We continued our Asian trip by visiting the inescapable and fascinating Burma, a wonderful country of picturesque beauty. Nestled in the mountains, on the shores of Inle Lake, the only two Burmese wineries are hidden – as discreet as it is intriguing.
En route to a colourful journey, accompanied by my friend and oenologist Amélie Mornex, who has true passion for Asian viticulture.
Mandalay and its positive energy
We arrived in Mandalay, the capital, under a crushing sun, a lot of dust and among omnipresent poverty : I had the impression of having taken a 50 years leap back in time. Only 30% of the households here are connected to electricity (2). Despite this, the people that we met all had a big smile on their lips and a palpable joie de vivre in their eyes. It was heartwarming.
We paced the streets of the city astride a bike with two seats back to back and driven by a local guide. Amelie in front, facing the direction of the road, and I in the back, facing the traffic. A very convenient way to admire the landscape.
Nothing could be more agreeable than dining along the river Irrawaddy, where boats, canoes and other makeshift boats unload thousands of canvas bags filled with food, in an unceasing and steady flow, in a fashion as organized as an ant-hill. We met a couple of German tourists who arrived from Munich and we decided to share a dinner together at sunset. The place was beautiful, devoid of anything artificial. Many families live here in precarious wooden shelters, barefoot in the sand, dust and rubbish.
Facing us, the laundry dried on bamboo palisades. Children were playing in the sand. The younger ones had their bottocks in the air,a few pigs grazing among them, looking for something to eat in the trash. Some inhabitants were soaping up in the river, it was time for us to take a shower too.
The next day at dawn, we departed by plane to Hého, 230km to the south: it was the easiest way to reach the two vineyards, considering the condition of the roads (it would take a day by bus to get there). We left at 6am. It was still dark outside and the spectacle in the streets of the city was something to behold, it had an almost mystical element to it: dozens of bare feet monks, draped in violet tunics, were in search of food offerings for their one and only meal of the day(3). A highly respected ancestral ritual in Burma.
Aythaya, the Burmese pioneer
It was cool outside when we got off the plane. Quite nice. We were 1200 meters above sea level on the slopes of the Taunggyi Mountains.
It is here that Berth Morsbach, a German who specializes in tropical crops, created Aythaya (Myanmar Estate) in 1998, the first winery of Burma. A major challenge, he remembers, in a country with no wine culture and hostile weather conditions… The place is beautiful!
With its ecological bungalows facing a vineyard as flowery as it is impeccable and its restaurant mixing delicious traditional dishes and world class cuisine, Myanmar Estate is a privileged place of the high Burmese bureaucracy.
Hans Leiendecker, the director and oenologist of the estate – also German and a graduate of the prestigious University of Geisenheim – gave an exciting explanation of the different production sites.
In total, 10 hectares are owned by Aythaya and the equivalent under contract, spread all over the country, up to 800km of the winery:
-some in the north, at 1200 meters above sea level, along the Kyan Hnyat River, a favorable area for red grape varieties;
– some in Loikaw, to the east, at 850 meters above sea level, where Bert had established the first basmati rice plantation in the country in 1986;
-some in Mektila and Yamethin, in the center of the country, where the largest production of table grapes from Burma is also to be found;
-and some at Mount Popa, 300 meters above sea level, an ancient volcano in the center of the country which exploded about 400 years BC with very fertile soils.
On this February morning, Sauvignon Blanc arrived at the estate in small boxes.
The grapes were beautifu and destined to be used for the Shan Panya Brut cuvée, a refreshing and very aromatic sparkling wine ; perfect for an aperitif.
A most complex tropical viticulture
At Aythaya, Hans is well aware of the difficulties in producing Vitis vinifera in a tropical climate. This is why the grass is cut very flat here: to protect the vines from moisture. There is always a minimum of 20% humidity during the day and usually around 90% humidity at night. Result: in Burma you can have vine diseases – like powdery mildew – without even having rain! This year, for the first time, they even saw botrytis. “We’d better grow mushrooms”, Hans said laughing.
For him, tropical countries will never be real wine-producing countries. Growing conditions are too complex and the cost of production is twice as high. “It is impossible to make organic wine for example, with twenty to twenty-two sprays per year needed, compared with seven to eight on average in Europe“. This is the other side of the coin. “If there are only two wineries in Myanmar, it is maybe because there is reason”, he added.
As for the local fauna, it is better to be vigilant. It is not uncommon to encounter black-necked spitting cobras, white-lipped pit vipers (green snakes that look like branches in the grass), or pythons, lost between the rows of vines.
I suddenly realized that I was wearing flip-flops walking in the vineyard… Not very smart.
Red Mountain Estate
A very pretty estate at the top of a small hill overlooking Inle Lake and facing the Paung Paing mountain range, Red Mountain was created in 2003, under the expertise of the French oenologist François-Xavier Raynal – who established the vineyard and managed it until 2015.
Divided into two sites, the vineyard of 75 hectares has been the laboratory of many experiments. International varieties such as Petit Verdot, Macabeu, Alicante Bouschet, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and even Merlot were quickly abandoned due to the lack of mature grapes.
Red Mountain is now focusing on Sauvignon Blanc, Muscat à petits grains, Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay in white ; Shiraz, Carignan, Pinot Noir and Tempranillo in red.
“We are focusing on one harvest per year, for a production of about 160,000 bottles”, according to the young and very sympathetic oenologist Naw Naw Aye, who took over the winemaking this year. An important challenge for her, because after a few years spent doing marketing at Red Moutain, Naw Naw is starting from scratch on the wine side. She has just returned from a one-year apprenticeship at the Suze la Rousse University (France), where she learned a few basics.
Her teacher, Marie-Josée Richaud, came to Red Mountain for a month especially to encourage her pupil, whose first harvest was about to start a few days later. We wish her all the best in this great adventure!
Discovering Inle Lake
Since the two Burmese vineyards are located only a few minutes away from the famous Inle Lake, we took the opportunity to discover it, on board of a canoe.
Sailing the banks of the lake at sunset, we admired the fishing villages on stilts. On small, long, narrow boats, the fishermen have an acrobatic and a most original style: one leg wrapped around a paddle to advance with circular movements, the other leg on the prow to keep balance.
A boat approached us. Two fishermen literally posed for us. In the end, they asked us for some money… I refused politely. The fishermen turned around without resentment, immediately heading to another tourist boat.
We concluded our wonderful stay in Burma at the beautiful ViewPoint Lodge & Fine Cuisines hotel, where we were welcomed by our friend Arno Di Biase. The place was idyllic: wooden bungalows on stilts, a spa, welcome cocktails on the terrace… here every little detail counts and makes the stay unforgettable.
We enjoyed a last moment of relaxation at the SPA of the hotel, with an application of thanaka on the face, a cream obtained from bark of trees. It hydrates the skin and protects it from the sun. It was very pleasant and refreshing. Children, women and the elderly put thanaka on their faces every morning. You should try it too.
Thank you to Aythaya (Myanmar Estate) and Red Moutain estate for their warm welcome. Thank you to Hans Leiendecker for having helped us on our travels in the country. Thank you to my friend Amélie Mornex for having accompanied me so well in this country that she knows like her pocket. And finally, thanks to Arno Di Biase, director of the ViewPoint Lodge & Fine Cuisines, for having hosted us in his beautiful establishment and for his valuable role as a guide in the streets of Nyaungshwe.
(1) There are apparently two to three new vineyard projects in the country, according to local sources, but no one is sure that this will succeed.
(2) To make some money, Burma sells some of its electricity to China and Thailand.
(3) Monks have until 11am to eat. Then they have to wait until the next day before taking their next meal.