Wine is finding its niche amidst the craft beer explosion in Ho Chi Minh City. But where exactly does it fit in? By Elijah Ferrian. Photo by Vinh Dao.
We’re not talking rice wine. Strictly grapes here. The French colonists provided the initial introduction of wine to Vietnam, but with globalisation and a higher frequency of international travel for the country’s growing upper and middle classes, the tipple seems to be making a comeback. Through a growing number of restaurants, bars and specialist shops all over the city, Vietnamese drinkers seem to be turning their taste buds to the reds and whites of the world. Or are they? There seems to be two sides to the story of wine in Vietnam. One is the retail sector, and the other are restaurant or wholesale vendors.
The Bar Owner
Sofia Nguyen is the owner of Sofia House Wine Bar on District 1’s Ham Nghi Street. The place has been open for just six months, and her and I have been talking about the state of wine culture in Vietnam, and the difficulties that come with trying to expose more locals to wine in the context of a quiet, indoor wine bar.
When I ask her who tends to show up to drink wine she tells me it’s a decent mix of Vietnamese customers and foreigners. The business tries to focus on educational wine service in a restaurant context. “We don’t close during the day, but most people don’t exactly want to drink wine then, so we offer food, coffee, Italian soda, and good conversation,” she says. “I worked in the retail side of the wine business for four years. I personally love wine. The wine market in Vietnam is really very good. People are really starting to show an interest because trends are changing. Film, and I guess media in general, is starting to spread the idea that everybody can enjoy drinking wine in Asia. Not just the wealthy class.”
Despite this, as Sofia explains, there is quite the caveat when it comes to selling wine out of a restaurant rather than a retail space: “Vietnamese don’t necessarily want to come hang inside and drink wine. They want to be enjoying themselves outside in true Vietnamese cultural fashion. Wine isn’t quite thought of as being a social drink. That’s why people love beer. It’s good for the Saigon heat. People are used to drinking beer and hard liquor, but now that the availability and affordability of wine is increasing, people are slowly developing a better taste for it.”
Nguyen Huy works for The Warehouse Wine Merchants in District 1. They focus on appealing to the Vietnamese market by having knowledgeable staff who are not shy to pour customers a taste to get them acquainted with products they may be unfamiliar with.
“The majority of people that walk into our store want to be shown the different styles of wine and get a quick education on what wine they may prefer,” he says. “Most Vietnamese come in to buy wine as a gift – for a birthday or anniversary, but especially for Tet holiday. Generally we steer these people toward the easy, entry-level Chilean wines that are extremely popular for the newer drinkers. If they come in for themselves, we generally end up having them taste a medium range Bordeaux. Some type of French red.” According to Huy, most Vietnamese that are new to wine almost unanimously prefer red over white.
Huy does illustrate something that Sofia and I had been uncovering during our conversation. There’s a problem with the language of wine and its translation into Vietnamese. “It hasn’t been a part of our culture for very long,” he says, “so it can be hard to translate the way we would for a French, or English customer. The term ‘full bodied’ doesn’t exist in Vietnamese. The best translation for the idea is ‘the thick of the wine’. ‘Dry’ translates to ‘not sweet’, which isn’t necessarily what I’m trying to say. This language barrier plays a part in bridging this gap that exists. It’s like we are teaching a whole new language in a way.”
It’s a point on which both Sofia and Huy agree: that education is the absolute key to getting wine into the Vietnamese households that can afford to buy it; those looking for something a little different to the average case of Tiger beer, or want an alternate to their prized family rice wine.
“It will just take time and people talking to others that are passionate and knowledgeable about wine,” says Sofia. “We are lucky to have a growing economy that is attracting the eyes of many producers. It’s only a matter of time before everyone, of every economic level, will have a wine that fits their preference.”
Huy takes an approach that appeals to the average Vietnamese person’s pride in their cultural background of farming and tending to the land. “Wine’s traditionally been produced by farmers, not by the noble people that most assume. Wine is about sharing… just as how Vietnamese love to share.”
I can’t see a reason why wine and Vietnam can’t be a hugely successful match eventually, no matter the translation. Time will tell, but the passionate conversation and education provided by people like Huy and Sofia will surely lead the younger generations into imbibing plenty of refreshing Chenin Blanc on the sunny sidewalks of Ho Chi Minh City in the near future.