Published in Expat Lifestyle Magazine, Thailand
THAI cuisine is legendary, from the spiciness of som tam to the aroma of tom yam. When it comes to Thai wine though, it’s a different matter. The idea of producing fine quality wine in Thailand may seem as likely as England enjoying a bumper banana crop.
But things are changing. Improbable as it may seem, the Kingdom’s modest but burgeoning vineyards are producing wine that is popular at home and abroad. Purists long believed that growing wine in a country with Thailand’s latitude and climate would never work. Piya Bhirombhakdi didn’t listen and started his vineyard more than 15 years ago.
The PB Valley now produces Chenin Blanc, Shiraz and Pirom, a high-end wine. Piya’s pioneering efforts were soon followed and now several vineyards can be found among the verdant valleys and mist-covered mountains of Khao Yai National Park, in north-east Thailand.
Virawat Cholvanich was another who found an ideal spot close to Khao Yai. Around 500 metres above sea level, with 1,400mm of annual rainfall and low humidity, the Village Farm which Virawat launched has been carefully cultivated to produce a quality grape.
Engineer Virawat said: “We started about eight years ago by growing cool climate crops such as sweet corn and sweet potato, then some of our friends in France said the area could be good for wine. We did experiments for one year and it looked good.”
He formed a partnership with a French vineyard and in 2002 the first harvest yielded 20,000 bottles. This year more than 40,000 bottles will be produced.
It’s a modest amount, but Virawat is realistic and knows the goal is quality, not quantity. “We can never be competitive because this is not our native crop and, even though here we have the best climate in Thailand, it’s more difficult than in Australia or France due to disease control and the lower yield.”
Tasting the winery’s Chateau Des Brumes (so named after the early morning mist which envelopes the vines) one is struck by just how good it is. A full-bodied, ruby-coloured wine with hints of wood and leather, it demands respect. Respect is something many Thai wines deserve but only occasionally receive. To help remedy this there is the Thai Wine Association, formed in 2004.
Visooth Lohitnavy, the Association’s President, believes one of the association’s most salient challenges is to change public perception.
Visooth, whose GranMonte Vineyard in Khao Yai’s Asoke Valley produces 60,000 bottles a year, said: “Locally the perception of Thai wine is still low compared to imported wines.
“This is because it is a new industry; local grape wine seriously started to appear in the market here less than ten years ago. Also, most wine drinkers have been used to old world and then new world wines for many decades.
“Some people have the bad habit of liking to show off their ‘class’ by drinking imported or well-known and expensive brand wines, even though many of our local wines are much better in quality than many of the imports.
“I must say that this situation has improved considerably compared to 5-10 years ago, mostly as result of hard work from Thai Wine Association members.”
Abroad, their job is equally tough. Many foreigners perceive Thai wine as being ‘so-so’, Visooth said, and most of the Kingdom’s exported wine goes to patriotic Thai restaurants rather than to a wider market.
“The dilemma is how can you have cheap wine with high quality from Thailand when we have high production costs compared to many other countries?” asked Visooth.
As well as facing a sceptical market, Visooth said the industry has to face up to several other challenges. These include high levels of tax, free-trade agreements with major wine-producing countries, and Thais’ preference for hard liquor over healthier, lower-alcohol wine.
Visooth is confident the quality of the product will eventually convince drinkers to try Thai, but that doesn’t mean Thailand is about to start competing with the likes of France and Australia. The Thai Wine Association represents several vineyards across the country including Mae Chan in Chiang Rai, Shala One in the northern Pichit province, Gran Monte and PB Valley, both near Khao Yai, and the Siam Winery on the Chao Phraya Delta.
A lack of support from the government and from local consumers means all will have to overcome major obstacles if they are to succeed on a large scale. As Visooth points out: “Since we are new and small, we must focus more on quality.”
At The Village Farm the focus is definitely more on quality than quantity. Virawat has created a winery based on tradition rather than a factory based on profit, and says his creation is a ’boutique’ not a profit-driven business. It’s possible to stay in one of the comfortable cabins that overlook the vineyards and take part in the wine-tasting sessions.
In front of the vineyard is a stone-walled winery where oak-panelled casks house the grapes and stainless steel fermentation tanks add a modern touch to the traditional art. Situated at the start of the Korat Plateau, the Village Farm is in a picture-perfect location. Harvest time is late February or early March and sees a special midnight ceremony occur, where the cooler night air is ideal for handpicking the grapes and taking them to the winery. Once the grapes are inside the barrels, samples are tested every two days, and every ten days some are sent to France for inspection. It is a labour of love, but the question remains whether Thais will ever share the same affection.
The Kingdom is not famed for producing wine and its people are not renowned for consuming it. Thailand is a nation of beer and whisky drinkers, but Virawat is confident that is slowly changing. “Thai people are starting to drink wine and the health aspect and advice from the medical people is helping with that change.” Visooth is less confident. “There is almost no hope of changing the drinking habits of the majority of Thais, as there is so much hidden interest involved that the government would not want to change that.”
The Thai government certainly doesn’t help. It levies a 60 per cent tax on wine, which is often bumped up to 200 per cent. The government views wine as a luxury item, although inferior versions of wine which include fruit only pay 20 per cent tax. This may change if consumption rises and consumers demand better value, but for now it’s a big obstacle.
As I left one vineyard, the first wine of the season was being poured into bottles. How many more bottles will be filled over the coming years depends largely on quality and public perception. Much like the grapes slowly fermenting in the oak casks, Thailand’s wine industry may not see rapid progress, but it is maturing nicely.