As palates change and Saigon develops a more international scene, the country’s thirst for wine is growing. By Dana Filek-Gibson. Photo by Vinh Dao and courtesy of The Deck.
Walk into any Western restaurant or bar in Saigon and there’s a good chance you’ll find a wine list on the table. Tham Johansson, bar manager at District 1’s Wine Embassy and local resident since 2010, can attest to this.
“For the few years that I have been here, the amount of wines that are actually being presented in normal bars and restaurants is so much more,” she says. “Before it was difficult to find any good wine … now more and more restaurants are actually putting their time to make a proper wine list because the demand is, of course, growing.”
When it comes to wine, Vietnam is considered one of the most dynamic markets in Asia. Imports of the beverage have grown steadily over the past five years, with France alone delivering 3.3 million litres of wine to Vietnam in 2012, according to an article in the Saigon Times. Thanks to its colonial history, the European nation is Vietnam’s top wine importer, followed closely by Chile, whose presence soared after a 2012 free trade agreement eased the burden of Vietnam’s staggering import tax. While the process of bringing foreign wines into the country remains both expensive and tedious, distributors are now sourcing wines from all over the world, including Australia, New Zealand, Italy, the United States, Argentina and beyond.
With this ever-expanding availability of international wines has come an uptick in curiosity among local drinkers. At The Deck in District 2, where a well-stocked glass-front wine cellar overlooks the restaurant’s waiting area, manager Geoffrey Deschamps has watched his clientele expand to include a younger set of customers who are interested in not only drinking wine but in the cultural experience that comes with it.
“You’re seeing a lot more wealthier, younger Vietnamese,” he says. “They’re coming in here and they’re ordering champagne, they’re ordering three-, four-million dong bottles of wine. And it’s because, I think, they want to experience sort of the Western culture, what it means to be Western.”
By Deschamps’ assessment, over 50 percent of The Deck’s guests are Vietnamese. These guests fall into two distinct categories, both of which use wine as a means to access other cultures: those who have been abroad and those who haven’t.
“[Local Vietnamese] don’t necessarily always get the opportunity to travel,” says Deschamps. “They want a little taste of what it’s like to be in America or be in Europe and I think they can get that here now, whereas maybe five, 10 years ago there was very little opportunity.”
For the more well-traveled Vietnamese, Deschamps believes the interest in wine is more a nostalgic one. Taking the whole process into account – not just consumption of the wine but also the selection, the presentation, the decanting and so on – makes for a fuller experience, something which he likens to actual travel, revisiting the vineyards and locales where the wine originated. For Deschamps himself, purchasing a USD $100 bottle of wine might be expensive but it beats the cost of a plane ticket to Napa Valley or the vineyards of France.
“Vietnamese are now a lot more well-traveled than they were, let’s say 10 years ago,” he explains. “So when they come back to Vietnam, even as Viet kieu, or maybe they studied in Europe or America or Australia, they can recognise the countries of these wines. They can say, ‘Oh, I’ve been to Napa Valley,’ or ‘I used to live in San Jose and I traveled all around wine country.’”
While the curiosity is certainly there, local knowledge has yet to catch up with local demand. However, wine-focused businesses across Saigon are making a concerted effort to bring an understanding and appreciation of wine to the Vietnamese public.
“I think it’s still a very new culture,” says Johansson. “As all new things, when you learn and you don’t know about it, you just are looking for someone who can actually show you.”
In addition to stocking an impressive collection of wines, Wine Embassy has begun holding weekly courses every Tuesday evening, covering a different wine-related topic at each session. For complete beginners, a month-long course also meets once a week, providing its participants with a knowledge of the basics. For Deschamps at The Deck, having a knowledgeable staff is the key, as servers are often able to impart some of their own expertise to local guests.
These developments, not to mention the scores of other wine-focused bars, restaurants and shops around town – think Warehouse, Wine Bar, Level 23 and Le Rendez-Vous – the future of wine is bright in Vietnam.
“I think that it can even be viewed as the next thing, because we are in a country where I find a lot of optimism and enthusiasm for new things,” says Johansson. “Wine comes in a very good way because it’s something relaxing, it’s something fun, you can drink, you can party with it, you can read about it; there’s a history. It’s not only a shot, you know?”