Take a Little Wine

Everyone knows that Vietnam produces excellent coffee, refreshing tea, and some quite drinkable beers. But what about wine? Since the French arrived in the 19th century Vietnam has not been without wine. Vietnamese cuisine, almost uniquely among Asian cooking styles, lends itself well to wine. In the dark days between 1975 and the early 1990s, what wine you could find was apt to be Bulgarian cabernet sauvignon. I was never quite sure whether “Bulgarian” meant that it came from Bulgaria, or that “Bulgarian” was just the Vietnamese word for “incredibly bad wine”. Then there was what was known as “joint venture” wine. French wines, often poor, were shipped in casks to Vietnam and bottled locally. The labels were in French, rarely with any indication of a wine’s joint venture status. But you could always tell. Joint venture wines were always the cheapest.

But the dark days are long over, and corks are heard popping all over the land. Most of the wines available nowadays are Chilean, Australian and French. You can see the occasional Italian. And if you search hard you can find a Californian, when you just gotta have Napa Valley. And they are well priced, considering the high import tax.

But now let us consider Vietnamese wine. Excellent table grapes were always grown in the environs between Mui Ne and Nha Trang. And they are just that, excellent table grapes. But wine grapes were introduced to the highlands of southern Vietnam only about 20 years ago. There, with the cooler temperatures and plentiful sunlight, they have been producing very serviceable wines since 1999. While local growers continue to learn the vintner’s art, and production is still relatively small, you should have no trouble finding Vang Dalat wine in these environs. This is the most common European-type wine in the country. This is not rice wine or fruit wine. And it is not, as a certain calumny goes, grape juice with alcohol added. There are people here of a certain Gallic persuasion who actually believe that to be the case. They will swear that a trustworthy friend of a friend who knows a friend of the winemaker has sworn to it.

Vang Dalat (and, no, we will not call it VD for short) is the real deal. Grapes are crushed, the juice is fermented, the wine is bottled. It has grown into perfectly serviceable, everyday, non-varietal wine in both red and white. If you’re from California, think Two Buck Chuck for both quality and price. It also makes a damned fine Sangria, which I have been proud to serve at every house party I’ve ever given here in Ho Chi Minh City. And that’s a lot of Sangria, you can ask my friends. In recent years the folks at Vang Dalat have also released a Cabernet and a Chardonnay, but you don’t see them often, yet. Co-Op Mart gets them now and then, and at about $6 a bottle it’s a steal.

I have got hold of a few bad bottles of “The Vang” over the years. As many know, a lot of Vietnamese merchants still don’t know how to transport or store wine properly. Bottles are often stored standing upright, in brightly lit, un-air-conditioned spaces. It is sometimes displayed, like all other kinds of merchandise, right out on the street. Corks dry out, air and heat go in, bad wine comes out. So ya pays yer money and ya takes yer chances. At worst, you’re out a couple bucks. And speaking of a couple bucks: Few Vietnamese restaurateurs know about the western custom of charging corkage to patrons who bring their own wine. Shhhhh.

Editor’s note: Every year the US publishers of Travelers’ Tales compile the best travel writing from abroad that was published in the previous year, and then republish them in a collection called The Best Travel Writing. Widely considered the gold standard of travel lit, it is highly regarded by critics and readers, as well as used in universities to teach the narrative art. This year’s edition includes a page from AsiaLIFE, in which columnist Richard Sterling wrote poignantly about his vanishing Old Saigon in a piece called ‘Negrita’. This is AsiaLIFE’s first entry in the anthology and Richard’s fourth.

Read more from Sterling’s Saigon