In 1703, King Tran Hy Tong described the wine distilled from rice by the people from Van Village in northern Bac Giang Province as perfect.
It was so good it was reserved for the royal court where it was often served at banquets. But now only Mai s family still holds on to the traditional way of distilling the liquor.
At 93, Mai works with industry and thoroughness to make the honoured drink, which can be found in no other region. The wine is known for its great delicacy and flavour. When poured, it s fragrance pervades the air. And it said that women can drink it without getting drunk.
Mai s spirits are distilled from nep cai hoa vang, high quality, large-grained and fragrant glutinous rice. About 30kg of rice is steamed into xoi (steamed glutinous rice). After being dried on wide bamboo trays, it is combined with brewer s yeast made from 35 different rare medicinal herbs.
Fermentation is the most important phase in the wine making process. After this, it is distilled in large urns that are heated so that the alcohol evaporates and condenses into spirit on a cold surface.
The quality of the yeast determines the strength and quality of the wine. In the old days, Van wine was made from the pure Cau River water. But times have changed and the river is polluted. Mai now makes her wine from rain water. She has a large tank to collect summer rain to make the wine in spring.
Mai s family has been making wine for generations. Mai learned to make wine from her mother at the age of 10. She was taught all the tricks of the trade, such as selecting and cooking the rice and making yeast. Her long experience, delicacy and aptitude has enabled her to refine the art.
Mai never tastes the various batches of wine to check the quality and evolution. She says tasting several kinds of wine at the same time can lead to mistakes. Mai just shakes a bottle, looks at the bubbles and inhales. This is enough for her to guage howthings are going.
In the old days, the heads of village families gathered at a New Year oath-taking ceremony and swore not to reveal the secret of making the wine to daughters and outsiders. But, things have changed. Mai is prepared to teach others to make Van wine to popularise the special drink, but so far, no one except her children have acquired the skills.
Once a couple of scholars and a chemist went to learn Mai s secret, hoping to produce Van wine on a large scale. They gave up after several days of joining Mai in her work because they found the process was too complicated and required too much manual labour.
Making wine is a painstaking job, Mai says. The time taken to make a batch of wine depends very much on the weather. When the nights starts to become chilly, Mai wakes up to warm the wine.
A batch is finished, not according to the clock, but the right ingredients, loving care and the weather. Mai makes wine at her own pace. She s never in a hurry, no matter how much her customers might urge her.
"Once, a rich man asked me to make a great deal of wine in a short time for his son s wedding. He offered a lot of money, but I refused the offer," Mai says. "I can t sell wine which I know is of low quality."
Being successful in any job requires a love for it, she says. "If I didn t love making wine, I would trade it."
Mai and her family are aware of Van wine values. They are among a small number of brewers determined to maintain traditional methods and to preserve the good reputation of their wine at any cost.
When the country was at war, life was hard. Both people and soldiers lacked food, so no one dared to use rice to make wine.
Then the State allowed them to make wine from cassava. Cassava wine is inferior to rice wine. It s much cheaper, but not as good. However, because making rice wine takes a lot of effort, many brewers in Van Village chose to make wine from cassava.
Many people in the village are getting rich from making cassava wine, but Mai and her family are satisfied with a simple life under an old roof.
"With my family s heritage and my mother s fame, we could be rich wine brewers," says Nguyen Trung Ca, Mai s youngest son. "But my mother teaches us to maintain village tradition and work for the family s prestige."
Ca says wine makers should understand chemistry if they aim to make good wine. They have to master ingredients and recipes to guarantee quality before they can develop a following or even a trademark.
Local people regard Mai s wine as an indispensable beverage for festivals, New Year celebrations and altar offerings. Thanks to the diligent efforts of Mai and her children, many people now have a chance to enjoy a wine once only found on imperial tables. VNS