Waking up to Asian Wine

Wine tours in Asia will open your eyes and taste buds to the region's new passions

Wine tours in Asia will open your eyes and taste buds to the region’s new passions

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Many countries in Asia grow great grapes that produce even finer wines. As the number of wine consumers in Asia rises, so does the number of wineries blossoming around the region. Also on the rise are tours through the best Asian vineyards, which means travellers, wine-lovers and foodies now have a wealth of choices when it comes to wine holidays in the region.

On a recent pan-Asia wine spin, I was bubbling over with enjoyment with a combination of wines and sights. In fact, a toast is in order for anyone willing to follow the Asian wine trail.  You’ll be thrilled and surprised at what you find.

Wine in China

Although still not at the top of most peoples’ list on top wine destinations, China has begun to climb the ranks when it comes to wines of favour.

With about 0.4 litres per capita of annual wine consumption – compared with France, at 50 litres per person – it is clear that wine is not yet full-centre for the average Chinese person. However, with average earnings on the rise, the popularity of wine is growing faster than the average vine.

Having jumped in wine consumption several times in the last decade, China has already surpassed Japan in terms of the number of wine-drinkers. And I certainly noticed this in some of the bars I visited with friends, where more wine was served than I’d seen on several trips in previous years.

Chinese drinkers opt for reds (about 80%) more often than whites, compared with other nations and Chinese wine drinkers can recommend a number of good local wines, including modern labels such as Dynasty, Changyu and Great Wall, all of which hold up well against some of the Chilean, Australian and European wines.

The Tour

I visited Weihai, a modern yet comfortable city, on the coast east of Yantai, where the peninsula peers out at Korea. Shandong Weal Winery Co., Ltd., which began production in 2007, boasts over 200 hectares of wine grape cultivation and tours can be arranged there, as well as at wineries in Tianjin and Ningxia, lasting from 2-10 days.

Shandong is conspicuous as it is the home of Confucius, not to mention being known as  the birthplace of early Chinese civilization. My tour took us through Jinan, the ‘City of Springs,’ where we steamed like dumplings in the City Springs of China’s hot pools, then took in the Shandong section of the Great Wall of China the next day.

The highlight, however, was the winery tour, which allowed us to see the distinctive three-level Chateau, as well as the many oak barrels in the basement for the aging and maturing of wines. The tastings were surprisingly reminiscent of those I had enjoyed in France, perhaps because the region is on the same latitude as Bordeaux.

I particularly enjoyed the next days’ tastings and tours, as we visited the Nanshangu Junding Winery, the largest in the country, and the tourism-centric Ruishiling Winery, with its many grape fields spanning out amidst lengthy lakes.

One evening was spent in Yantai, where the reputation of China’s culinary capital was borne out; our dinner spread of Jiadong cuisine was a splurge of sauces and fresh fish, vegetables and delightful sweets, the perfect complement to the local wines.

Wine in Vietnam

With a historic connection to France, it’s no great shock to discover that many excellent wines have been available in Vietnam for decades. However, on a tour of the capital, Ho Chi Minh, I found a number of local wines showcased in some shops,  particularly one known as Dalat. The name comes from a winery situated at a Central Highland hill station, where I decided to visit, taking a taxi some 90 minutes from Cam Ranh Bay Airport in Nha Trang.

Like the similarly situated Vinh Tien Wine Company, the Dalat Wine Company (DWC) has been around for years, its vintage produced from densely cropped vines stretching through fairly parched fields. The vineyard was established in late 2003 as a switchover from the state-owned company with the same name. Today, with around 15 million USD of business capital behind it, DWC is the biggest wine-based company in Vietnam.

The Tour

Sampling Vang Dalat (Dalat Red Wine) was a mildly sweet experience. The collection includes table grapes from nearby Phan Rang, the country’s wine growing region. Though not as sublime as those from California’s Napa Valley or South Africa, the smooth textures and bouquets were nonetheless very enjoyable.

A simple sparkling white stood out for me at the tasting, which was hosted by Nguyen Van Viet, a company fixture since he started the vineyard in 1999. The Superior Red (11% alcohol, all grape) elevated things further, then we ended with an interesting blend of mulberry and grape in the strongest red. Some oenophiles would eschew the mulberry addition, but I found it engaging.

Although annual wine production now passes 1.5 million litres in Vietnam, the relatively simple wines – produced to meet the lower budget of the average Vietnamese family – are pleasing but not stunning to the palate, unless you factor in price, and then they certainly kick the competition in the wallet.

Thailand Wine

With a historic blend of cuisines and cultures, Thailand is proud to be earning its place on the list of global wine-producing nations. This, in spite of taxes that are quite punishing compared with those of competing Australian vintners, who profit greatly from the Thai-Australia Free Trade Agreement.

I was lucky enough to have timed my trip during the Wineries Harvest Festival, so I got to experience the history of winemaking in Thailand, as well as the excitement of this industry growing by leaps and bounds.

The Tour

I visited GranMonte Asoke Valley Winery, located in northern Thailand, where cooler temperatures moderate the country’s steamy heat and cooler temperatures create wines of distinction.

The tour took us through the impeccable wine production plant of GranMonte, with rows of stainless steel tanks and panels displaying fermentation progress and temperatures. After the technical experience I must admit I felt like napping in the fields lined with vines of Tempranillo, Duriff (or Petite Sirah) and Granache and their sweet fragrances.

Lunch consisted of a variety of northern Thai dishes, served in the vineyard’s lovely outdoor restaurant, with a special visit by the masters of production: Khun Visooth Lohitnavy, founder of the GranMonte Asoke Valley Winery and former head of the Thai Wine Association, along with his lovely daughter, Nikki. She is Thailand’s only female winemaker, and her dedication is only exceeded by her gentle enthusiasm, evidently passed on from her father.

With unending selections of wines provided by the hosts, we sampled a wide range of grapes and Lanna  (Northern Thailand) flavours, spread out over a number of days. It was sheer pleasure for more than just the tastebuds, and highly recommended.

Take the Opportunity

Though perhaps not the novelty they may seem at first, Asian wines – and trips to taste them – certainly offer some unique experiences. If you can stay alert before and after the tastings, there are plenty of opportunities of make the most of the trip.

  • Although Chinese people are increasingly passionate about producing and drinking red wine; most Chinese people never drink it, and even those that do often add Sprite to taste.
  • When near Dalat, be sure to visit the Ho Dynasty Citadel, a UNESCO recognized structure worthy of a viewing. Built in only 3 months in 1397, the unique architecture forms Vietnam’s only stone citadel. With blocks weighing up to 20 tonnes, at an average height of 5 metres, this Than Hoa Province structure is one of Vietnam’s World Cultural Heritage sites.
  • In Dalat, you can try Vietnamese wines with superb local dishes served with panache at Viet-Francophile-run Maison Long Hoa, where you’ll get sophisticated (albeit recorded) classical music accompanying your meal.
  • You can purchase GranMonte’s reds and whites at Central Department Stores in Thailand, with which the winery has a sales agreement. Most of GranMonte’s wines are actually sold outside of the winery.
  • Favourite Lanna Thai (Northern Thailand) dishes include Chilli Dips (Nam Prik Ong, Nam Prik Noom), Northern Thai Sausage (Sai Oua), Leaf Wrapped Bites (Miang Kham), Fermented Pork Sausage (Naem) and Northern Noodles (Khanom Jeen Nam Ngiao).  Another fave is Unripe Jackfruit Curry Soup – a northern equivalent to Tom Yum.
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