Winemaking in Phonsavan

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As the road zigzags from Luang Prabang through the central north of Laos towards the east, you begin to think that steep valleys covered in dense forest with occasional hilltop villages are all you are ever going to see. The views can be spectacular, to be sure, but seeing the same vista of serrated peaks greying into the distance for hours on end can get a tad monotonous. But suddenly, as you cross into the eastern province of Xieng Khuang and get within 50 kms of the regional capital Phonsavan, the picture changes dramatically.

Here there are rolling hills covered in green pasture, sometimes bounded by tidy fencelines, with numerous cattle grazing peacefully. Pine trees and eucalypts dot the landscape, and creeks, small ponds and weathered tree trunks are scattered about. As the bus bounded on towards Phonsavan, the scenery looked so much like Australian countryside – say the Yarra Valley, or the hills around Canberra – that I half-expected to see kangaroos lolling idly under a tree! It’s only when you spot some rice paddies, or water buffalo, or an older-style house that you realise with a start this is actually Laos.

We’re on this elevated plateau (approx. 1100m above sea level) to see the fascinating Plain of Jars. On my previous trip to Laos I didn’t make it to this area, so we were both very excited to see these mysterious large stone burial urns left here by an unknown culture centuries ago. There are thousands of them scattered in more than 150 different sites across the plain, and a handful of the best sites have been tidied up to allow tourist access. They are a very worthy diversion if you have the time, and staying in dusty Phonsavan also has a certain charm.

But as we’re rolling along in our tour van on our way to Site 3, gazing out the window at the ridiculously familiar landscape, a radical thought strikes me. This place could be excellent for making wine! I quickly list the pros for this nutty idea in my head:

  • The climate at this altitude is cool and temperate, escaping the excessive heat and humidity of lower areas
  • There is less rainfall, only enough to support one rice crop per year (much of tropical Asia can grow two crops annually)
  • There are plenty of free-draining south-facing slopes, ideal for avoiding waterlogging and maximising sun exposure
  • Land and labour costs would be extremely low by world standards, making the end product very cost competitive

I mention all this to Kristen, and for a fleeting moment we are caught up in the idea of living an idyllic existence while making a fortune as the wine pioneers of Laos. Of course a thorough analysis of the soil, rainfall, sunshine hours and business plan would be needed before embarking on such a mad idea, but at first glance it sounds exciting. There are numerous lesser-known pastoral regions of Australia with similar climates that have established successful wine industries over the past 30 years: Orange and Cowra in NSW, Heathcote and Beechworth in Victoria, Mount Barker and Denmark in WA and the Granite Belt in Queensland, to name just a few.

There would be some hurdles to overcome, of course. Every skerrick of winemaking equipment, from the trellises to the rootstock to vats to bottles and caps would need to be imported. With zero prior exposure to the wine industry, the local staff would need extensive training in new concepts and techniques. And then there’s the not inconsiderable obstacle that I’m neither viticulturalist nor winemaker. As a wine enthusiast I can talk in general terms about the requirements for healthy vines, about matching particular grape varieties to specific microclimates, and the basic principles of making various kinds of wine. But if challenged with the tasks of actually establishing a vineyard, building a winery and turning grapes into wine, I wouldn’t know where to begin.

However the biggest obstacle by far would be unexploded ordnance, or UXO. The area around Phonsavan has the unenviable distinction of being the most-bombed province of the most-bombed country in the world. During its undeclared war on Laos, America dropped more than 1.3 million tonnes of explosives on this area, almost continuously, for eight years from 1964 to 1973. That’s more than was dropped on the whole of Germany during WWII. It’s estimated that about 30% of those bombs failed to explode on impact, remaining on the surface or becoming buried in the topsoil, awaiting an unsuspecting foot or plough to detonate it with devastating effect.

The terrible legacy of UXO was countless thousands of people killed and maimed in the years after the war. While such accidents are now rarer, to this day large areas of the province are still littered with UXO despite some valiant efforts to de-mine them. The simple truth is that even with vastly improved resources it would take many decades to declare the entire province safe. We had a taste of the ongoing bomb clearance efforts during our tour of Site 3, where we’d noticed warning signs by the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) that UXO clearance was in progress in the area. At one point we were startled by a sharp crack-boom, followed by rolling thunder-like echoes bounced around the valley. It didn’t sound quite like thunder, though, and our guide cheerfully said that it was an old bomb being detonated (in a controlled way). Sure enough, we could see on a nearby ridge a large puff of brown smoke indicating where it had gone off. Look in any direction in this region and it’s not hard to spot bomb craters, both old and new.

Clearing a potential vineyard of UXO would be essential before you could plant anything, or even walk around the site to check the soil. That would be time-consuming and expensive, as a considerable area would need to be planted to make the project commercially viable. To give some idea of how widespread UXO is here it’s instructive to look at the experience of Jars Site 1. It covers 25 hectares – smaller than a typical large-scale vineyard – and during clearance operations by MAG in 2004 (funded by NZ Aid) they discovered and detonated no less than 127 unexploded bombs. That’s five bombs per hectare – hardly the kind of return you are looking for when planting a vineyard.

Even if you could overcome all these obstacles and somehow manage to produce a decent drop from this land, the last hurdle would be convincing people that it was worth drinking. It would have to be cheap to be viable, and that would automatically imply in many people’s minds that it was inferior quality. “How could they possible produce good wine in Laos??”, would be the refrain. But that’s what they said 30 years ago about making quality wine in New Zealand, or Chile, or California. Didn’t they?

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