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Doi Hom Fha Resort

Wine of the far North


Not far from the wild, natural splendour of the Golden Triangle are the neat rows and orderly terraces of one of Thailand's major vineyards

STORY BY ALEX CHOI INGAMELLS & BRIAN KENT
(From Realtime, Bangkok Post Friday February 22, 2008)

 
   


The beautiful hills of Mae Chan Valley
are covered with rows of terraced vineyards.


The Vertical Shoot Position
technique being used now for the new crop.


A few years ago Thailand's growing wine industry inspired Bangkok-based writer Frank Norel to coin the phrase "New Latitude wines." It was probably the first acknowledgment of wines from beyond the Old World-New World divide and the traditional winemaking regions between the 30th and 50th parallels in the northern and southern hemispheres.
 
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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.

CLOCKWISE 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, respectively.

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.


Suphot Tangvitoontham,
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 Bordeaux.

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.

"I also 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 in Thailand.

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Mae Chan Winery
23 Moo 9, Ban Pamieng, Tambon Patueng, Amphoe Maechan, Chiang Rai 57110.
Tel. +66(0) 5391 8440  Fax. +66(0) 5391 8441
E-mail: info@maechanwinery.com   All rights reserved
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