The Thai vineyards: unforgettable and unclassifiable

As beautiful as it is fragile, as wild as it is welcoming, it exceeded all my expectations. Defying the laws of classical viticulture. Off the beaten track and reserving some wine treasures… The Thai vineyards are a really nice discovery!

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Thailand has a dozen wine estates, mainly in the Khao Yai region (in the north), which cover less than 4,000 hectares(1). Lets discover a fascinating wine world, consisting of a handful of passionate (and positively crazy) people.

Enthusiasm displayed despite major challenges

Having landed at dawn at Bangkok airport (4:30 am), I was pleasantly surprise by the professionalism of the Thai taxis: clearly posted prices, a unique queue and impeccable service. As soon as I arrived in the capital, a special atmosphere got hold of me.

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The joyful bazaar of the electric wires in the streets, the delicious smell of food in the air, the morning song of the birds and the still sleeping city gave me the impression of absolute plenitude.

I met with Mr. Pairach Intaput, the President of the Sommeliers’ Association of Thailand, at Bo Lan Restaurant – the ultimate Thai food refinement. Here I had the opportunity to learn that the wine history of the country – which started in 1995 with Château de Loei (now abandoned) and then with GranMonte in 1999 – is just beginning to emerge. “Since the promotion of wine is forbidden in Thailand, it is for the moment impossible to write a book on the subject. Moreover, the sommelier association has only officially been recognized since 2015: before, wine was assimilated to other strong beverages and responsible of alcoholism”, Mr. Intaput explained.

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Here, as in many humid and tropical climate countries, it is possible to do up to two harvests per year : with a dry season – where temperatures can easily exceed 40°C, and a rainy season – during which the vegetative cycle of the vine is severely tested.

For most conscientious winemakers, only the grapes produced during the dry season are harvested. Then, thanks to a product called Dormex – a plant growth regulator that is generally applied within 48 hours after harvest – uniform budbreak is promoted ; so that the plant can rest.

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“It’s not difficult to grow vines in Thailand. However, taking into consideration the atmospheric pressure and permanent humidity, it is (almost) impossible to make organic wines, as treatment against diseases such as mildew or gray rot is inevitable”, according to Mr. Intaput.

GranMonte, a beautiful family success story

After having met up with my friend Amélie Mornex – a French oenologist who loves making wine in Asia and who has been spending most of her time there for years – we headed to GranMonte, a two and a half hour drive north of Bangkok.

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The first impression upon arriving in front of this 15-hectare estate, at 350 meters above sea level, left me speechless. This vineyard was planted in 1999 on soils of clay, loess and limestone, rigorously cut into twenty blocks and have no less than twenty grape varieties coexisting… Among them, some international varieties such as Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chenin Blanc, Grenache and Viognier. As well as other more surprising varieties, such as Semillon, Verdelho and Durif(2)!

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We met with the adorable Lohitnavy family. Visooth, the dad – a former racing driver and editor of an automotive magazine – wanted to make a change in his life to make wine. Sakuna, the mom, runs the restaurants and cafe of the estate. Mimi, the younger daughter, is taking care of marketing and public relations. And Nikki, the eldest of the two sisters, is responsible for viticulture and winemaking.

It was with excitement that we rose the next day at dawn for a harvest session of Chenin Blanc! Scissors in hand (not easy but quite fun), we cut the bunches in good humor under beautiful sunshine. 

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The sanitary aspect of the grapes is superb, promising a beautiful vintage.

Nikki Lohitnavy, the revelation in terms of tropical viticulture

I say it without detour : who says never having drunk a “great wine” from a tropical viticulture has not yet drunk one of GranMonte’s wines…
I already see from here people rising to the niche on the notion of great wines, crying out for heresy. Not at all ! Firstly, what is a great wine? This is a very personal question… A question of emotion, joy, deep feeling, plenitude, gluttony, which I like to describe as a moment as intense and comforting as a night by the fire in the arms of a loved one.

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Meeting with Nikki Lohitnavy. “At the age of 10, I wanted to be a botanist”. Graduated in oenology from the prestigious university of Adelaide, Nikki first traveled the world to train perfecting her technique, especially in northern Brazil, where she learned how to tame vines in an extremely humid environment. In 2009, she did her first vintage at GranMonte. A real qualitative shift for the estate, according to the press. This is a revelation.

From the straw on the vine trunks (to reduce the number of herbicidal sprays and to add organic matter to the soil), to the banana fibers used to tie the vines (for their eco-friendly aspect), Nikki is constantly experimenting. “I am currently experimenting with four new grape varieties: Sangiovese, Barbera, Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca. My dream would be to have more room to test many other grape varieties, but land is very expensive here”.

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The technology and equipment used on the estate are not bad either. “We operate our vineyard with a precision agricultural system called ‘Smart Vineyard‘, which incorporates microclimatic monitoring to help us to achieve the best grape quality potential in this unconventional viticulture climate”.

Nikki literally opened my eyes, by showing me that with passion, a lot of know-how, hard work on vines and state-of-the-art equipment, it is possible to make fantastic wines in tropical viticulture.

Oenotourism, the key to success

Despite its recent wine history, Thailand is already very advanced in wine tourism. Bravo !
As in Silverlake (Pattaya), where around 800,000 visitors annually visit the estate (!). People are fond of visiting the different parts of the estate by minibus. A real “amusement park” experience, extended at lunchtime in the restaurant and in the evening in one of the very nice Hollywood style rooms of the resort.

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In a more “zen” style, at Village Farm & Winery, in the Khao Yai area, you can meditate in the middle of the vineyards for a weekend, enjoying the calmness of the rooms without television or internet.

On the “nature” side, Alcidini Winery, the smallest Thai vineyard with 8 hectares, welcomes visitors in its pedagogical field conducted with an organic philosophy. A real challenge in a such humid part of the world : no pesticides, the use of sheep to eat the grass between the rows of vines and buying cow manure from the neighboring farmer.

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Finally, on the “music” side, the annual Jazz & Wine festival organized at GranMonte, which we had the chance to attend and enjoy, is a must-see cultural event.

Beautiful and fragile nature to preserve

On the way back, we had the good fortune of making two epic nature stops. The perfect opportunity for me to narrate the beauty of the Thai biodiversity to you and, I hope to make you want to (re)visit it!
Elephant Stay : a site dedicated to the protection and preservation of elephants. They are trained for parades and military demonstrations (in memory of their use as strike force during wartime). We enjoyed watching the daily shower of these impressive mammals, who are as comfortable as fish in the water.

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Khao Yai National Park, highlight of the stay. With 80km of coastline from east to west, this UNESCO World Heritage site is the country’s second largest park and is one of the largest forests in Asia. You can even pitch a tent there for the night… for a most exotic nature revival experience.

WineExplorers’ cheers,
JBA

 

Thank you to GranMonte, Alcidini, Village Farm Winery, Silverlake and PB Valley for their warm welcome.
Thank you to the organisation of the Khao Yai National Park, and especially to our lovely guide, Ms. Issaya Siriwachanawong, for having taken us off the beaten path. Finally, thanks to the team of Elephant Stay for having allowed us to admire the bath of the elephants: an unforgettable moment. And to my friend Amélie Mornex, who helped me a lot with pictures during this trip. 

(1) Thai vineyards are found in three regions ranging from 110 to 530 meters above sea level: Prachuap Khiri Khan (Hua Hin) and Pattaya in the center of the country and Khao Yai in the north.
(2) Durif is a French variety originating from the Dauphiné, a spontaneous crossing of Poutin and Syrah. Named petite syrah or petite sirah in California, it is also known by this name in Australia, New Zealand or South Africa. Finally, it is also known under the names of bas plant, dure, duret, dureza, duriff, dyurif, gros noir, Kek Durif, nérin, pareux noir, petit duret, petite serine, petite sirah, petite syrah, pinot de l’Ermitage, pinot de Romans, plant durif, plant fourchu, serine, serine des Mauves, sirane fourchue, sirane de Tain and syrah forchue.