Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Heard it on the Grapevine

Guest blogger Kerry van der Jagt raises a glass to Thailand's fledgling wine industry, which is now producing quality drops in beautiful locations.

In a game of word association mention ‘Thai wines’ and most people will say ‘cat’s pee’, followed quickly by ‘pass me a Singha will you’. Over the years I’ve been as guilty as the rest, though an avid wine drinker at home, I morph into a beer guzzler as soon as I board a plane for Thailand. Drinking wine in the tropics just seems wrong. 

But all that changed once I visited Khao Yai Hills, the ‘Bordeaux of Thailand’, a two-hour drive north-east of Bangkok. Although Thailand’s wine industry is only two decades young it is already producing a range of award-winning blends taking on the big guns of Europe. Leading the charge is Thailand’s youngest and only female oenologist, 25-year-old Nikki Lohitnavy of GranMonte Estate. Trained at the University of Adelaide Nikki has pinched some Aussie know-how and blended it with local conditions.

GranMonte Estate meaning "big mountain", is a boutique winery planted with shiraz, tempranillo, cabernet sauvignon, chenin blanc and viognier. With its sweeping mountain views, landscaped gardens, cellar door and guest house, GranMonte would be at home in any of the great wine regions of the world. Over lunch Nikki tells me about some of the awards they have won: a silver medal at the 2010 Syrah du Monde, France; two awards from London Decanter (2010); and a silver medal for their Spring chenin blanc at the 2009 Austrian Wine Challenge in Vienna. The 2009 Sakuna Rose is a standout, but it’s the Spring Chenin Blanc I grow to love, its crispness balancing the fiery flavours of Thai food. And the best bit? No beer belly afterwards.

P B Valley Winery - Piya Bhirombhakdi, eldest son of the Singha empire, also grew to appreciate wine in the tropics. Bored with the beer he began coaxing shiraz and chenin blanc grapes to grow on the fertile slopes of the Khao Yai Hills back in 1989. Today, P B Valley is one of the largest wineries in the country offering wine appreciation tours, tastings, a la carte dining and what has to be one of the coolest hotel rooms I’ve seen, a tepee in a vineyard. “It’s a hornbill’s nest,” says my guide indignantly. These Sam Toucan-looking characters are a big deal around here, not only appearing on the P B Valley wine label and as a mascot in the Great Hornbill Grill, but in person (in bird?) in the Khao Yai National Park next door. Where else can you sip fine wines one minute, then pop into a UNESCO World Heritage-listed park complete with wild populations of elephant, tiger, Malayan sun bear, barking deer and great hornbill the next. Take your swimmers; the waterfalls in the national park are top shelf (Heo Suwat falls were featured in The Beach).

                                                     (Pics: Kerry van der Jagt, 2012)

Getting there: Join an organised tour, hire a car and driver from Bangkok (which is what I did) or catch a train or bus to Pak Chong and then a songthaew to Khao Yai.

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