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Culture

German Vintner Brings Touch of Moselle to Burma

In the morning mist, vintner Hans-Eduard Leiendecker checks on the rows of vines that he meticulously planted. Only when Buddhist monks approcah does he remember that he's not in his hometonw in the Moselle but in Burma.

Winemaker Margarte Troescher harvests Mueller-Thurgau grapes in the vineyards of Munzingen, southern Germany

Wine enthusiasts may not immediately think of Burma as being an upcoming producer

Aythaya Vineyards is the brainchild of Bert Morsbach, who relocated from Thailand years ago, where he manufactured surf boards.

Almost 10 years ago, he leased a plot of land at an elevation of 1,300 meters near Inle Lake, about an hour's flight time north-east of Burma's main port city of Yangon.

Morsbach then experimented a few years with vines imported from Germany and consulted numerous wine experts. Eventually, his efforts bore fruit and he went into serious production.

About two years ago, he hired Leiendecker, 50, a well-known vintner from the Moselle town of Bernkastel in western Germany, who has won prizes for the excellence of his vintages.

Now he produces in Burma. About 100,000 bottles of Sauvignon Blanc are made there every year, and the 2007 vintage is already being touted as a breakthrough success.

"The quality is comparable to similar vintages from Europe, Chile and Australia," Leiendecker said.

Many five-star hotels in the country are carrying the vintage on their wine lists, but it is also served in the restaurant that is part of the vineyard and where Leiendecker lives.

The terrace with a view of the plantation is currently being expanded to accommodate increasing numbers of visitors.

"We need more space to host weddings and company outings," Leiendecker said.

More chairs are needed, and more china.

"Chinese weddings require a lot of small bowls and at least one waiter for every three tables, but at Burmese weddings, one waiter is usually enough to tend to up to seven tables," Leiendecker said. "Just three years ago, I would never have dreamed that I once would have to distinguish between Chinese and Burmese weddings," he added.

Wine market focused locally

The vineyard has to focus its marketing locally because Burma's tourism industry is stagnant.

Monks protest in Burma

The monk-led demos brought unwanted publicity

Last year's brutal suppression by the ruling military junta of monk-led protests and the subsequent devastation left behind by Cyclone Nargis in May have resulted in dwindling tourist numbers.

"Many people are under the impression that the entire country was devastated by the cyclone, which is, of course, not the case," Leiendecker explained.

While the cyclone rampaged through the Irrawaddy River Delta and the coastline in Burma's south, the rest of the country escaped unharmed.

Aythaya Vineyards is located near Inle Lake, which, with its stilted bungalow resorts, hotels and rustic villages, used to attract thousands of foreign tourists each year.

Nowadays, many of the hotels are either closed or deserted.

Leiendecker has recently begun to raise the output of "Kanbosa," a full and fruity red wine, "rather on the sweet side," he said.

It might not be the choice of an expert red wine lover but caters to local tastes, he said. "We have to slowly introduce the locals to wine," Leiendecker said.

Two young women are sitting on stools and pasting labels on filled bottles. "It's all done manually here because we don't have any expensive machinery to do the work," Leiendecker said.

The vineyard employs about 60 people and primarily cultures Shiraz and Sauvignon grapes.

Pruning the vines takes place in October and harvesting is in April.

Investor interest despite poor soil and low yield

These white grapes are growing on the slopes of the Mosel valley above Bernkastel

The slopes above Leiendecker's hometown are very fertile in comparison to Burma

Since the soil is poorer than in Germany's Moselle region and because the vines do not receive much sunshine during the rainy season from April to October, the yield is rather small.

"In Germany, we may get between 10,000 and 12,000 liters of wine per hectare, but here it is only about 3,000 liters," Leiendecker said.

Morsbach has found a number of German investors for his vineyard project, but it wasn't easy. He still is often confronted with doubts about whether one should invest at all in a country under a repressive military regime.

"We aren't here because of the military junta but despite of it," he said.

Morsbach has fallen in love with the locals and insisted that sanctions and holding back investments would only play into the hands of the military and isolate the population.

Leiendecker agreed. He has enjoyed his stay in Burma and intends to remain against all political odds, he said. "It is pioneer work, and we literally have to build everything from scratch as there is no support from the military government," he said.

He is currently also overseeing construction of a row of bungalows to accommodate golfers and trekkers.

The only thing that he sometimes misses is cheese, he said, which would go nicely with his wines.

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