Sunday, 12 February 2012

Exploring a To-Thai-Ly New Wine Region

Earlier this month, a group of wine lovers (myself included) found ourselves in unfamiliar territory, navigating bumpy roads past motels with dodgy names like Cabbages and Condoms. Our destination was the secluded Asoke Valley located 160 km from the capital of Thailand. Forget about the New vs. Old World debate, we were after New Latitude wines. The term, coined by Thailand-based wine writer Frank Norel refers to wine made in tropical climates outside the 30- 50˚ latitude bands. Thailand, Brazil, Indonesia and Vietnam are just some of the countries now making wine. But are they any good? I must admit to a tingle of trepidation before setting off on this trip. Would we find evidence of massive winemaking manipulation? With the zeal of a U.S. inspector searching for weapons of mass destruction, I ventured forth into terra incognita.

One of the problems with planting grapes in tropical climates is that the vines bear fruit more than once a year, depleting their energy reserves and shortening their lifespan. Winemakers in Thailand deal with this by pruning the vines back, creating a harvest that takes place only once during the cool season from January to March. During the rainy season from April to October, the vines undergo a vegetative cycle, picking up nutrients from the soil for the next crop. Winemaking is aided by use of technology such as refrigeration tanks (to cool the grapes after harvesting), controlled irrigation, and weather sensors that can detect the approach of storms. Trial and research have discovered that the vitis vinifera varietals that grow well in this climate are Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon (for the reds), and Chenin Blanc and Viognier (for the whites).

The Lohitnavy Family (from left to right):
Sakuna, Mimi, Nikki and Visooth Lohitnavy
We lodged at a guest house within GranMonte, a family-owned winery that focuses on producing top-quality wines. Owner Mr. Visooth Lohitnavy traded in his high-octane car racing days for the quiet life of showing visitors around the vineyard. He is assisted by his eldest daughter, 24-yr old Nikki who completed her oenological studies at the University of Adelaide and his wife Sakuna who runs the winery restaurant Vincotto. Nearly half the production is sold through the cellar door while the rest goes to key export markets like Japan, Hong Kong, Germany and the Maldives.

Nikki holds the distinction of being the first female winemaker in Thailand. Her approach to winemaking is adaptable; she uses techniques that allow the grapes to best express their character. She doesn’t like to adjust the wine artificially and as a result the wines are a reflection of the quality of the vintage. Being a pioneer means that she is not shackled by tradition and can experiment with what works best in this climate; on the flip side, it also means that a lot of effort goes into research and development. GranMonte dedicates an area of the vineyard for this purpose, in which around 30 different varietals are planted. Nikki sees potential in making wines from Verdelho, Grenache and Muscat next.

The wines of GranMonte are made for the modern palate, emphasising freshness and primary fruit. The whites were impressive, showing crisp acidity and varietal fruit character. Recently, the labels went through a redesign and the result is a sleeker, more professional look. Ageability is undoubtedly a question for these wines, having no track record, but fortunately the wines are delicious to drink now. Most excitingly, the wines display unique regionality. That is to say, if one were to taste the wine, it may well be possible to identify the varietal, but spotting the place of origin would be a struggle unless one had tasted Thai wines before. They are quite distinct from the technically correct, pure style of New World wines and the complex, austere style of Old World wines (although I am generalising a bit here). 

It would be a mistake to assume that GranMonte represents the bulk of Thai wine. The effort that the Lohitnavy family puts into their product is commendable, reflecting their ethos of producing the best wine possible, but many other Thai wineries either do not have the will or the equipment necessary to raise their quality. At another winery we visited, we found out that they had taken shortcuts with the winemaking, adding oak chips, tannin and tartaric acid. As a result, the wine had harsh, biting acidity and grainy tannins that were not well-integrated.  High government taxes on imported wine and an undemanding local market provide little impetus to improve.

Recognising the image problem of Thai wines in general, Mr. Lohitnavy co-founded the
Thai Wine Association (TWA) in 2004 to set quality standards in the production of Thai wines. Membership is approved only after a winery has passed laboratory tests on its wine and undergone site inspections. There are currently six wineries in the association, namely Siam Winery, PB Valley, Silverlake, GranMonte, Village Farm Winery and Alcidini. In face of government inertia to address issues facing the wine industry, the TWA has their work cut out for them.

Tasting notes:

GranMonte Spring Chenin Blanc 2009 – Pale lemon with fruity aromas of packham pear, apple and starfruit. A light body with medium+ acidity and average length.

GranMonte Sole Chenin Blanc  Viognier 2010 – Made from grapes angled towards the sun to achieve higher ripeness. Pretty intense on the nose with smoky, pear, peach and stone fruit notes. Slightly lacking in acidity with a watery finish.

GranMonte Sole Chenin Blanc Viognier 2011 – Medium+ intensity nose with notes of apricot, pear and an attractive floral note. Well-integrated flavours and supported by fresh acidity. Fruit carries through the long finish.
GranMonte Viognier 2011 – Only 1000 bottles made. Notes of tropical fruit, pear, papaya and a hint of smoke. Palate displays fresh citrusy notes with a lush texture.

GranMonte Sakuna Rose Syrah 2011 – Named after the winemaker’s mother and bottled in 50cl formats. A brilliant pink hue. Rose, red fruits, and raspberry on the nose. The palate shows high acidity, barely noticeable tannins, good fruit concentration and medium+ length. This wine was very popular with our group and a good match with Thai food.
GranMonte Heritage Syrah Viognier 2010 – Black cherry, spice, and a soft, round texture were the hallmarks of this wine. A well-made wine for drinking young.

GranMonte Asoke Cabernet Sauvignon Syrah 2009 – Capsicum and leafy aromas with blackcurrant beneath. A firm structure with a touch of heat. A framework of acidity supports the fruit. Long finish.

GranMonte Asoke Cabernet Sauvignon Syrah 2010 – A serious wine with ripe, concentrated fruit. The proportion of Cabernet Sauvignon was increased compared to the 2009 vintage, as a result this wine has more structure and intensity.  

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