Pioneering winemaker looks to make history in Burma

Blog Laos Myanmar
A worker collects grapes in a plastic bin at Aythaya wine estate in Aythaya, near Taunggyi, the capital of northeastern Shan state, Myanmar
A worker collects grapes in a plastic bin at Aythaya wine estate in Aythaya, near Taunggyi, the capital of northeastern Shan state, Myanmar

When a democratically elected Burma president takes office this week after decades of military rule, some will be toasting the historic moment with a beverage decidedly not paired with this tropical, Southeast Asian nation: surprisingly high-quality, locally produced wine.

They might pour themselves an Aythaya Sauvignon blanc (“internationally competitive,” says one wine critic), a Shiraz-based red (“marvelous improvement over initial vintages”) or start off with a refreshing sparkling rose.

These all stem from Burma’s first winery, a pioneering effort by German entrepreneur Bert Morsbach, who overcame both political minefields and viticulturally virgin terrain to find himself catering to a growing middle class and booming tourism, which together create more demand than he can currently satisfy. He doesn’t even have enough left over for export.

Morsbach’s Aythaya estate could be mistaken for a corner of Provence or California’s wine country, in a verdant valley tucked into the Shan Hills of northeastern Burma, and at 1,300 metres probably the highest vineyard in Asia. Visitors, including a number of young Burmese, sample its wines at his restaurant with panoramic sunset views over the gently undulating vineyard.

The harvests haven’t come easily. A genial onetime mining engineer, Morsbach was among just a handful of individual foreign businessmen in the 1990s operating in a largely isolated country where a xenophobic military regime made the rules. One minister, he says, simply appropriated an earlier venture. And Morsbach had no experience in winemaking, never mind doing it under tropical conditions.

“It was full of obstacles, adverse conditions, but it was a chance to do something new. That was the challenge and it had a reasonable chance of success,” says the 78-year-old Morsbach, whose resume includes building factories in the United States, advising the Laos government and introducing sailboarding to Asia.

In the first year of full production, 2004, the estate managed just 20,000 bottles. This has soared to as many as 200,000 bottles in recent years, and Morsbach says he is about to open another plant with a 1-million-bottle capacity. He needs far more grapes than those grown on contract by 30 families and his current harvest from the 8-hectare Aythaya vineyard.

Wine consumption in Burma is minuscule, so, Morsbach exults, the potential in the country of 52 million is immense.

“We are still working on our first glass,” says Hans-Eduard Leiendecker, Ayuthaya’s head winemaker, referring to statistics showing that Burmese, per capita, drink just one-tenth of a glass of wine per year. Compare that to eight bottles of wine per year for Americans, 18 for Germans and 35 for the French.

Leiendecker grew up on a family vineyard in Germany’s Moselle region and spent 24 years in the European wine business. Like Morsbach, he was looking for a new challenge and took a big pay cut to come to Burma.

“Today, there is still no real wine culture in Burma. It needs one generation. It takes time,” he says. “Some Burmese still drink wine like it was a soft drink, finding themselves under the table in 15 minutes.”

Nonetheless, sophistication is slowly bubbling up among Aythaya’s prime customers: the expanding middle class. “If you want to show that you have arrived in society, you sit in a restaurant with a glass of wine in your hand, not beer,” Morsbach says.

The winemakers are also hopeful that wine and democracy will prove a good marriage, further spurring their enterprise.

Once the right contacts were made and the bureaucratic barriers breached, they say operating a 70-year-lease under the military regime has actually proved satisfactory. But Leienecker says reforms are still needed since foreign businesses face onerous restrictions, including an inability to secure loans if, like Morsbach’s enterprise, they are 100 percent foreign-owned.

“We should hope that the new government will bring in international standards of doing business,” Leienecker says of the April 1 regime change to a government led by democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The main challenge ahead is to shore up enough profits to allow for the investment needed to turn out truly outstanding “new latitude wines,” those vintages coming from non-traditional wine-producing countries like Brazil, India and Thailand where the grape is not a native plant.

Aythaya found only seven of the more than 50 classical grape varieties able to adapt to the tropics, where daylight is shorter and the fungus-bearing rains are longer and more intense than in wine-producing Mediterranean climates.

Morsbach says they’ve successfully wrestled with such problems and conditions are otherwise excellent, especially for white wines. Some critics agree, with R. James Mullen, veteran wine writer for Thailand’s The Nation newspaper, saying the sauvignon blanc “would hold up to almost any on the international market.”

“I am convinced that one day Myanmar can make the best wine in Asia,” Morsbach says. “It’s my karma.