It is early days to judge the 2553 vintage but winemakers are quietly confident. The years donít vary much. Of course, neither do seasons and without a winter vines do not go into a dormant stage and so continue to produce grapes throughout the year giving the opportunity for two harvests. Workers in punt-like boats float on canals between vine rows selecting ripe bunches for processing. It could be a global warming vision of the future but this is today in the year 2553 in the Buddhist calendar on the floating vineyards of Thailandís Chao Phraya delta some forty miles west of Bangkok.
Thailand doesnít come to mind when thinking about wine producing countries. Locals have traditionally preferred the delights of local whiskies such as Mekhong and the refreshing sweetish Singha beer. Imported wines are expensive thanks to ferocious import taxes, and donít tend to last long when stored in Thailandís high ambient temperatures.
But the impact of wine coolers on young drinkers has produced a generation open to the idea of wine. Siam Winery launched Spy wine cooler in 1986. It is a blend of local wines, including some from their floating vineyards, with added sparkling water bringing alcohol levels down to 5-7%. Now with half-a-dozen flavours in the range annual sales exceed of 90 million bottles. In 1997 Siam Winery released its first table wine under the Chatemp label and now operate vineyards in several areas including near the beach resort of Hua Hin on the peninsula well south of Bangkok.
The worldwide popularity of Thai restaurants has provided export opportunities for Thai wines, with Siam Wineryís Monsoon Valley brand leading. These are blends with two local varieties, Malaga Blanc and Pok Dum, predominating. Both are vinifera varieties; the first arrived in 1685 as a gift from Louis XIV of France to King Narai the Great of Siam and was first grown for table grapes. The black Pok Dumís origins are not yet clear. Chalerm Yoovidhya, who created the Red Bull energy drink, founded Siam Winery in 1982 and wine exports have benefited by Red Bullís international distribution channels.
The oldest winery in Thailand is Chateau de Loei where the late Dr. Chaijudh Karnasuta planted Syrah and Chenin Blanc vines in 1991 and produced its first vintage in 1995. Chateau de Loei is in the hills of the Loei province 285 miles north west of Bangkok where daytime temperatures are a (relatively) cool 20-25 Celsius (68-77F) dropping to 12 degrees (54F) at night. Nowadays dessert and methode champenoise sparkling wines are produced in addition to still Shiraz and Chenins.
Thailandís third main wine region in the Khao Yai mountains 95 miles north west of Bangkok is home to three wineries: Khao Yai Winery, Chateau des Brumes and GranMonte Estate. Khao Yai was first and experimented for some years planting more than 50 different varieties to find ones suitable for the conditions. Now they produce Shiraz, Chenin and Tempranillo wines under the brand names PB Valley, Pirom and Sawasdee. Shiraz and Chenin are also the varieties favoured by GranMonte Estate and Chateau des Brumes. The latter, whose export label is Village Thai, are also persevering with Cabernet Sauvignon which they acknowledge is difficult to grow but believe they are now growing better suited clones.
The Thai wine industry is very young, growing conditions are not ideal, thereís not much expertise and most wineries employ European winemakers. A careful examination of labels of Thai wine bottles on sale in Bangkok shows that several contain imported wines or grape juice concentrates blended with local wines. But only the best wines are exported so should you see a Thai wine on a restaurant wine list or in a shop give it a try.
Peter F May is the author of Marilyn Merlot and the Naked Grape: Odd Wines from Around the World which features more than 100 wine labels and the stories behind them, and PINOTAGE: Behind the Legends of South Africaís Own Wine which tells the story behind the Pinotage wine and grape.