Growing Grapes in the Golden Land

By Samantha Michaels 28 December 2013

YANGON — It’s half a world away, but there’s something about Shan State that reminds Bert Morsbach of his native Germany, where the hills in winemaking regions undulate with vineyards.

“Whenever I go through southern Germany, all the mountains are full of grapes,” says the winemaker, who more than a decade ago trod uncharted terrain by establishing the first ever vineyard in Myanmar. “In Shan State, in our area, in 10 to 20 years it will look like this.”

With its humid climate, Myanmar has never been known as a wine country, and when Mr. Morsbach got the idea to set up a vineyard here, very little was known about tropical viticulture. Unlike Europe, Myanmar and other Southeast Asian countries experience an annual monsoon season, leaving grape harvests vulnerable to pests and fungal diseases that thrive in humidity.

“That’s why there was no wine in Myanmar for the past 150 years,” says Mr. Morsbach. “The British tried, as did the French—here, in Thailand and in China—but they all gave up because of the rain and the fungus attacks.”

Another issue was sunlight. Wine grapes typically fare best with long days, but while the summer sun sets at about 9-10 pm in parts of Europe, Myanmar’s daylight hours end at about 6-7 pm throughout the year.

But these problems did not faze Mr. Morsbach. Originally from Dusseldorf in Germany’s west, he had already pioneered other ventures in Asia—including a windsurfing company in Thailand and an organic basmati rice business in Myanmar in the 1990s. The latter venture enjoyed solid exports but was taken away by the former military regime, so he decided to branch out again. “I thought, if the country has 150 sunny days, it must be possible to grow wine,” he says.

And he was right. His winery, about 25 km north of the famous Inle Lake, produces an international-standard brand of reds, whites and rosés known as Aythaya that can be found in local stores and restaurants. With a successful harvest in 2004, it became Myanmar’s first winery and remains one of only a handful of wine producers in the country today.

Far from the European vineyards of France, Germany, Italy and Portugal—and from the New World growers of Argentina, Australia, Chile, New Zealand and the United States—Aythaya has allowed Myanmar to join a list of so-called “new latitude” wine countries, including Brazil, India, China and Thailand, that fall outside the traditional wine-producing heartlands.

But jumpstarting production in Shan State wasn’t easy. The first trick was finding grapes that could withstand the climate. Nearly all of Europe’s classic wine grapes—including merlot, pinot noir and chardonnay—grew poorly in Myanmar.

Mr. Morsbach had studied as a mining engineer in Germany and lacked formal training in winemaking, but with help from some of the world’s few tropical viticulturists, he set out to find a selection of suitable grapes. Of about 100 varieties tested over five years, half a dozen survived. Among the lucky reds were shiraz, cabernet sauvignon, tempranillo from Spain and dornfelder from Germany, while the winning whites were sauvignon blanc and chenin blanc.

In 1998 he established a winery in Loikaw, the capital of Kayah State, but after importing thousands of vines from Europe, he was forced to relocate due to fighting between ethnic rebels and the government. “I had to give up because my safety was not guaranteed anymore by the local Kayah State authorities,” he says. He had grown rice in neighboring Shan State and knew the region offered a major perk: less rain, with about a third of Yangon’s annual rainfall. A high elevation with cooler weather would also be ideal for growing grapes, so the winery was moved near the southern Shan State town of Aythaya, at an elevation of more than 1,200 meters.

Mistakes were common in the early days. “We were throwing away our wine for two or three years,” says Mr. Morsbach, recalling the unsuccessful harvests. Slowly, however, the project came together. About half the grapes were grown at the winery, while more than 1,000 farmers in the central Myanmar area of Meikhtila were contracted to grow the rest, as they had already been harvesting table grapes, which have a lower sugar content.

From 20,000 bottles in 2004, the winery—known as the Myanmar 1st Vineyard Estate—produced 120,000 bottles in 2012. While some bottles are exported to China, most customers are local. Foreign tourists dominated sales initially, but Myanmar diners have quickly acquired a taste for wine and now make up the majority of the Aythaya market.

Mr. Morsbach’s brand could see a boost in sales after the Myanmar government recently cracked down on the sale of illegally imported foreign alcohol and wines. Over the past month it has become difficult to find foreign wines in Yangon grocery stores, but it was once possible to pick up a bottle from Italy, France, Australia or the United States for slightly less than the cost of Aythaya, which runs for between 8,000 kyat (US $8.30) and 14,000 kyat per bottle. The higher price was partly due to the production costs for a relatively low yield.

The slight splurge may be worth it. Aythaya has received a number of positive reviews, with one Thailand-based critic praising the 2004 sauvignon blanc as a wine that “should worry France.” Tourists can taste and decide for themselves at the vineyard, which offers guest rooms and a restaurant, while planning is underway to build a second winery next year in Meikhtila, which, with its central location, serves as a crossing point for travelers.

Despite Mr. Morsbach’s lead, winemaking has yet to take off in a big way in the Golden Land, which so far has just one other locally produced and international-standard wine, Red Mountain Estate. Still, some smaller wineries are reportedly springing up, and the German entrepreneur heartily welcomes more. “In Germany we have 20,000 winemakers,” he says. “We can do here with two, three or four.”

A version of this story first appeared in the December 2013 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine. The original has been edited slightly here to reflect recent changes in the government’s policy on imported foreign wine.