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Vietnam rises slowly but tastefully in the winemaking business

Friday, July 20, 2012
By Stephen Quinn, Special to The China Post


Vang Dalat, or wine from Dalat, is probably Vietnam's best-known wine. A white and a red are available and they retail for about US$3.20 each in Hanoi. These wines are quite pleasant, though they have a while to go before they are of world standard.

The French started growing grapes for wine during their occupation of Vietnam in the late 19th century. Vietnam threw the French out after years of fighting, and the last French troops left in 1955.

Vietnam's tropical climate was not suited for the type of grapes the French introduced so the wine industry started making wine from fruit.

By the end of last century a renewed focus on growing wine grapes occurred, helped by visiting winemakers from countries like Australia. They introduced international varieties like cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay.

Dalat is the capital of Lam Dong province in Vietnam's Central Highlands. Unlike the tropical rest of the country, the province has a temperate climate because it is 1,500 meters (4,900 feet) above sea level. The region is famous for growing vegetables and fruit.

Mist covers the province's valleys almost all of the year, which explains its name that translates as the “city of eternal spring.”

In 2003 the Lam Dong food company transitioned from being a state-owned enterprise growing fruit and vegetables under the Communist government to making wine. The state retains a 51-percent share.

The company's wines were chosen as the official beverage at the 14th Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit conference in Hanoi in 2006, and is often served at state functions.

Two years later the company joined forces with a French company, P&P Import-Export, to establish the Dalat-France wine company. This meant increased investment in machinery to boost the winery's capacity. Production is expected to rise to 5 million liters a year by 2015.

The white wine, which did not have a vintage year on the bottle, has a floral nose and good citrus acidity. Details about the wine on the bottle were in Vietnamese, but it appears to be made from the Cardinal grape variety.

Cardinal is usually grown to make raisins and was designed as a table grape. It was first produced in California in 1939. It is a cross between the Flame Tokay and Ribier varieties, both intended as table grapes.

This variety is only used to make wine in Vietnam and Thailand.

The white would be suitable with dishes like salads, seafood and white meat such as poultry. It has a pleasant taste though is unlikely to win any medals at this stage.

The red wine, also non-vintage, is intriguing. It is a blend of Cardinal grapes and the juice of mulberries. Cardinal gives the wine body and grape flavors while the mulberries provide an intense dark red color and flavors of red fruits and, well, sweet mulberries. It tastes like a young sangiovese, which suggests it would pair with vegetable-based foods or anything containing tomatoes.

The tannins are soft, meaning the wine is easy to drink and could pair with a range of local foods that contain couscous and noodles. It is obviously meant to drink now.

It is rare to make wines from table grapes because most table grapes have been hybridized to remove seeds for the convenience of the consumer. Most people do not want to chew grape pips because they contain tannin that leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.

Most red wines need tannin for structure, and this comes mostly from the seeds. Cardinal works as a wine grape because it contains seeds. The result is a pleasant drink-now red with a low price.

Both wines are available from the Lam Dong food company, which exports to a range of countries in the Asian region.

Stephen Quinn writes about wine for a variety of publications in the region. From 1975 he was a journalist for two decades with the Bangkok Post; BBC-TV, The Guardian, ITN, the UK Press Association; TVNZ; the Middle East Broadcasting Center in Dubai and a range of regional newspapers in Australia. Dr Quinn became a journalism educator in 1996, but returned to journalism full time in 2011. He is based in Hong Kong and is the author of 17 books.

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