|Thailand probably produces about one percent
of the world's wine, which is quite an achievement when you consider
that 20 years ago production was zero, and the idea of a beautiful
tropical land famous for its beaches becoming a wine producing country
seemed fanciful to say the least.
But wine had gripped the imagination, and in the late 1980s, a handful
of wine aficionados became the pioneers of the nation's new industry,
seeking out hillsides that were well-drained and would have a chance
of supporting home-grown grapes.
Wine production cannot be hurried, but by
the arrival of the new millennium the new Thai entries on the market
were beginning to achieve recognition overseas. They had the universal
popularity of Thai food on their side, of course, but lately they
have begun to win international awards in their own right.
Local wine distributors have applauded the
progress that Thai wine has made in a very short space of time.
"In quality, it's gone up by leaps and
bounds," says Jonathon Glonek, who, with his wife, Patcharee,
has been importing wine for 12 years and knows the business well.
FROM TOP LEFT:
Maxime Laure, winemaker from Bordeaux, checks the grapes
before harvest time; The interior of Mae Chan winery,
cut deep into the side of a hill; Mae Chan Valley is also
home to Doi Hom Fha, a villa-style resort and spa.
"The great thing
is that the Thai wineries have their own vineyards and their
own grapes, so they're no longer tied to importing. They grow
their own and make better wine.
"To their credit, they've taken on
some difficult conditions - climate conditions for a start,
and they've succeeded because they care about wine and because,
however expensive it is here, Thai people like it. It's amazing
what Thai wine has achieved in not much more than 10 years."
Khao Yai, the vast national park to the north of Bangkok, provides
the site for three major vineyard areas, PB Winery, GranMonte
and Village Farm Quai des Brumes. The Siam Winery is south of
the capital in Samut Sakhon, while Chateau de Loei and Shala
One are based in the northeastern provinces of Loei and Phichit,
But way up in the spectacular mountain and
jungle country near the Golden Triangle you will find Thailand's
most northerly vineyard beside the shores of a lake - Suphot Tangvitoontham's
Mae Chan Winery.
Suphot, a Thai-Chinese gem tycoon with a
penchant for oenology, began importing Australian wines in the mid-1990s.
During his travels to wineries in Southern Australia, he noted similarities
in the climate there and in northern Thailand, and this suggested
the possibility of finding suitable land for a winery at home.
"I'd always thought that Thais have
the potential to make good wine," he says. "And I wanted
to make my own wine from grapes I'd grown myself."
The economic crash of 1997 provided the catalyst
for his foray into growing his own grapes. Acting on the aphorism,
"Every challenge is an opportunity," Suphot began his
search for suitable land for vines, focussing his attention on the
northern region of Thailand.
owner of Mae Chan Winery.
|A frequent visitor to Chiang
Rai, he had many contacts in the province, one of whom introduced
him to the scenic Mae Chan Valley. "My father fell in love
with this piece of land at first sight," his daughter,
Nantarat or Nong Ploy recalls.
He also found the sandy clay soil promising,
and first tests showed that it would support the shiraz grape.
"To make it a success I had to take the best around the
world," he says, and that meant planting most of his 32-acre
vineyard with shiraz from Australia, with smaller plots devoted
to chenin blanc, tempranillo and cabernet sauvignon.
Suphot has always held French wines in
high esteem. "At Mae Chan we try to make wines like the French
rather than like those from the New World," he says, and he has
enlisted the expertise of French winemakers to lend a dash of Gallic
elan to his reds. The present incumbent is Maxime Laure, a winemaker
at Chateau St Lo, the Thai-owned St Emilion grand cru in his native
During his tenure at Mae Chan, Maxime has
been responsible for one of the memorable sights of the vineyard:
the terraced vineyards planted on the hill that give Mae Chan a
look unique among Thai wineries. Working in Thailand has also given
him the opportunity to experiment with viticultural practices that
are not permitted in Bordeaux, such as the use of drip irrigation
to ensure that the grapes have adequate water.
"Since I've been here, I have seen that
Thailand, especially the northern part, has the potential to make
very good wines, both red and white," he says, and his opinion
is echoed by Wanthana Budsalee, a graduate of Chiang Mai's Maejo
University, who has worked at Mae Chan since 2002.
Wanthana is Thailand's only female winemaker,
and she is passionate about her calling. "I love wine and I
want to make the best wine," she says. Her approach to achieving
this aim is simple: let the vines, the soil and the climate do the
work and make the human intervention as sensitive and natural as
possible. "Wine is made in the vineyard, not the winery,"
she says - and that's a winemaker talking.
Once the grapes have been harvested they
are pressed, fermented and aged in Mae Chan's distinctive winery,
which is another memorable sight. It is cut deep into the side of
the hill and its interior is lined with foam. It is ventilated by
a natural flow of air, so there is no need for air-conditioning.
Mae Chan Winery produces two red wines and
one white, the light, easy-drinking Napa Mieng Shiraz-Black Beauty,
the more substantial Napa Mieng Shiraz Reserve, and the refreshing,
clean tasting Napa Mieng Chenin Blanc. In 2004, the last year for
which figures are available, the winery produced 60,000 bottles,
but, says Suphot, Mae Chan has the capacity to produce a million
bottles of wine a year.
grow shiraz at my two other vineyards - 50 rai in Phetchabun
and 80 rai in Kanchanaburi," adds Suphot. "The outcome
is quite good and my winemaker is now working on the new crops
at our winery in Mae Chan."
Mae Chan wines are currently available in Bangkok at The Emporium,
Paragon and branches of Lotus, Carrefour and The Mall, and Suphot
notes with satisfaction that they have proved to be a hit with
Japanese tourists shopping in the capital. He is also exporting
to Malaysia now, and though he originally came to Chiang Rai
to escape the hustle and bustle of Bangkok, he has never been
busier than he is today.
The modern winery
is capable of producing
up to a million bottles annually.
Within his 1,300 rai of hilly land he has
also built Doi Hom Fha, a 23-room, villa-style resort and spa that
extends over one of the hills.
"The resort has been open for two years
now," says Nong Ploy. "We keep it low profile to maintain
the peace and quiet of the valley, but word gets around and we have
guests throughout the year. Mostly they're people who love the beauty
of the natural surroundings, and we have soft adventure activities
for them as well."
Visitors can look across the terrace of Doi
Hom Fha to the tea plantation on the slopes of a nearby hill, and
to rice fields, and orchards and experimental gardens where cold-climate
fruit and vegetables are grown. "The rice and vegetables served
at Doi Hom Fha restaurant come from our own plantations," Suphot
explains. "So, you can be sure that they're pesticide-free."
The fields extend across the hills and down
into the valleys almost to the shores of the lake, where the water
is like a great mirror reflecting the clouds and the blue of the
open sky. The terraced tea plantations are quite breathtaking.
"I'm sure the sight of them makes people
want to drink tea, even if they're coffee-lovers," says Suphot.
"You can stop by the factory later to see how the oolong leaves
are made into tea for drinking."
Mineral water is also in the pipeline, figuratively
speaking: water taken from the mountain springs and bottled. Also
on the cards are plans to increase the number of rooms at Doi Hom
Fha Resort & Spa by the end of the year. But probably his most
innovative idea is a meditation hall for the resort. Like its awe-inspiring
main building with an octagonal roof, the new hall has been designed
by Suphot according to feng shui principles.
"I want to bring the idea of wine and meditation
together as part of a healthy lifestyle," he says. It's an idea
that could signal an interesting change in the perception of wine