Myanmar's wineries are a hidden gem high up in the mountains
After decades of sanctions, Myanmar recently reopened to tourism in 2011. That gives international travelers countless activities to discover in the destination, from walking the longest teak bridge in the world, to hiking the sandstone caves in the Po Win Taung.
But perhaps the most unexpected venture in this Southeast Asian country is wine tasting.
Myanmar possesses only two wine estates, both located near Inle Lake, which is famous for their Intha fisherman who row standing up with one leg, while manipulating their conical fishing nets.
“A majority of international visitors are not aware that Myanmar produces wine, which makes wine tasting in Myanmar a largely undiscovered experience,” said Nyein Moe, a travel director with Trafalgar.
Myanmar is a tropical region, which can be a disadvantage for wine grapes: Monsoons can damage vines, summer days in the region are shorter than in Europe (eight hours compared to 10 to 12), and there is plenty of heat and humidity.
“The heat issue is a problem because grapes will burn; and the humidity is an even bigger problem because fungus can destroy wine grapes,” said Keith Wallace, president and founder of the Wine School of Philadelphia.
Myanmar winemakers have planted these vineyards where they are largely protected from heat and humidity: in the mountains, at an altitude of 3,940 feet.
Myanmar’s Dawna Range is a 30-minute drive from Inle Lake. In the range's upper valleys temperatures average around 85 degrees Fahrenheit during the day, and the shorter days are compensated by a longer growing season before the monsoons arrive.
There is not enough wine production for export, so tourists must visit the country itself to buy and sample Myanmar wines.
n order to reach the first winery in Myanmar, Aythaya, travelers face a winding drive up the hills that eventually reaches Taunggyi, the capital of Shan State.
On tours of the vineyards, guides explain the vineyard's terroir, or characteristics of the land that factor into the wine.
The wine tasting at Aythaya is conducted in the Sunset Wine Garden restaurant, where the sun sets over the vineyards and valley for an otherworldly feel. Many of the grapes that go into the wine have foreign origins: Dornfelder grapes from Germany, Tempranillo grapes from the Rioja Valley in Spain.
The flavor of the fruity red Moscato belies its Italian origin. The Sauvignon Blanc is produced from grapes originating from France's Bordeaux region and Loire Valley. The restaurant serves a combination of western and Myanmar food, like fish in banana leaves and mutton balls with brussel sprouts.
The only other winery in the country, Red Mountain, has vineyards near Inle Lake in Taung Che and Myay Phyu. All 400,000 plants have been imported from France and Spain, after careful selection and experimentation of grapes growing in the region.
Some of the wines produced at Red Mountain include Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir. By 2012, the estate was producing 120,000 bottles annually, around 30% white and 70% red wines.
Visitors to the Red Mountain Estate can try dishes local to this mountainous region, while taking in the sweeping views of the Inle Valley.