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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Myanmar's Hills Reap Fine Wines

APBuddhist novice monks walking in January in Aythaya's sun-drenched hills.
AYTHAYA, Myanmar -- The landscape could well be mistaken for the rolling, sun-drenched hills of Tuscany.

But the monasteries perched on hilltops are Buddhist. And the workers aren't Italians with centuries of viticulture coursing through their veins, but Asian farmers new to the grape at Myanmar's first winery.

Started by a German entrepreneur, the Aythaya estate has been producing reds, whites and roses since 2004 and is preparing for a leap forward in both output and quality, with exports also on the horizon.

They're among the latest so-called "new latitude wines," springing up outside the industry's traditional heartland in places as far afield as Brazil, India and Thailand where vintners hope one day to match the excellence of the classics.

"Had I not been convinced that we can make a quality wine up in our mountains, I would not have started the project," said Bert Morsbach, who not only had to tread on viticulturally uncharted terrain but faced political risks in a ­military-run country shunned by many foreign investors.

"That was a gamble, I must admit," he said. "But so far the government has been very cooperative and it looks as if this is going to stay that way."

Morsbach hatched the idea of Myanmar wines in 1997, consulting experts who concurred that the project had a "high survival chance."

Experimentation followed on various vines -- imported mainly from France, Germany and Italy -- and a site was selected in hills above the spectacular Inle Lake in eastern Myanmar.

Morsbach, originally a mining engineer from Düsseldorf, and his chief wine maker, Hans Leiendecker, say growing conditions on their 9.5-hectare vineyard are excellent, with the limestone soil not unlike that found in Tuscany and southern France, and a climate similar to California's wine country.

"A huge asset in our favor: 150 days of sunshine," Morsbach said.

While Aythaya's wines aren't about to knock the Romanee-Contis or Mouton Rothchilds of this world off the shelves, they've already garnered some good reviews.

One Thailand-based wine critic, David Swartzentruber, wrote of its 2004 Sauvignon blanc: "This wine should worry France. Here is a wine produced in Asia that possesses all the attributes of a good Bordeaux white."

The estate, which employs 35 increasingly competent Myanmar staffers, hasn't been able to meet the market demand and will be increasing its production to 100,000 bottles this year from only 20,000 in 2004.

Most of Aythaya's wine is now snapped up by the foreign tourist -- industry.

While a growing number of Myanmese people are beginning to enjoy the beverage there is no traditional wine culture in the country.