Travel Logs from 2009
Winemaking in the Tropics - Part 1
I am on my way to visit the vineyards of Thailand. I have already learned about some of the many challenges they face, but now I will learn how they are overcoming them.
Growing grapes in the tropics takes a different approach than in the temperate climes. Vines do not get a chance to achieve dormancy, they grow vigorously all year round. This leads to the "Two Seasons, one Crop" approach, which means that there is only one harvest, even though there could conceivably be two. This increases the quality of the grapes, since the vine does not have to produce fruit twice.
Then there is the rain. This is a monsoon climate, and when it rains, it pours, for months. Wet leaves rot and this would not at all be a suitable time for producing fruit beneath a leafy canopy. And so, harvest takes place in the winter. We are not below the Equator, so harvesting in February and March means growing during the dark months. This has a direct effect on the amount of photosynthesis the vines can achieve.
High water tables in at least one of the vineyards we have visited so far, necessitate rather drastic soil management. A moisture barrier has to be placed 15 feet down, and then stones, in this case slate, is used to fill in the hole, greatly increasing the drainage potential of the vineyards. This keeps the water from rising too far, while allowing surface rains and irrigation to trickle down, nourishing the roots.
Heat is also a major concern, not only in the vineyard, but in the winery. I have tried some wine that tastes as if it may have been made in conditions that were inappropriately hot, but herein lies the rub. Was the wine damaged during production, or transportation and storage?
No matter how careful the wine producers are, the transportation and storage conditions, or more properly, the lack of them, spells disaster for much of the wine. Restaurants and stores often have no refrigeration for the wines, and even if they did, the truck the wine was delivered in may well not.
The heat is also problematic for making wines which contain residual sugar. Those I have visited with blame the heat for restarting fermentation in the bottle, or in many cases the "bag in a box" bladder. I personally think that better sterile filtering practices could make such wines possible, but I will learn more as I visit more wineries in the next few days.
Why the emphasis on wines with RS? The food. Spicy chiles are not easy to pair with wine, and while many producers insist their dry reds go well with the foods, I can't help but point out that I prefer slightly sweet whites with spicy food.
With many thanks to the Thai Wine Association who have invited me to tour their member wineries, I am off to explore and learn about the Thai wine industry. A full report will be coming to a blog near you next week.
Winemaking in the Tropics - Part 2
Wow. I have just come back from visiting one small corner of the Thai wine making industry, and I am really quite impressed. With tropical grape growing changing all of the rules, these hearty mavens have managed to beat all the odds and produce world class wines in a monsoon climate.
To be fair, I was pretty impressed with India's efforts as well, so it shouldn't have come as much as a shock as it did. In India I didn't have a chance to tour the vineyards, an oversight I hope to correct in the not to distant future. Seeing the Thai vines in person was an enlightening experience.
I saw well tended row after row of primarily young vines which were already producing decent enough fruit to make outstanding wines. I also saw older vines that while only in their teens, were capable of churning out reserve quality grapes, year after year.
I also witnessed the heartbreak of a 30% loss of crop due to the unusually long rainy period that has yet to subside. The immature grapes were devastated by Powdery Mildew (Oidium) leaving behind fruitless vines and dashed hopes.
In the coming series of reports I will relate the tales of four commercial wineries, each with a slightly different approach to success. One who avails themselves of a little help from France, one who is creating a Grand Cru style estate, another who has found the balance between tourism and quality, and finally a large concern who's wine cooler business helps them afford to take chances on their premium wines.
I also found one producer who has yet to turn commercial, but his highly inventive nature has led him to experiment with ideas that push the envelope of vineyard management. While his vintages to date have only yielded enough wine for friends and family (a mere 1000 bottles) his wines were among the finest I have tasted in Thailand.
In no small part my trip was especially memorable for the company I kept. Not only the incredibly generous winery owners and staff, but by the presence of the hard working and eminently impressive Denis Gastin.
Denis is a wine writer from Australia who's tireless efforts on behalf of the Asian wine industry are an inspiration. Expect to see more about Asia on my web site in the coming months, as I elevate this continent's visibility to the status it deserves.
In the minds of many, not to mention my own, Asia is not a player in the world wine scene. This is simply wrong, and it is high time everyone knew about it.
Siam Winery is no tiny concern. With 1.2 million liters of tank capacity for fine wine, and twice that for the profitable wine cooler venture, they are the big boys in the region. Their 72 acres of grapes are spread over several locations, including one parcel that is actually planted among canals.
The image of a boat paddling through the Floating Vineyards is only slightly upstaged by the shot of the elephants in the vineyards at Hua Hin Hills. This is certainly not any wine country most of us are used to. Don't be fooled by the tourist friendly visage, this is a serious wine concern, making serious wine.
Kathrin Puff is the winemaker, and an incredibly capable one at that. Hailing from Germany she spent years in Italy before coming to take the reins here in Thailand. Her approach is to take the best of technology without going overboard, and the best of the organic approach, without being limited.
The Floating Vineyards are the source of the local vinifera varieties Mlaga Blanc and Red Pokdum. Their Chenin Blanc, Colombard and Syrah are sourced from the slopes of the Hua Hin Hills Vineyards, which is ever expanding.
Hua Hin Hills has issues with high water tables due to their proximity to the jungle covered mountains, so they have had to dig down 15 meters and place water barriers and add shale and other stones for drainage. This huge effort has been well rewarded by decent quality fruit from surprisingly young vines. The quality can only go up as the average age of the vines increases.
Housed in an industrial facility the winery is not at all impressive from the outside, but the interior more than makes up for that. The barrel room is well maintained and there are plans in the works to double its size.
Kathrin is a fan of micro-oxigynation so the lower level wines are not penalized by failing to get a chance to develop secondary aromas through barrel aging. The Monsoon Valley wines show the care and crafting you would expect from a small hands on winery, so the sight of the sprawling tank rooms might catch you off guard.
The scale of the fine wine production is nothing in comparison to the wine cooler facility. Here bottles whip by at blinding speed, 24/7 being filled, labeled and packed for the never ending demand for these "starter" wines. The commercial success of the coolers ensures that there is the needed capital for expanding and improving the fine wine division.
This fiscal planning is not only evident in their diversification, but also through their distribution. Not only is Monsoon Valley one of the most prominent Thai wines in stores and restaurants, they have their own retail outlet here in the high end resort of Hua Hin. This tiny shop in an upscale mall allows visitors to taste and buy the wines in the comfort of a beach town, without having to trek into the countryside or halfway to Bangkok.
But if treking is your thing the Hua Hin Hills facility will welcome you with their modern tasting room and dining facilities and tours are even available for the main winery. More information can be found at http://www.monsoonvalleywine.com/.
Impeccably maintained vineyards. A sprawling estate complete with world class dining, and stunning gardens. Tasting rooms that are bright and airy, and large enough for bus loads of visitors. This is an image that would not be out of place at a top flight California wine producer, or even a First Growth French Chateau, but I am describing Granmonte, one of Thailand's most impressive wine destinations.
Visooth Lohitnavy envisioned creating a grand estate among the jungle clad granite cliffs in the Asoke Valley of the Khao Yai region of Thailand, and he has made it all come to pass. With determination, and evidently no small sum of money, he has created a jewel where you least expect to find one.
Planted primarily to Syrah and Chenin Blanc with a few rows of Cabernet Sauvignon to experiment with, the vineyards of Granmonte are text book examples of modernity. Employing the Smart Vineyard System, data about the vineyards can be accessed from anywhere in the world.
This is especially important for the next generation of the Lohitnavy family as daughter Nikki studies enology in Australia while monitoring the family vineyards and sending her father regular directions for field adjustments based on real time data.
So just how well does all of this attention to detail pay off? I was quite impressed with their their efforts, but the even harder to impress International panel of judges at the 2008 Syrah du Monde blind tasted their Primavera Syrah and awarded it with a Silver Medal.
Tasting the wines of Granmonte is only half of the fun. Visiting the estate affords you the opportunity to enjoy the exquisite VinCotto restaurant. My tenderloin of Australian beet with French Foie Gras would have been amazing anywhere, but set among the lush tropical foliage of the Thai countryside it was a revelation. Keeping with the family theme, Visooth's wife Sakuna is responsible for the wide range of flavors the restaurant has to offer.
The delights of the restaurant are available to go at the tasting room, with a selection of Sakuna's sauces and preserves sold along side the fine selection of wines. Enjoy a sip of Chenin Blanc, then walk the grounds and admire the lotus pond before settling in for a fine meal at the restaurant and a bottle of their award winning Syrah.
Just two hours from Bangkok, Granmonte is well worth the trip. For more information on visiting Granmonte the next time you are in Thailand, or to learn more about the estate and its ever evolving plans, visit their web site at http://www.granmonte.com/. Tell them I sent you.
PB Khao Yai Winery
What does it take to be a pioneer in the wine business? Vision, drive, a great love of wine, and of course, money. Dr. Piya Bhirombhakdi found himself in possession of all of these prerequisites and so in 1989 he fulfilled his dream and started PB Khao Yai Winery.
The Bhirombhakdi family are no strangers to the beverage industry. They founded Thailand's first brewery in 1933 and so it is only fitting that they should also lead the way in wine making. Today the PB Winery produces over one million bottles of wine annually from 130 acres of vineyards.
The ubiquitous Syrah and Chenin Blanc are well represented, but PB's Tempranillo which is not widely planted in Thailand, it is also amazingly good. This Spanish grape seems an obvious choice for the warm climate of these southern latitudes. I expect to see more of it from other producers in the future.
The large area of plantings allows PB to source grapes from a myriad number of micro-climates. This not only gives the fruit a variety of characteristics, it helps to mitigate the chance of disaster. Mildew may pop up in one side of the vineyard, but down the dell and around the corner chances are the vines are safe.
The banana trees that can be seen from the vineyards are the only indication you have that this is not your ordinary grape growing region. One of the first of the "New Latitude Wines" as they refer to themselves in Thailand, PB's vineyards are among the most mature and healthy of those we witnessed.
The entry level of wines go by the charming name of Sawasdee, which means "hello" in Thai. True to their name the wines are welcome and a good place to start. The Pirom line is in the middle, with PB Reserve taking the top position. Chenin Blanc can be found at all three levels, and Shiraz at the top and bottom, but Tempranillo is only used for the Pirom wines.
The winery and vineyards are open for tours and the Great Hornbill Grill is the on site restaurant. We had quite the feast when Piya himself hosted us, but any visitor will enjoy their selection of Thai and Western dishes. In the mood for something simple and familiar? A wood fired pizza and plenty of Singha beer on tap may be just the thing you are looking for.
400 people a day on the weekends come to marvel at this wine estate. Set among the jungle growth of this tropical locale, it is situated less than two hours outside of Bangkok. If you prefer to skip the crowds come out during the week and take in the sights and flavors of Thai wine country. To make tour arrangements or for more information, visit their web site at http://www.khaoyaiwinery.com.
Some of my favorite Syrah/Shiraz I tasted in Thailand came from a winery that is not yet a winery. Produced in a well maintained, temperature controlled room not much bigger than a large walk-in closet, these wines were carefully handcrafted with low tech, off the shelf equipment that wasn't even really made for wine making.
Such is the ingenuity of Supot Krijpipudh, the one man tour de force of what someday will become Alcidini Winery. At 20 acres of mostly Shiraz, with a few rows of Muscat Blau thrown in, the vineyards are not huge, but they are thriving under the careful scrutiny of one of the most innovative wine personalities I have ever met.
Supot is an engineer, and his penchant for experimentation shows not only in his superb wines, but in his careful attention to detail in the vineyard. His vines were the only ones I saw that use the Lyre system of trellising in Thailand. A system advocated by Richard Smart, the Australian who revolutionized vineyard management.
Geneva Double Curtain (GDC) is a more common system, and Supot has not abandoned it either. Instead he is using GDC on the bottom half of his vines. This odd combination of trellising is due to one of his more unusual experiments. Supot is hoping to grow two grape varieties on the same trunk. Shiraz on the top, Muscat on the bottom.
The thinking is that with the potential for two harvests a year in tropical Thailand, but greater quality from limiting the vines to one fruiting, he can have the best of both worlds. The Shiraz will do its thing on the top, and then six months later Muscat will be harvested from the bottom.
Time will tell if this works out, but I am intrigued to say the least. If he manages to make it come to pass there may be a quiet revolution in vineyard management from this tiny corner of Thailand. If not, well Supot is only having fun and isn't committing many resources to the project.
Alcidini has only produced enough wine for a few friends and family, albeit very loyal ones that bought out his entire 1500 bottle run last year. This year he is looking at a more commercial output of 5,500 bottles which while still tiny, puts him in line with many others in the boutique winery class. He will continue to ramp up over the next few years.
It may be decades before you get an opportunity to visit the winery, which for now is just that tiny shed and a house with a view that is still under construction. In the future if you happen to get a chance to get a hold of one of the Alcidini Wines, go out of your way to try it.
Village Farm Winery
With an on premise spa, accommodations, restaurant, and soon even their own brand of cheeses, Village Farm Winery is a resort destination for wine lovers and the merely curious alike. That's not even to mention the wines, which are well worth mentioning.
At the entry level there is a delightful rose of Syrah with the even more delightful name of Ma Cherrie. The Village Cellar line offers a 100% Chenin Blanc and a Shiraz with 15% Cabernet Sauvignon. Both of these are fruit forward styles that are easy to enjoy.
The Chateau des Brumes Shiraz / Cab blends have a name that evokes France, and this is more than a coincidence. In a controversial, but highly successful move, the des Brumes wines are made in part from Cabernet grape concentrate brought in from France.
This practice is somewhat akin to chaptalization which is the adding of sugar to increase the potential alcohol of a wine. Some would say the most honest way of accomplishing this would be the addition of concentrated grape juice, which is exactly what des Brumes is doing.
It is not only the addition of the sweetening agent that some might consider to be cheating, but that the grapes come from France. No laws are being broken, and the resulting wines are of excellent quality, so it is mostly a question of honesty on the label that is at stake. Chateau des Brumes is completely honest about the origin of their wine.
I usually let the product in the glass make up my mind about a wine, and in this case Chateau des Brumes gets my vote. There are three levels of the Shiraz blend, a Gold label with 15% Cabernet Sauvignon, the Les Prestige with its mauve color label and 30% Cab and at the top La Fleur a royal blue colored label and 40% Cab with the longest aging in oak barrels.
The vineyards are maturing and the amount of French wine they are adding is decreasing, but during my visit there I saw first hand one of the reasons they like to hedge their bets.
More than 1/3 of their Cabernet fruit had been destroyed by that oldest of vine pests, powdery mildew. Oidium as it is known to the techie crowd was one of the nails in the coffin of the French wine industry in the late 19th century, but it is far from unheard of even in modern times.
Fungicide and other extreme measures can be taken to prevent the mildew, but you have to commit to spraying before it shows up, and in this day and age the unbridled use of petrochemicals is not highly regarded by careful stewards of the land. Therefore they take their licks, and keep on trying to produce the highest quality grapes they can.
The resort itself is a treat to visit. Taking the rustic air of the Village Farm name to heart the whole place is designed to evoke a visit back to simpler times, but without any sacrifice of comfort.
The rooms are sparse but comfortable and overlook a whirlpool bath and pool. The day spa has all of the usual treatments and massages that Thailand is famous for, and the old barn converted to a restaurant hosts daily wine appreciation courses.
A small glass window bust-out lets visitors peek into the winery itself. Carved out of the ground with much of the bare rock left exposed, it has a real traditional wine cave feeling that also helps to keep the temperature down. The winery is tiny, and only has two basket presses to process the grapes as they come in. It seems an impossible task. Half of what little space they have is set aside for the temperature controlled barrel aging room.
Combining hand ons techniques with modern advances and some good old fashioned ingenuity they make the best of what they have, and every glass of wine they pour proves the results.
Viravrat Cholvanich took what was an only a fruit farm just a decade ago, and has added to it a modern wine destination. The plans for the next generation are in place with daughter Viravadee having already taken over the reins as Managing Director.
Further down the road then some of the other wineries of the area, Village Farm is the perfect place to end your tour of the wine scene centered around Khao Yai National Park. Enjoy a facial and back rub, saunter over to experience a Thai Fusion dinner, pop a couple of corks, and then rest up in your room after a brisk swim and soak.
Visit their web site at http://www.villagefarm.co.th/ to learn more about them, or to book accommodations.
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