweeter and a bit less sophisticated than other wines in Southeast Asia.
The upside of this is that wine in Vietnam is incredibly cheap and, if you’re in the mood for it, can set the stage for a fun night with family or friends –not exactly a connoisseur’s dream, but not bad if you want to try something different. You can even pair your Vietnamese wine with some surprisingly delicious locally produced Russian caviar in Dalat at a variety of hotels and restaurants in the area.
Wine experts will find something to love in Asia – the perfect combination with a food-focused tour through Vietnam, Thailand or Myanmar. Ask our travel experts to find out how to include these wine capitals in your next journey – just tell us in your request for a customised tour quote!