Do you know Vietnamese wine?

Wine in Vietnam ?! Unthinkable, I was told at the time of preparing for the project. And yet, there are no fewer than twenty estates… and a few million bottles produced every year (1). I decided to go there, with the invaluable help of Raymond Ringhoff, CEO of Vietnam Wine Tours – the only company in the country specializing in wine tourism.
Direction Dalat, the biggest region of production, in the north of the country.

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Getting off the plane, I was awaited by Mr Huang The Hung, a lovely local guide, who was going to join me on this journey to help me with translation and winery visits. Indispensable in Vietnam.

Dalat, the headquarters of the Vietnamese production

From the airport, it took us no less than four hours to drive to Dalat, 180km inland. The city is perched at 1700 meters above sea level. Walking along the winding and damaged roads, the succession of wild landscapes through which we passed was breathtaking. Rice fields, forests, rivers, mountains, coffee plantations.

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I was so happy. Even the dampness in the air, which literally sticks ones clothes to ones skin, couldn’t alter the wonder that animated me.

The end of the road was reached by nightfall. Suddenly, thousands of white dots began to shine in the dark, following us along the road. It seemed like we were in a Japanese cartoon. As if a colony of fireflies had taken up residence in the mountain… The moment was magical. Quasi mystical. But what is it, then? These are the heating lamps used to grow flowers in greenhouses in the region, my guide explained. Dalat, with its more temperate climate, is renowned for its floral cultures. I laughed at so much naivety on my part.

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The next day, we visited Dalat Beco, one of the country’s flagship estates, which was set up in 2000. With 670,000 bottles produced each year, Dalat Beco‘s team confided in me that they are part of the medium-sized Vietnamese estates. One grape variety dominates the vineyards here: Cardinal. Its particularity: it is vinified in white as well as in red!

Visiting the bottling site, I was curious about not seeing any vineyards around the estate and questioned my hosts. “There was a vineyard a few miles from here: a failure, because of the altitude. Everything is now produced at the coast, three hours from here. The grapes are transported by truck to Dalat”, they explained.

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Purchases are made exclusively from farmers. Why not relocate the production in this case? Simply because “the altitude of Dalat ensures optimum conditions for the fermentation and the ageing of the wines”.
In this part of the world with an extreme climate, up to three harvests are done per year. Consequently, the vine never rests and its life expectancy does not exceed 8 years (one can grow vines for up to 15 years if grafted onto a rootstock). As in Bali, one can thus make wine all year round, simply by spacing the periods of pruning on different plots. This allows the wineries to have cooler and non-vintage wines.

Ladora Winery, based on the “wine from grapes” initiative

Before 1976 – and the independence of Vietnam – a production of liqueur and fruit wine, managed by the French excisted.

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It was not until 1998, however, that the first grape plantations appeared, under the impetus of Ladora Winery. In 1999, Vietnam’s first “wine from grapes” was born (in a tropical environment, grapes can be harvested from the second year).

The estate is both imposing and impressive, with its immense stainless steel tanks installed indoors and outdoors, and produce more than 2.5 million bottles per year. Upon entering the winery, it is compulsory to wear a white coat, a hygienic hat and protective footwear : Ladora Winery strictly applies the standards of European production. And I felt it in the wines, which are more homogeneous than elsewhere.

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A Skype session was organized with the management of the group, Ladofoods (also a producer of cashew nuts), based in Ho Chi Minh City, the capital. A fun and original situation. Here I was, having a discussion on a big screen with Sir Nguyen Hun Thuy (General Manager) and Nguyen Tran Quang (Senior Advisor of the BOD). I learned that Château Dalat, created in 2013, is the premium brand of the group. It includes international grape varieties such as Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. A clear commitment to quality. And a step forward towards a more modern viticulture.

A vineyard at sea level

Whether Dalat Beco, Ladora Winery or any other winery of Dalat, the vineyards are all located in the coastal area of Ning Thuan, 130km away, at sea level.

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Only this part of Vietnam seems to give convincing results for vine cultivation. It is also the hottest region in the country. Today, while visiting some vineyards of Ning Thuan, it was “only” 30°C in the air. Temperatures easily reach 36°C at this time of the year.

I learned that Ning Thuan was very busy until the 2000s. The opening of new, more attractive regions, emptied the coast of its tourists. As a result, this partially abandoned region, with deserted beaches has a ghostly atmosphere. Strange. Whatever, the vineyards that faced us were beautiful.

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Ladora Winery has planted 20 hectares of Vitis vinifera for its great cuvées. The rest of the parcels, planted with Cardinal grapes, correspond to contracts with local farmers.

I met with the owners of My Hoa, one of the few family micro-estates in Vietnam, started in 2000. This craft production, made at the back of the house, is unpretentious but of great charm. Here, the wine ferments quietly in small plastic tanks. The family is as discreet as they are lovely. « We are far from the big productions of the country. » They have 2 hectares of vines, mostly planted with Cardinal and with a little NH01-48, an unnamed white local hybrid.

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The vineyard is planted with a pergola system, 1.5 meters from the ground, allowing work to be done at the height of man.

We tasted the white wine, made 100% from the grape variety NH01-48. The beverage was served fresh, with ice cubes. Why not. The mouth was sweet and had a sour taste, but went well with the boiled chicken served during lunch, to my surprise. I tasted the red wine with a little rice alcohol added. A harsh and unusual taste for the taste buds of a Westerner. “That’s how men drink it here”, Miss Hoa explained to me, laughing.

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The estate seems to experience great success: to satisfy the demand, the Hoa family plans to plant another hectare of vines next year, behind the house, in place of the current rice field. Like what, the taste of any wine is the world is always suited to local taste buds. And this must be respected.

We finished the meal – and the journey in Vietnam – with the discovery of Vú sữa (also called Chrysophyllum cainit), a green fruit in the shape of an apple, with a milky appearance inside, and whose pulpit, delicious and juicy, has a taste of almonds and ripe white fruit.

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A delight ! To be discovered exclusively in this country.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

Thank you to Dalat BecoLadora Winery and My Hoa for their warm welcome. Thank you to Raymond Ringhoff, CEO of Vietnam Wine Tours, for having helped, guided and advised me in the organization of this great trip. Finally, thank you to my friend Denis Gastin for introducing me to Raymond.

(1) Although it is complicated to have the exact figures of viticulture in Vietnam, it is estimated that there are about 20 estates, for an annual production exceeding 10 million bottles.

Cambodia, the newcomer on the Asian wine map

Having left Burma early in the morning and after a full day of traveling with three planes (Heho-Mandalay, Mandalay-Bangkok, Bangkok-Siem Reap), I was very excited about landing in Cambodia. I heard that there is a small vineyard lost in the Battambang countryside and I planned to get my hands on it!

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Where is it? What does it look like ? Why having planted vines in Cambodia? So many questions that I looked forward to finding answers to… Onwards for a most incredible exploration off the beaten track.

A well hidden vineyard

Do you believe in good luck? Personally, I do. Whenever I found myself back against the wall during this great adventure, I always had the good fortune of meeting someone who got me back on track. For that, I am grateful every morning.

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My Cambodian star was Visooth Lohitnavy (owner of the GranMonte estate in Thailand whom I met three weeks earlier). He met with Mr. Chan Thaychheoung, the owner of the famous Cambodian estate, a few years ago and offered to put us in touch. What luck!

After a brief exchange in summarized, but effective English, here I was, disembarked in Siem Reap only knowing that I had to take a bus the next day to Battambang. That’s all. I did not know where or what time to take the bus. The staff at the guest house in which I stayed for the night did not speak English. I was sent to the neighboring laundry, where the owner seemed to be in the habit of referring travelers. “It costs $6 to Battambang, with a bus leaving at 10am”.

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The next day, a mini bus picked me up. It was filled with a dozen friendly travelers. I learned that we all paid a different price, between $5 and $7. Anyway… We headed towards the railway station at the exit of the city – because buses are prohibited in Siem Reap. After 200 km, in somewhat chaotic traffic under a lead sun and 4h30 of road travel later, I arrived with an almost 2h delay to a “bus stop”, which was nothing but a small shop literally lost in the middle of nowhere.
I hoped that I was in the right place and that my hosts will have had the patience to wait for me.

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Outside, a dozen Cambodians craned on the side of the road, carrying placards at arm’s length, all promoting their Guest Houses. A little further away, Mr. Chan Thaychheoung and his son Chan Senghong were waiting for me with big smiles. What a welcome ! We did not know one another yet, but I already loved this family. They emited such positive energy.
So the wine adventure finally began. And begins with a memorable dinner.

Chan Thay Chhoeung Winery, the only one

Mr Chan Thaychheoung has such a touching story. Loving wine since the age of 21, he decided at the time to buy twenty vines, which he tried to grow in his garden. Failure. Putting his dream aside, he became a farmer, and like many other producers in the region, he grew oranges. But the competition was tough.

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So he began to think : he wanted to grow different fruit from those of the other Cambodian farmers. He then remembered his unsuccessful attempt to grow grapes in his youth. He decided to go against the current by growing grapes – something unique in this country.

Mr Chan Thaychheoung started out cautiously with 9 plants of the red Black Queen variety. Just to see… He succeeded with his first vintage in 2004, with a few bottles produced for friends and family. This was a revelation. Chan Thay Chhoeung Winery was born. In stride, he planted 3 hectares of Black Queen and a few vines of Shiraz, a grape variety which he particularly likes. A significant cost and a risky bet : he invested all his savings.

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A tireless worker, he gradually enlarged his vineyard, always reinvesting every penny of his limited capital. In 2013, he bought Shiraz plants from Israel and planted 3 additional hectares. Today he has 10 hectares.
At the moment the equipment is modest. The wine is vinified in glass bottles. It doesn’t matter, Rome was not built in one day. They have just invested in 3 stainless steel tanks made in China for next year, with a total production capacity of 7,000L. Step by step.

Fruit juice, education and pedagogy

This year, the rainy season was very intense and the harvest was not good enough.

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As a result no wine was produced and instead organic grape juice made from 100% Syrah, which delights the taste buds and which I enjoyed a lot, was produced.

We also tasted the wine production of last year. An atypical wine, also from the Syrah grape variety and far from European standards. But which within context and accompanied by a few ice cubes (it is a custom here), refreshes the palate and pairs very well with the local dishes made from fermented vegetables.

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Mr Chan Thaychheoung showed me with great pride the educational garden he created in front of his house. A true open-air museum, where the Cambodians come to admire the vine, a plant which was unknown to them before.

“It is important that we educate local people by showing them what a vine looks like and how a grape bunch grows”. A real success, where each of the visiting tourists seemed really enthusiastic, always having a glass of straw syrah juice.

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And there’s something for everyone here. We even met a group of curious monks who came to discover this new attraction, which is as playful as it is essential. Congratulations!

Bambou Train & Angkor: two must-sees

A bit of fun this weekend before leaving for Vietnam, aboard the “bamboo train”, a must-see attraction in the Battambang area which I was pleased to discover with the Chan family. It is a kind of motorized railway made up of a bamboo platform, which in the ’70s made it possible for the personnel responsible for maintaining the railway lines to get around, and then in the 80s to bring soldiers and their allies to the front.

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What gives it its charm and undeniable attractiveness to tourists from around the world, is it being a single rail for two directions of traffic. Suddenly, when meeting another train arriving from the opposite direction, the train stops and is dismounted to let the other train pass. And at a maximum speed of 50km/h, it jolts a lot. Best to keep a hand on ones hat.

Another unmistakable and most spectacular place is Angkor, in Siem Reap, with its temples, classified as a world heritage by UNESCO. Rise at dawn (the purchase counters open at 5am and are taken by assault), for an unforgettable and magical experience.

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Seeing the sun rising over the temple of Angkor Wat – the largest temple in the complex – is a unique moment. The gigantic columns of this edifice sculpted on all sides is a mystic sight to behold. The world is so beautiful when viewed from this angle…

Cambodia (still) presents many difficulties for wine making : extreme temperatures, a rainy season in summer accompanied by high and constant humidity. Not to mention a lack of access to advanced equipment. Whatever. The Chan family has the guts to make wine here, and everything is sold on the spot, and in addition to this, people come back. Every wine can find a shoe that fits.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

Thank you to Mr Chan Thaychheoung and his family for their extraordinary hospitality and for opening their house to me with such kindness. Thank you to his son, Chan Senghong, for being such a good guide and the great opportunity to discover the magic of Battambang. Finally, thanks to Visooth Lohitnavy (owner of the GranMonte estate in Thailand), for his valuable con