Mulberry vintage of Tambunan

Bernadine showing a bottle of his mulberry wine.

As I read the calling card handed to me by Bernardine Philip, I’m struck by the term he uses to describe his occupation – “vintner”.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines vintner as both a wine merchant and a wine maker. In Bernardine’s case, both definitions fit him perfectly.

He was among the vendors offering their products to delegates at the recent World Indigenous People’s Day conference in Penampang.

Bernardine, or Ben as his friends call him, was offering samples of his ruby-coloured mulberry wine.

The unique wine is brewed in his house in the interior district of Tambunan, approximately 80km across the Crocker Range from Kota Kinabalu.

Ben’s mulberry wine, marketed under the brand Kasarahan (which means memorable), is both sweet and fruity, making it exceptionally easy to enjoy.

However, it packs a punch with an estimated alcohol content of about 15%.

The ripening mulberries at Luas’ farm. The harvest is usually three times a year.The ripening mulberries at Luas’ farm. The harvest is usually three times a year.

Similar to many members of his Kadazandusun community, Ben grew up observing his mother and other family members brewing lihing – a traditional rice wine – from glutinous rice (pulut) or tapioca.

His journey into winemaking began eight years ago when he started brewing lihing and selling it to tourism players in Kota Kinabalu.

With the Covid-19 pandemic keeping tourists away, Ben left his administrative job at a tour company and returned to his native Tambunan. At home, he ventured into making wines from ginger, rambutan, bananas, pineapples, mangoes, soursop, and even cinnamon.

“Some were more palatable than others,” Ben said when asked about the results of his winemaking experiments.

Retired journalist Leon Coma, who now stays in Tambunan, says people in the district have a knack for concocting wines using a wide variety of ingredients.

“They’ll turn almost any fruit and water into wine,” Coma remarked with a grin.

Approximately five years ago, Ben learned about mulberry plants being cultivated in Kampung Tudan in Kiulu and how villagers there were producing wine from the fruit.

However, it was was only during the pandemic that he noticed some Tambunan residents making and selling their own mulberry wines.

That piqued his curiosity about where they got their mulberries.His inquiry led him to the farm of Luas @ Lasius Limbasod at Kampung Lotong, near the border of Tambunan and Keningau.

Luas uses these steel containers to ferment the mulberries into wine.Luas uses these steel containers to ferment the mulberries into wine.

Luas, a 63-year-old farmer, began cultivating mulberry trees in 2017, starting with 60 cuttings given to him by a relative.

“I had heard about the medicinal properties of mulberry leaf tea. At that time, I was suffering from hypertension, diabetes, and gout. The mulberry trees grew well, and I began consuming mulberry leaf tea, which improved my health,” Luas explained.

From his existing trees, Luas obtained more cuttings, and by his estimate, he now has over 1,000 mulberry trees covering a 2.4ha area on his 26ha farm, where he also cultivates hill padi and rubber trees.

With an increasing number of mulberry trees, Luas found himself with an abundant harvest of mulberries, yielding as much as 30kg, three times a year.

“At first, the mulberries were just food for the birds,” Luas recalled.

In 2019, he ventured into making mulberry wine with an initial batch of just over 18 litres.

“The taste was decent, but I knew I had to improve my winemaking skills,” Luas noted. His skills improved when Ben visited his farm three years ago in search of mulberries.

Luas’ grandchildren Olga (left) and Bryan showing their ‘harvest’ of mulberries.Luas’ grandchildren Olga (left) and Bryan showing their ‘harvest’ of mulberries.

“We encourage each other to enhance our winemaking techniques, such as experimenting with different types of yeasts in the brewing process,” Ben mentioned.

Thanks to his extensive mulberry acreage, Luas can now produce as much as 1,200 litres of mulberry wine per harvest, establishing himself as one of the largest producers in Sabah.

Luas is grateful that Tambunan residents are now more receptive to mulberry wine, creating a ready market for his product, which is still sold in 1.5-litre plastic bottles without labels.

On the other hand, Ben takes a more upscale approach, selling his mulberry wine in glass bottles at events such as the Sabah International Expo from Sept 22 to 24.

“Demand for our mulberry wine is growing, especially during festive periods like Christmas,” Ben noted.

“Just as California has Napa Valley for winemaking, I don’t see any reason why the Tambunan valley couldn’t become Sabah’s own winemaking region with the right support,” Coma concluded.

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