Wine in Southeast Asia isn’t anything to get excited about if you’re a wine connoisseur. I, however, am not. I love a strong red wine and have sought out wineries in obscure places such as Bulgaria, where I found my favorite wine to date, Melnik 55. After trying various wines produced in Myanmar and Thailand I didn’t have high hopes for the wine that awaited me in Vietnam. But when Vietnam Wine Tours invited me on a week-long trip around the southern part of the country to get to know central Vietnam’s unique wine culture.
Curiosity always gets the best of me when I travel and I couldn’t resist finding out what all the fuss was about and if Da Lat table wine was really as horrendous as everyone says. Spoiler alert: Da Lat table wine is horrible, but there are much better wines to be had in the region!
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT WINE IN VIETNAM
Vietnam Wine Tours launched in 2014 and is the only company in the country that specializes in wine tourism with curated guided trips! The tours are led by local certified guides, ask for Rose, who was my guide and is a lovely travel companion. Vietnam Wine Tours aims to expand international knowledge about the budding Vietnam wine industry. Currently, there are only around twenty wine states in the entire country with just a few million bottles of Vietnamese wine produced annually.
Wine isn’t just the word used to describe a red or white alcoholic beverage prepared from grapes–it’s also the name associated with hooch made from corn or rice, kind of like moonshine. Vietnamese have been drinking their version of wine long before the French occupation. Traditionally most wines were made from corn or rice and were consumed to celebrate joyous occasions or cope with sadness.
The French did introduce their grape winemaking process to the Vietnamese during the nearly 7-decade long occupation of the country. Prior to the French colonization grape vines were already being grown in the country but purely to create shade and beauty and not for making grape-based liquor as the large grape were very sour and not suitable for winemaking. French colonizers tried in vain to grow and produce grapes for wine during the French Indochina era but the tropical climate with high humidity and frequent rain isn’t ideal for vine growing.
Today, much of Vietnamese wine production takes place in the central highlands of the country while the vineyards are nestled along the coastline. Vinification in Vietnam is still nascent and is an ever-evolving which makes it even more exciting to join a Vietnam Wine Tour to be one of the first foreigners to learn about and taste exclusive Vietnamese wine.
The French can no longer take credit for the budding wine industry in Vietnam. In the early 2000s Australian vintners brought their wine knowledge to the country and in the last few years many Americans have joined the Vietnamese wine community to help perfect vinification.
WHAT IS CAN WINE?
It is wine unlike anything you’ve ever had before, and no, it’s not served in a can!
During the Vietnam Wine Tour, we were able to try a few local versions of can wine that we sipped from shot glasses. I experienced the true can wine experience during my stay at Lak Tented Camp where we were encouraged to join minority farmers from the surrounding highlands of central Vietnam in drinking the wine in it’s intended way before being introduced to various cultural dances. To have an authentic can wine experience you must drink from a large jar through a massive straw. Traditionally the straws would be made of hollowed out lotus reeds. Everyone takes turns taking swings of the can wine from the same straw, and you must drink as long as your drinking partner does. The can wine I had at Lak Tented Camp was literally hard to swallow as it was incredibly smokey similar to a scotch. I much prefer the fresh version I tasted on the Vietnam Wine Tour. If you’re in a village and offered to sip can wine it would be deeply insulting to resist as it’s only offered to honorable guests. Be respectful, try the wine!
TURNING FERMENTED FOOD INTO WINE
In Vietnam, it is also possible to try wines that are made from various fermented foods and wild herbs such as mushrooms or cassava. Each concoction is believed to have specific medicinal properties that can help heal particular ailments. Wine, as we know it in the western world, is usually limited to production from grapes and maybe a few other fruits but essentially wine can be made from any fermented fruit, vegetable, or even flower! One unique type of Vietnamese fruit wine that I didn’t have the chance to try is sim wine which is made on Phu Quoc island using the sim fruit which grows exclusively in the mountains.
DRINKING LIKE A PRINCESS IN THE RD WINE CASTLE
The first winery we visited on the Vietnam Wine Tour was the beautiful RD Wine Castle at Sea Links Resort in Mui Ne. The quirky structure is built to look like a medieval French castle and holds inside some of the most delicious wine in all of Vietnam–but it’s not actually Vietnamese wine. The RD Wine Castle is owned by a Vietnamese businessman, but all of the wine served here is imported directly from his organic vineyard and wine production facility in Napa Valley, California. RD Winery has been bringing Napa Valley wines to Vietnam for the last five years. The RD Winery Napa wines were spectacular but set an impossible standard from the remainder of the Vietnam Wine Tour. No matter what Vietnamese wine will never be comparable to Napa Valley wine but it is worth trying in its own right.
Inside the epic castle, guests are lead on a personal tour that stages the process of winemaking complete with photogenic wine barrels and an in-depth video that tells the story of RD Wine Castle and the selection of luxurious imported Napa wines. Throughout the tour, we were given several wines to try, first a light Moscato from Napa to sip on as we explored the winery.
After we explored the RD Wine Castle we were invited to relax in the stunning dining hall as we tasted a selection of wine flights that included a Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Cabernet, and Syrah. It’d been ages since I had a decent red wine so I was thrilled with the selection. Luckily my travel companion, Nam of Laugh Travel Eat, prefers white wine so we happily traded white for red throughout the trip.
EXPLORING THE COASTAL VINEYARDS OF CENTRAL VIETNAM
We made our way up the coast to the province of Ninh Thuan which is home to Vietnam’s wine region. Vietnam Wine Tours arranged for us to stay overnight in a darling wooden bungalow at the beachfront Long Thuan Resort. In the morning we were off to visit the vineyards and learn about how wine is made in Vietnam. The coastline of central Vietnam is where most grapes are grown using organic methods and tended to by local farmers. Thrice a year once the grapes are harvested they’re loaded onto trucks and driven three hours inland to the highlands of Da Lat, which is also where most coffee is cultivated in Vietnam. It seems odd to me that the grapes themselves aren’t grown in Da Lat considering the cooler temperatures but what do I know about the winemaking process? Not much, my preference is drinking the finished product!
One such winery in Ninh Thuan is the Thien Thao Winery. Thien Thao means good sky in Vietnamese and we had exactly that when we visited–a picture perfect day meant for wine tasting! Thien Thao is family owned and has been in business for over twenty years. The wine options here were limited–red, green, or white. Thien Thao wine is only sold in Vietnam as they have not international distribution. The vineyards are fully organic but aren’t open for guests to visit.
The woman who poured the wine for us could tell us absolutely nothing about the way the wine was grown, the notes, food pairings or anything of the sort. Regardless, we tipped our glasses back to get our first taste of Vietnamese wine. The red wine was very light in color and taste. It was a bit vinegary, as if it had been open too long but finished off oddly creamy. It was sort of similar to a rose, but with a sour cherry taste. Of course, they suggest that the wine be served chilled–actually best served over ice! Cold red wine is my worst nightmare! The green wine was tart like an apple, sort of like Portuguese Vinho Verde. When I inquired about why the white wine is sometimes called green wine I was told it was because the grape is green, obviously! Next, we tried the white wine which was more like a grappa at 40% proof alcohol and burns the chest as it makes its way down.
After swallowing the wine we were poured devious shots of a clear liquid that actually turned out to have a very low alcohol content, so much so that anyone of any age is allowed to drink the syrup in Vietnam! It was thick like cough syrup and clear like water and consumed as a digestive after a meal. With our throats properly coated in the sticky substance, we made our way to the nearby Ba Moi Winery.
Unfortunately, the Ba Moi Winery had bad luck with their harvest the last year and were not able to produce enough wine for us to try their green grape or red grape renditions. This is due to an extremely heavy rainy season which broke many of the grapevines. It takes 4 months to grow the grapes which are then harvested twice a year. I wish the family of farmers better luck in their upcoming harvest in October!
They did have some of their white ‘wine’ on hand which was another strong brandy that was slightly sweeter than the last and actually quite pleasant–I believe that this wine was made from rice, not grapes. And of course they had more of the grape syrup, but I passed on trying it. The best part of visiting Ba Moi Winery was visiting their vineyard and seeing how they breed grapes and, of course, posing for pictures among the fruit with traditional Vietnamese conical hats.
TASTE TESTING THE INFAMOUS DA LAT WINE
As we drove 180 km inland through the winding roads that lead up 1,700 meters above sea level to Da Lat and felt the crisp cool air on our skins we were giddy to start our day of drinking wine–even though it was barely 9 AM! Da Lat table wine is notoriously awful, but we just knew there had to be better wines to be had from the region–and luckily, we were right!
Our Da Lat wine adventure started at the hillside Dalat Beco which is one of the three biggest wineries in the province. They harvest their grapes three times a year and produce nearly a million bottles of wine annually. Our guide jokes that the French didn’t just bring war, they also brought wine. Probably not a fair trade-off. Dalat Beco tried to grow grapes in Da Lat but the soil isn’t great for allowing the grapes to reach maturity so instead, they grow organic Cardinal grapes in Ninh Thuan to make both red and white wine. Cardinal grapes are usually consumed as table grapes or raisins in the west.
We were given a brief tour of the production factory–which is mostly outdoors–and then visited the showroom for a tasting of very hefty pours and surprisingly–very good wine! Many wines are produced here and from cabernet, sauvignon blanc, syrah to Lado beer (no, not a wine!). Many of the Dalat Beco wines are exported to various places such as Thailand, South Korea, and Nigeria. One of the very first Vietnamese wines we tried had me swooning. To my shock, the wine I loved most here was the Dalat Beco Export which is a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and cardinal and has hints of flora and tropical fruits but a soft delightful taste. We bought a bottle (look for the green label) and continued to try the various imported wines.
The last winery of my Vietnam Wine Tour was a visit to the pretty pink Vinh Tien Winery. One of the very first wines we tried had me swooning. Le Chat Noir is was a demi-sec (slightly dry and sweet) red wine that gets it sweet tang from fermented mulberries and a deep heavy taste. And thus we bought our second bottle of Vietnamese wine!
Vinh Tien uses Italian winemaking methods and imports grapes from Italy. Their farm is also near the sea in Ninh Thuan–they’ve been making wine since the 1970s and produce about 600,000 liters a year. They even make sparkling wine and very good Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc–just a few of the 10 wines Vinh Tien produces. But Vinh Tien is actually more famous for their artichoke tea and rightfully so–it’s so delicious! They also make fermented wine from mushroom as a health elixir which is as potent as it sounds.
THE HARSH REALITY THAT IS VANG DA LAT
Now before you go thinking everything you’d heard about toxic Da Lat wine was wrong let me warn you–Vang Dalat is its own beast. Vang Dalat is the most consumed wine in Vietnam. The table wine uses crushed red grapes from Phan Rang combined with fermented mulberry juice and can be up to 16% alcohol.
I had an excellent experience with Vietnam Wine Tours, our guide Rose was very kind and knowledgeable about Vietnamese history. We visited several wineries and vineyards and tasted a wide range of Vietnamese wines. This is a unique way to get in touch with the local culture that has been transformed by French colonization and the budding opportunity to export unique Vietnamese wine.
To learn more about Vietnamese wine read Nam’s article on Vietnam Wine Tours and scope out some beautiful photos I took of her admiring the grape vines.
Thanks to Vietnam Wine Tours for hosting me. This post contains affiliate links. Please read the Miss Filatelista disclosure policy for more information.