Educating Vietnamese Palates One Glass
at a Time
By Kim Fay
we say that Vietnam is swarming with reds these days, we aren't
making a political statement. We're talking about wine. With
the easing of government restrictions, both commercial and
cultural, the past ten years have seen a welcome increase
in wine importing and awareness. You can now find a good quality
Bordeaux in most upscale and many mid-range restaurants, and
there are chic wine bars and shops in Hanoi
Chi Minh City. But while international wines are making
headway, the most interesting vintner we find on the market
is a local contender: Vang Dalat.
with most other Asian countries, wine is not the first commodity
that comes to mind when thinking about Vietnam.
But Dalat, with its cool central highland climate and strong
French heritage, is an anomaly, producing artichokes, asparagus,
strawberries and, most recently, wine. In 1999, Vietnam had
one state-run wine producer in Hanoi. As domestic demand increased,
this company could not meet it, and Vang Dalat—which
previously churned out beer and liquor made from Dalat fruits—turned
its attention to Bordeaux-style wines.
its more sophisticated brethren in France,
California and South
Africa, Vang Dalat uses table grapes from nearby Phan
Rang, Vietnam's main grape-growing region. As an uncompromising
oenophile, you may find this offensive. But we think you should
first consider the argument made by Nguyen Van Viet, who has
been with the company since 1999 and is the driving force
behind its new path. Self-educated in the making, storing
and drinking of wine—he
spent a month in France for harvest and post-harvest, but
everything else he learned from books or the Internet—Nguyen
understands that winemaking in Vietnam is about more than
just technique. It is about understanding the needs, and tastes,
of his countrymen.
explains that his country has a limited history with wine.
The French introduced an elite wine culture pre-1954, and
during the past decade, living standards have improved and
more people are traveling overseas and being exposed to foreign
wines. But they can't afford to drink these wines at home
on a regular basis. Even if they could afford it, according
to Nguyen, the average consumer isn't ready, since the Vietnamese
palate is accustomed to cruder alcohols: rice whiskey, Russian
vodka, and homemade liquors used for digestive and medicinal
purposes. Appreciating fine wine, he believes, is an evolutionary
this in mind, Nguyen considered how Vang Dalat could produce
a European-style wine similar to traditional Vietnamese wines
that any family could afford. Because the Vietnamese have
acquired a taste for table grapes (production in Phan Rang
dates back to 1985), he knew they would like wines made from
such grapes. Today, the company produces 1.5 million liters
of wine a year, which includes a Superior Red (all grape,
11% alcohol), Strong Red (grape/mulberry blend, 16% alcohol,
a favorite with foreigners) and even a sparkling white. Up
next is a wine cooler for young Vietnamese women, a rapidly
growing market. We tried the peach cooler and were impressed.
It is refreshing and tastes like Champagne with a splash of
fresh peach juice.
knows that because Vang Dalat uses table grapes, its wines
won't meet international standards and are out of the running
for export. But that's not his principal goal. He hopes to
gradually educate Vietnam. The company has signed contracts
with French wine producers to import wine grapes, and it plans
to eventually upgrade techniques and quality. Slowly, it will
adapt to the world market, and in the process acclimatize
the tastes and attitudes of the Vietnamese people.
the meantime, Vang Dalat is just one more good reason to visit
Vietnam. If you make it to Dalat, we recommend dinner at Maison
Long Hoa, a genteel establishment run by a Vietnamese Francophile.
Classical rather than tinny pop plays over the stereo, hearty
Vietnamese food offers comfort against the chill outside,
with the strawberry wine made by the owner's wife—Vang
Dalat vintages top the wine list.
information on Vang Dalat winery, visit www.dalatwine.com.
Images by Julie Fay)