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Thailand's tropical winemakers set out to rival Tuscany

'New latitude' labels are winning prizes, despite climate and soil issues

Winemaker Nikki Lohitnavy inspects vines at the family-owned GranMonte Asoke Valley winery, a roughly two-hour drive north of Bangkok. The area has evolved into a Thai version of Italy's Tuscany.   © Denis D. Gray

KHAO YAI, Thailand -- Nestled in a lush, humid valley where wild elephants come to snack among its banana groves, GranMonte may not be everyone's image of a classical vineyard. But its owners have set their sights high, aiming to challenge the world's finest vintages.

Energized and overhauled in recent years by Thailand's best-qualified and only female winemaker, the family-owned GranMonte Asoke Valley winery has already garnered a slew of awards in European and Asian competitions, and continues to experiment and innovate.

It is one of half a dozen wineries strung along the northern boundary of Khao Yai National Park, a region of forested hills, limestone crags and mushrooming tourism development that has evolved into a Thai version of Italy's Tuscany or California's Napa Valley. It was here, about two hours' drive northeast of Bangkok, that Thailand's pioneering winemakers planted their first grape vines just two decades ago.

"I don't think there is a limit to what we can achieve. The climate and soil may be different but you just have to know how to work out these things," said GranMonte's Nikki Lohitnavy, discounting the traditional notion that fine wines can be created only between the 30th and 50th degrees of latitude, and in Mediterranean-type climates. Thailand, which lies between five and 20 degrees north, falls into a growing category of "new latitude" winemaking countries that also includes India, Myanmar, Indonesia, Brazil, Mexico, Ethiopia, Kenya and China's Yunnan Province.

"We changed everything," Nikki said, talking about her work as general manager and winemaker after rejoining Thailand's "First Family of Wine" on her return from Australia, where in 2008 she earned a bachelor's degree in viticulture and oenology from the University of Adelaide. Her father, winery founder Visooth, serves as CEO, her mother Sakuna is president and handles finances, and younger sister Mimi heads marketing.

Syrah, along with chenin blanc, have proved the best varieties for winemaking in Thailand.   © Denis D. Gray

Initially growing just chenin blanc and syrah (also known as shiraz) -- the two most suitable grape varieties for the Thai climate -- Nikki has expanded GranMonte's palette to 20 varietals, accepting some and rejecting others as she strives for the best each can yield.

When not striding through the vineyard rows, she oversees her domain via computers in her compact winery, using two microclimate monitoring systems she installed in collaboration with two universities. Sensors and other equipment record rainfall, radiation, sunshine hours, soil moisture and other vital data, which she says is invaluable for deciding when best to plant, prune and harvest.

Without cold winters, which allow for dormancy, vines in tropical settings would normally produce a second crop each year. So to improve strength, health and grape complexity, shoots must be pruned to keep the vines from flowering a second time.

GranMonte sells about 40% of its output at its vineyard shop, a popular tourist stop.   © Denis D. Gray

"In the end these systems help the quality of the wine, and help us to manage things," said the dynamic 32-year-old, who works seven days a week and eschews a social life but says she would not trade her environment for an urban lifestyle. She does travel, though, having worked and consulted at wineries in Europe, South America and the U.S., bringing back new ideas.

"GranMonte is far and away the leader in dealing successfully with not only climate but through family dedication their wines are on par with competitors from all major global producing areas," said R.J. Mullen, a wine critic and writer who has tracked Thai wine development from the onset.

Thais have proved to be quick learners. The wine industries of many countries are built on centuries of tradition -- at least 6,000 years in Italy, according to the Smithsonian Museum in Washington. Thailand's first winery opened in 1992, but gathered real momentum only in the early 2000s when several businesspeople indulged their love of wine and purchased land in the Khao Yai region, with its clay and limestone soil, absence of extreme temperatures, adequate water supplies and altitudes of between 350 meters and 600 meters.

Not far from GranMonte, Piya Bhirombhakdi, known as the "Beer Baron of Thailand" because of his involvement with the ubiquitous Singha label, started PB Valley Khao Yai Winery. Virawat Cholvanich, an electrical engineer passionate about French wines, opened Village Farm, watched over by a nearby hilltop Buddhist temple. His ''La Fleur'' label is the most expensive in Thailand, costing 3,900 baht ($126) a bottle.

Two pioneers of Thai wine -- Visooth Lohitnavy, left, and Virawat Cholvanich -- stand above a vineyard at Virawat’s Village Farm.   © Denis D. Gray

Parallel to the growth of Khao Yai's wine industry has been a surge in tourism, generating income for wineries that offer tours, restaurants and accommodation. The area attracts 4.5 million visitors a year, about 90% of whom are Thai, according to Rungtip Bookkhuntod, regional director of the Tourism Authority of Thailand.

Gated housing estates, some with multimillion dollar villas used as second homes or retirement havens, have proliferated. These include Toscana Valley, a replicated Italian village spread out over a hillside complete with piazzas, fountains and crenelated towers, and fronted by a modern, 17-story, non-leaning take on the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Provence Khao Yai features farmhouses, seemingly plucked from the eponymous winegrowing region of southern France, with red-tiled roofs, Mediterranean pastel hues and French garden statuary.

Many Thai winery owners were inspired by trips to France, Italy and Germany, returning home ready to wrestle with environmental conditions and argue with government bureaucrats over one of the world's highest excise taxes, which makes it cheaper to drink Thai wine in Tokyo or Paris than in Bangkok. Depending on alcohol content and recommended retail price, growers pay as much as 400 baht a bottle in taxes.

Toscana Valley, a Thai replica of an Italian hill town, is one of several imitations of what one finds in the wine regions of Italy and France.   © Denis D. Gray

This persistent hurdle has hampered growth. Thailand produces less than half a million bottles a year from a dozen wineries. By contrast, the Bordeaux region of France averages more than 800 million bottles from some 6,500 growers. Of GranMonte's output of 90,000 bottles, 80% is sold domestically, with the rest exported to Japan, Hong Kong, the Philippines and a restaurant in France's Loire Valley. It plans to triple production in the next five to six years.

"In terms of industry size and support -- in fact I should say being penalized -- by the government we are very young, even in the infancy stage," said Supot Krijpipudh, owner of the Alcidini winery. "But there are already wineries up to international standards."

Supot, a self-taught winemaker who favors Italian-style wines, set out an array for tasting, beginning with a blend of syrah and muscat straight out of the fermenting tank. "Just to check its potential," Supot said. Visooth, who was visiting Alcidini, labeled it "refreshing." Then the two winemakers raised their glasses to the future of their passion.

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