Barbara Adam takes a look at Vietnam’s burgeoning wine sector. Photos by Romain Garrigue.

More and more Vietnamese are becoming interested in the wonderful world of wines, with is great news for wine lovers in Ho Chi Minh City, as the increased demand has resulted in a greater availability of wine from all over the world.

“I think the market is still being driven by tourism and expats,” said sommelier Jim Cawood, owner and manager of Lubu restaurant in Thao Dien. “But it’s changing, and the most interesting growth segment of the market is Vietnamese women.”

It’s young professional women like Pham Luong Bich Van who are the new generation of Vietnamese wine drinkers.

Van is in her mid-30s, with a senior position in supply chain management at an international consumer goods company. As is usual for a single Vietnamese woman, Van lives at home with her parents.

Van’s father, a former teacher who once worked with US forces, began educating her about wine when she was just a teenager, partly to share his passion, but also to make sure that boys wouldn’t be able to get her drunk and take advantage of her.

It’s Sexy

Her interest in wine developed further while studying in New Zealand. “I like the way it’s poured into the glass,” she said. “It’s sexy.”

Van regularly winds down from a stressful week at work with a few glasses of wine, and spends her vacation time exploring some of the world’s most magnificent wine-producing countries, such as Italy and New Zealand.

Lubu’s Jim says the Vans of Vietnam are a key growth segment in the Vietnamese wine market.

“Young Vietnamese women see drinking wine as a sophisticated thing to do,” he said. “Vietnamese women will never be massive drinkers, they’re never going to go out to a bia hoi and smash bottles of whiskey. But after work, in their office wear, they like to get together with friends and have a glass of wine.”

Even though Jim acknowledges Vietnamese women will never be copious drinkers, they are more open to learning about wine.

Women A Key Market

“Women in general don’t suffer the need to be experts at everything,” he said. “They’re quite happy to be introduced to new things. Men want to be experts. They don’t want to be told anything, and they especially don’t want to be told anything by Vietnamese staff.”

Jim has noticed a lot of changes in the 17 years he’s been involved in the Vietnamese wine industry. When he first arrived, the only wines that were available were French wines and “generic Australian wines”.

Nowadays, he estimates Chilean wine is the biggest seller in Vietnam, by volume and value, followed by France, with Australian and Italian wines vying for third spot.

“For the size of the market here, we have a really good selection,” he said.

One of the reasons Chilean wine sells so well in Vietnam is that imports from Chile attract less tax because of a free trade agreement between the two countries.

A Special Consumption Tax on alcoholic beverages imported into Vietnam was introduced in 2016. The tax increased twice, the last time in January this year, taking the import tax on wine to 35%. Wine imports also attract 50% import tax and VAT of 10%.

Australian wines may become cheaper in coming years, said Andy Wall, Managing Director of Rada Vietnam, which imports Australian wine. Australia and Vietnam have both signed the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement, which will result in a number of import taxes being reduced. However, the timing for the tax cuts is yet to be determined.

Thirsty Nation

The Vietnamese have long been known as big drinkers. Vietnam consumed 3.92 billion litres of alcohol in 2016, ranking as the 16th largest alcoholic beverage consuming countries in the world, according to a report published by Dezan Shira and Associates last year, citing Ministry of Industry and Trade figures. But of the alcohol consumed, nearly 97% was beer.

Even so, Vietnam’s wine market is full of potential.

“The Vietnamese industry is probably one of the most interesting in Southeast Asia,” Lubu’s Jim said. “We have a large population, an increasingly wealthy population and only minor issues with (alcohol being considered one of the) social evils.”

The Vietnamese market is also relatively homogenous, so when a trend springs up, everyone is on to it, he said.

Alfredo de la Casa is another Saigon-based wine expert, and author of Vietnamese Food and Wine Pairing, available on Amazon.

His view is that while some things in the Vietnamese wine sector have changed, some things have not.

“Now there are more Italian, Spanish and Portuguese wines available as independent importers are bringing them and people are a bit too tired of (wines from) France and Chile,” he said. “Prices keep increasing due to tax and will continue to do so, sadly.”

Aspirational Drink

Jim and Alfredo agreed that wine remains an “aspirational drink” in Vietnam.

“There’s been no change in the local taste about wine: rich Vietnamese drink wine as a status symbol, they know almost nothing about wine, as long as it’s expensive they like it,” Alfredo said. “However there is an emerging middle class who want to discover, learn and enjoy wine, and they are open to experiment and try.”

One of the quirks of the Vietnamese market is that some Vietnamese think the heavier the bottle, the better the wine. And so wine with deep “punts” (the dent in the bottom of the bottle) are popular, no matter the style or country of origin.   

For those serious about their wines, all the experts agree that there are challenges to enjoying a tipple in Vietnam. One of which is the weather.

Wine needs to kept at a certain temperature to avoid it spoiling. Most specialist wine shops ensure their wine is kept in the correct conditions while being imported and stored in their warehouse, and in their retail space. Wine shops should feel deliciously cool when you walk in.

Maturing Market

An indication of the maturity of the Vietnamese market is the country’s participation in a growing number of international food and wine competitions.

Three years ago, Sopexa, a French food, wine and lifestyle agency, relaunched a competition to find the best sommelier in French wines in Asia.

Nguyen Khac Huy took out the 2017 Vietnam Best Sommelier Competition in French Wines. He and runner-up Nguyen Thanh Tuyen, sometimes known as Elvis, represented Vietnam in the Asia final of the competition in Taipei last December.

Huy is a former employee of Lubu, and Elvis is the current restaurant manager and sommelier, and Jim says he is incredibly proud of both of them.

This year Huy was a judge for the first Bocuse d’Or competition to be held in Vietnam. This culinary competition requires contestants to create two French dishes that also represent the home country of the competitor.

Chef Daniel Nguyen won the competition, held in Ho Chi Minh City in early March. He will represent Vietnam at the Bocuse d’Or Asia-Pacific on May 8 and 9 in Guangzhou in China, and if he places in the top five he will represent his country again in January next year at the grand final in Lyon in France.

Making The Most of It

So how do you take advantage of Ho Chi Minh City’s world of wine?

First, visit the websites of the city’s major wine suppliers and sign up for their newsletters. The Warehouse, Red Apron, Wine Embassy, Rada Vietnam and all regularly host wine tastings and organise wine pairing dinners, often in partnership with some of the city’s best restaurants.

Some of the wine pairing dinners in town are exceptional value, as well as a very interesting deep dive into wines. There are also a number of regular food and wine events, such as the New Zealand Food and Wine Festival and the Taste of Australia wine events.

Wine Appreciation

Wine expert, Huy, the reining champion of the Vietnam Best Sommelier and business development manager at Red Apron recommends finding — or organising — a group of people for wine appreciation nights.

“If you’re not looking to get a certificate, but just learn more about wines, wine appreciation events are great,” Huy said.

If he was helping organise such an event, he said, he’d start with an overview of the different type of wine varieties.

“In white wines, there’s light and dry wines, like sauvignon blanc; buttery and creamy, like chardonnay; and full-bodied and sweet,” he said. “You need to taste them all to find out what you like.”

The second part of the session could focus on red wine varieties, starting with something light like pinot noir, moving onto a merlot and finishing with a big and bold Australian shiraz and then a cabinet sauvignon.

That would be the introductory event, Huy said, which would be followed by sessions that explored specifics of wine, such as French wines or a particular variety of wine.

Huy recommended organising wine appreciation events such as these through wine merchants rather than through restaurants to ensure you pay retail prices for the wine rather than restaurant prices.

Pairing Wine with Vietnamese Food

Wine is traditionally enjoyed with a meal, and the European style of eating several courses works perfectly for wine pairing, with the flavours of individual courses matched with a complimentary wine.

But Vietnamese food is not usually served in courses. A typical sit-down meal is a shared affair of many dishes, with many flavours and textures involved. So how do you pair a wine for that?

Australian celebrity chef Luke Nguyen, owner of Vietnam House and Grain cooking school, said there’s no special magic to matching wine with Vietnamese food.

“For me there’s no difference (between pairing wine with Western and Vietnamese food),” he said. “We match the wine with what flavours we’re having.”

Luke also noted that Vietnamese food doesn’t only go well with white wines. Red wines also work, he said.

Expert Panel

We asked a panel of wine experts for their recommendations for a typical Southern-style Vietnamese meal of thit kho trung (pork and egg braised in coconut water), goi buoi tom thit (pomelo salad with pork and prawn), ngheu hap xa (clams steamed with lemongrass), rau muong xao toi (morning glory stir-fried with garlic) and canh ca chua (sour fish soup).

To get in the spirit of wine words, we’ve made up our own tasting notes for the dishes. (With suitably cheffy input from Calvin Bui of The Publik House.)

Thit kho trung (pork and egg braised in coconut water): A braised dish full of caramel sweetness and umami savouriness. The fatty pork adds a richness, and the duck egg adds a range of different textures — the creaminess of the yolk, and the springiness of the egg white.

Ngheu hap xa (clams steamed with lemongrass): A dish featuring the strong aromatics of lemongrass, the tingle of chilli and the brininess of the clams, with a warm broth that brings it all together.

Goi buoi tom thit (pomelo salad with pork and prawns): The sweet citrusy pomelo pulp pops in your mouth, balanced by the crunchy sweetness of shredded carrot, and soft strips of pork and shrimp. There’s roasted peanuts for crunch, Vietnamese mint for coolness, coriander for herbaceousness, and fried shallots adding a depth of flavour, doused in the umami, sweet, sour and spicy flavours of nuoc cham.

Rau muong xao toi (morning glory stir fried with garlic): This dish has a robust roasted garlic flavour, with a umami hint of shrimp paste or fish sauce, the crunch of the rau muong stems and silky wilted leaves that melt in your mouth, finished with a sprinkle of black pepper.

Canh ca chua (sour fish soup): This everyday Southern soup blends the sourness of tamarind, the sweetness of pineapple, the slight tartness of the green tomato with a fumet (fish bone broth) and aromatic herbs.

The Recommendation

Nguyen Khac Huy, winner of the 2017 Sopexa Vietnam Best Sommelier competition.

An Alsatian-style Pinot Gris from Alsace, France.

This wine has aromas of citrus, green fruit, stonefruit and spices (clove and ginger), great minerality and a distinctive smoky note on the nose.

On the palate, the wine has delightful freshness, medium-high acidity, a slightly sweet opulence and is medium to full-bodied.

The acidity of the pinot gris will soften the sourness of the pomelo salad and mellow the umami taste of the sauce. The slight sweetness of the wine will also balance the salty, herby and spiciness of the clams, while handling their fishiness and texture.

The roasted garlic in the morning glory dish will match the acidity in the pinot gris, and the structure of the wine will also work well with the crunchy texture of the vegetable and the savouriness of the sauce.

Virginia Jacobs, an Australian-based wine educator and director of WineTasteTalk, who holds a Masters of Wine Technology and Viticulture from Melbourne University.

A mid-weight chardonnay.

Whilst there are a lot of different flavours in this menu there are common themes of sweet, sour, citrus flavours, fragrance and perfume, umami and texture. Looking for the similarities in the dishes rather than the differences will help you decide on a wine that will work well across an entire Vietnamese meal.

My first suggestion would be a mid-weight chardonnay, by this I mean a rounded mouthfeel but not too big in flavour yet with a crisp finish.

Perhaps some time in oak barrels, but not all new oak or it would overpower the delicate flavours.  A cool climate chardonnay may be too crisp to work for the richer flavours and textures in some of the dishes.

A second choice would be a marsanne, viognier or roussanne or a blend of any of these. They have lovely floral notes on the nose, a crisp finish and the depth of texture to work with this menu.

These are available in Vietnam it would just be a matter of tracking one down and see how it works for you.

Andy Wall, director of Rada Vietnam, a Hanoi-based wine import company.

Australian shiraz is the best pairing wine for Vietnamese meal occasions.  (Best examples: Markview Shiraz; Kilikanoon Killerman’s Run Shiraz; Pertaringa Undercover Shiraz; Paxton’s MV Shiraz; The Lane Block 14 Basket Press Shiraz; and Evans & Tate Redbrook Shiraz.)

Australian shiraz is very fruit-driven upfront, providing lovely fresh aromas of red fruits and dark cherries that compliment the aromas of pork in coconut and clams in lemongrass. (Unlike old world wines from France that are very earth and oak-driven that create a very distinctive aroma sometimes described as like damp soil.)

Australian shiraz is usually aged for short periods in French oak helping to provide a soft, balanced mouthfeel with fine tannins that enhance the delicate spices and garlic enhanced flavours. (Unlike Chilean cabernet whose tannins would dry the mouth out and not enhance the meal experience.)  Australian shiraz fruit provides a long and soft mouthfeel that works in perfect harmony with the powerful yet delicate flavours of the Vietnamese meal. Importantly, Australian shiraz, given it’s soft and easy drinking nature, lends itself perfectly to the traditional Vietnamese toasting style, whereby everybody fills a small wine glass and drinks to the bottom. Mot, hai, ba – YO!

Two wine experts, Huy, and Discover Spanish Wine’s Alfredo de la Casa, also provided wine pairings for each individual dish.

Thit kho trung (pork and egg braised in coconut water)

Alfredo: This delicious dish is best paired with a young grenache wine, the sweetness of the coconut water goes great with the natural sweetness of grenache grapes, and the soft tannins of the grenache will pair with the fattiness of the pork.

Huy: My recommendation is a young un-oaked Cote Du Rhone red from France.In this particular Southern-style Vietnamese dish, you really need a wine with a good acidity backbone to balance the richness of the egg yolk (which is notoriously difficult to pair with). Also, the softness and spiciness from the grenache/syrah in the wine will enhance the umami savouriness and creaminess from the fatty pork and creamy coconut.

Goi buoi tom thit (pomelo salad with pork and prawn),

Alfredo: for this my choice would be a verdejo or a chenin blanc, or if you want to spend a bit more an albarino or chablis. The acidity of the pomelo will match that of the wines recommended, while having both body to go with the pork and finesse for the prawns.

Huy:  my suggestion is a riesling from Eden Valley, Australia. This well-known starter dish has noticeable acidity and freshness from the pomelo with a herbaceous feel. A good compliment is a dry, fruity and racy wine from riesling grapes (which grow particularly well in the Eden Valley) that soften the acidity in the dish and mellow the umami taste from the nuoc cham.

Ngheu hap xa (clams steamed with lemongrass),

Alfredo: this is easy to pair, again a Verdejo or an unoaked chardonnay. If you want to go red, try a Rioja Crianza.

Huy:  My suggestion is an unoaked chardonnay or chablis A.O.C from Burgundy, France.  As this dish has the pronounced aromatics of culinary herbs like lemongrass and the brininess of clams, the fresh, citrus and minerality from unoaked chardonnay will compliment the salty, herby flavour and balance the soft texture of the clams.

Rau muong xao toi (morning glory stir-fried with garlic)

Alfredo: Another easy to pair dish, a Rioja Crianza would be my first choice, but also a nice nero d’Avola from Sicily.

Huy: My suggestion is an amontillado sherry from Jerez, Spain. The dry, aromatic herbs, nutty notes from special biological and oxidative aging of sherry wine will enhance the melted-flavour of roasted garlic and the crunchy texture of rau muong will make this paring more lively.

Canh can chua (sour fish soup).

Alfredo: a sauvignon blanc from the Loire or a vermentino would go great with this, matching the acidity of the wine to the sourness of the dish.