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World drinks up Myanmar wines

** FOR USE WITH AP WEEKLY FEATURES ** A Buddhist novice monk walks through the vineyards of the Aythaya estate, the first winery in Myanmar, Sunday, Jan. 21, 2007 in Aythaya, Myanmar. The young orphan monks live nearby in a monastery that is supported by the winery. (AP Photo/Denis Gray)
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MYNAMAR – The landscape could well be mistaken for the rolling, sun-drenched hills of Tuscany.But the monasteries perched on hilltops are Buddhist. And the workers aren’t Italians with centuries of viticulture coursing through their veins, but Asian farmers new to the grape at Myanmar’s first winery.Started by a German entrepreneur, the Aythaya estate has been producing reds, whites and roses since 2004 and is preparing for a leap forward in both output and quality, with exports also on the horizon.They’re among the latest, so-called “new latitude wines,” springing up outside the industry’s traditional heartland in places as far afield as Brazil, India and Thailand where vintners hope one day to match the excellence of the classics.”Had I not been convinced that we can make a quality wine up in our mountains, I would not have started the project,” said Bert Morsbach, who not only had to tread on viticulturally uncharted terrain but faced political risks in a military-run country shunned by many foreign investors.

“That was a gamble, I must admit,” he said. “But so far the government has been very cooperative and it looks as if this is going to stay that way.”Having started several successful enterprises in Southeast Asia – he pioneered sailboarding in Thailand – Morsbach hatched the idea of Myanmar wines in 1997, consulting experts who concurred that the project had a “high survival chance.”Experimentation followed on various vines – imported mainly from France, Germany and Italy – and a site was selected in hills above the spectacular Inle Lake of Shan State in eastern Myanmar, also known as Burma.Morsbach, originally a mining engineer from Dusseldorf, and his chief wine maker Hans Leiendecker say growing conditions on their 23.5-acre vineyard are excellent, with the limestone soil not unlike that found in Tuscany and southern France and a climate similar to California’s wine country.The rainfall is moderate and the 4,260-foot elevation, making Aythaya probably the highest vineyard in Asia, brings cool temperatures that can fall to as low as 41 degrees Fahrenheit on a winter night.”A huge asset in our favor: 150 days of sunshine,” Morsbach adds.While Aythaya’s wines aren’t about to knock the Romanee-Contis or Mouton Rothchilds of this world off the shelves, they’ve already garnered some good reviews.One Thailand-based wine critic, David Swartzentruber, wrote of its 2004 Sauvignon blanc: “This wine should worry France. Here is a wine produced in Asia that possesses all the attributes of a good Bordeaux white.”Another wine expert in Thailand, R. James Mullen, praises the 2006 rose, noting its “flower notes with a touch of sweetness, perfect balance and perfect finish, reminiscent of the really top French roses which are genuine food companions.”From Italian Moscato grape, rose is the winery’s top seller, regarded as most appropriate to a tropical climate and the best partner to Myanmar curries and other Asian food.”For Asia we are at a good quality level. For Europe it’s not good enough yet, but the potential is here,” says Leiendecker, who arrived here recently, seeking a new challenge after 16 years as technical director of Weingut Dr. H. Thanisch, producer of some of Germany’s finest wines.

The hurdles remaining are not in the field, he said, but in the winery where more equipment is needed, principally oak wood barrels now being imported to increase storage capacity and allow for maturing of the wines, especially the reds.The estate, which employs 35 increasingly competent Myanmar staffers, hasn’t been able to meet the market demand and will be increasing its production to 100,000 bottles this year from only 20,000 in 2004. Additional grapes will be grown by contract farmers, who Leiendecker says are eager to get into the new business.Most of Aythaya’s wine is now snapped up by the foreign tourist industry. While a growing number of Myanmar people are beginning to enjoy the beverage there is no traditional wine culture in the country.”The government is pleased with us. It takes a nationalistic pride that now Burma has its own wine,” says Leiendecker, who signed up for a five-year stay.For 69-year-old Morsbach, who plans to retire in Myanmar, the enterprise is a labor of love and a long-term commitment. He and a group of German friends have already invested some $1.5 million and are expanding tourist-attracting facilities at the winery which already include five guest rooms, a restaurant and swimming pool.They also rebuilt a derelict Buddhist orphanage adjacent to the vineyard and are supporting more than 80 orphans there. Among locals the children’s home is still better known than the winery, so tourists looking for the estate are advised to ask directions for the “vineyard orphanage.”


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