Discovering Asian Wines
May 7, 2014
When it comes to wine in Asia, women are leading the way, bringing fuller bodied blends and new varietals to the region—but how do these compare to the world's better established vineyards? By Merritt Gurley.
Published on May 7, 2014Page : 1 2 3
A few years ago I stumbled upon a regional wine festival in Thailand. Curiosity piqued, I signed up for a tasting. I had braved my fair share of boxed wines, so I felt prepared for whatever was in store but, much like a ripe grape during harvest, that confidence was quickly squashed. It was like an episode of Fear Factor—each plastic cup of swill was worse than the one before it. I knocked all 10 tasters back with the urgency of a shot, grimacing at the aftertaste, steeling myself for the next. The reward for my persistence? The mother of all hangovers. The next morning I felt like I'd fallen down a flight of stairs headfirst, which just hammered home my conviction that Thai wines were not my cup of, well, wine.
But a lot has changed since then. In 2009, GranMonte Asoke Valley, just outside of Khao Yai National Park, rolled out its first label, the Sakuna Syrah Rosé, which dodged the sweetness of other local cuvées. The vintner was a young Thai woman trained in Australia, Nikki Visootha Lohitnavy, who runs arguably the most advanced production facility in the country—and whose wines are so good that the Six Senses group has an exclusive arrangement selling the labels at their upscale, locavore resorts in Thailand. In her crusade to create superlative wines in the country, she helped found the Thai Wine Association, which sets specific rules such as banning the addition of sugar to raise the alcohol level.
Nikki was the first female vintner in Thailand. And she's one of a handful of women in this part of the world making a mark. There are, for example, two different Grace wineries—one in Japan and one in China—though they have no affiliation with one another, just the same name, and coincidentally, two female oenophiles managing production. Three young women at the helm of three burgeoning wineries spread across Asia? Each took over their family businesses, vineyards that are now worth a visit for both the vistas and the vino. I decided to get to the bottom of this juicy trend and, hopefully, a few decent bottles while I was at it.
A note on the universal challenges of running a
winery in the tropics, let alone Thailand: First, fungus is the grape's arch nemesis and the entire lifecycle is altered by the heat. When there is no winter to stop the vine's metabolic activity, grapes just keep growing year round, which doesn't always lead to drinkable wines. Even the grapes that can hack it in the heat take extra work to yield. Second, there's the issue of teaching taste. "People have the idea that you need a light, low-alcohol fruity, sweet wine," Nikki says, "something simple to balance the spice of Thai food"—a misconception that has left the country's industry open to ridicule. Finally, in Thailand advertising for wine is banned, and the tax on wine is 360 percent for domestic producers. The industry in Thailand is young by international standards so the wines simply haven't hit the ideal maturation, and yet can cost as much or more than an equivalent from abroad, a raw deal for local wineries.
You'd imagine this would be enough to scare off most aspiring oenologists but Nikki found herself drawn to wines as a child when her dad started planting vines as a hobby 14 years ago. It snowballed into a business, growing grapes for other wineries. When it came time for college Nikki chose the University of Adelaide for its esteemed program in oenology and viticulture, in which she was the first Thai student to enroll. When she returned home she transformed their vineyard into a full-fledged, top-of-theline production facility. "I graduated in 2008 and when I got back all of this equipment was waiting for me, stacked in shipping containers, ready for me to unpack," she says with a laugh. "It was like, 'You got your degree, now get to work.'"
And work she did, bringing what she'd learned in Adelaide—not to mention stints at vineyards in Portugal, South Africa, Brazil and France—to the role. When I met her, Nikki had on her work clothes, fresh from a day in the fields. She took me on a tour of the 16-hectare vineyard—a tidy maze of vines backed by the proud hills of Khao Yai National Park. The landscape was lush and calm, every bit as quaint as its counterparts in Europe, though the smattering of limestone karsts added an air of the exotic and the grassy lanes were a tad more sunbaked. As we wove between the vines Nikki pointed out the rows of different varietals: Syrah, Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Viognier, Durif, Grenache and Muscat, noting that the grapes are smaller in size and more potent than those that grow in cooler climates. In an experimental section, they test cuttings from 30 other types of grapes, to see what will thrive in the Thai weather. "You find more than 90 percent of the wine regions in the world in the temperate climate," Nikki explains. "Here in the tropical wine regions, we have to prune the vines twice a year just to get one harvest and we have to cool the winery, whereas in some regions in Europe they have to heat it."
Courtesy of Grandmonte Asoke Valley Vineyard
Over the past four years, both the winery and its offerings—which now include four fermentation tanks, and a high-tech sorting machine—have grown. Last year, it introduced new sparkling wines and this year presented the first locally grown Viogner to Thailand. The GranMonte reds are full bodied and spicy, with aromas of clove and black pepper, and hints of tamarind and jasmine in the bouquet: flavors that seep into the grapes naturally from the soil. "The Thai qualities show in the wine," Nikki says—and that has proven a good thing. Demand for GranMonte's product line is outpacing their current output of 90,000 bottles a year.
Still, Nikki's looking to do more than just sell Thai wine. She wants to put the country on the viniculture map. "Complex dry wines with crisp acidity can actually bring out the flavor [of Thai food] even better than the sweet wines, in my opinion," Nikki says, but "we're still looking for a style to define this region." I ask her if there's a country in Asia that already has its own style. "Japan," she replies. "Japan appreciates wine."
Ayana Misawa, whose family has been running
a vineyard in Japan since 1923, is quick to agree. "Japanese wines are elegant," she says, and she would know—she was born on a vineyard, and is a third generation vintner, following in the footsteps of both her father and grandfather. Her home prefecture of Yamanashi, about a two-hour drive west of Tokyo, produces a third of the country's wine and, unlike Thailand, this region already has a signature varietal. "Koshu is pure, delicate and classy," says Ayana. Her father, Shigekazu Misawa, pioneered the grape’s cultivation on their pastoral valley vineyard, where harvests thrive in long hours of sunshine. Yet in a land known for sake and beer, wine has to be distinctive to earn its spot on the menu. Though it looks like a Pinot Gris, with pink-purple skins, Koshu has a taste all its own. "It has aromas of citrus, yuzu, Japanese white peach and white flower," she says. "This is incomparable to other varietals, especially in its delicateness."
Ayana is 32 years old yet she's already been involved in making wine at some of the world's best-known wineries—Cape Point Vineyards in South Africa; Catena Zapata in Mendoza; Errazuriz in Chile; Mountford in New Zealand; Margaret River in Australia; Burgundy in France. She's traveled the world, but says she thinks Japanese wines are where it's at. "The Japanese work ethic sets the Grace Winery wines apart," she says. "We always try to make the most elegant wines at an international level, with our touch of Japanese precision."
Of course bringing that level of care to every harvest is no easy feat. "It is actually very physical work," says Ayana, who isn't above working around the clock. The tasks are all the more challenging for a small-framed woman like Ayana and despite the fact that she has been churning out successful vintages for almost a decade now, she's often met with incredulity.
But the confusion softens when people taste her product. Over the past few years Grace Winery has started exporting their wines, but the main base remains Japanese. "The Japanese market is changing," Ayana says. "Wines used to be all about brand status and 10 years ago people drank mostly Grand cru Bordeaux, but nowadays people are starting to appreciate white and rosé as well." As the Japanese taste for wine evolves, she says she intends to lead Grace Winery towards even bolder vintages. "I want to focus more on Koshu, and make not only fresh fruity wines," she says, "but also serious Koshu which can be aged."
Seasonal harvest at Grace Winery in Japan. Courtesy of Granmonte Asoke Valley Vineyard.
One player the industry is taking very
seriously is Judy Leissner, who was named Asian Wine Personality of the Year in 2012. Her father, Chun Keung Chan, partnered with Sylvain Javier, a French friend of his, back in 1997 to start a vineyard in Shanxi, China. In 2004 at age 24, Judy left her position at Goldman Sachs and stepped into the role of manager of the 200-hectare vineyard. She has been driving its reputation as China's finest winery ever since.
She credits her father for refusing to coddle her. "The first day I showed up at work, my dad simply told me that we had a winery and we were about to launch our first vintage and I was supposed to lead it," Judy says. "When I asked my dad for advice and guidance, he told me to use my brain and think on my own, so I felt I was alone in a big ocean." Luckily it didn't take her long to find her sea legs.
Today she's managing both the vineyard and its on-site bed and breakfast, designed with European touches like red-tile roofing and wrought iron railings, while inside granite, marble, stone and wood lend an earthy elegance to the décor. Their rooms have a distinctly modern feel with TV and Wi-Fi, but if guests want to step back in time they can venture to the neighboring town—the 200-year-old village looks like akung fu movie set, complete with wispy willows, ponds, pagodas, an apricot orchard and tiny streets that open out into beautiful piazzas.
A throwback influence rings through in the wines as well. From the outset Judy's family knew they wanted to do old world Bordeauxstyle wines, a variety that Judy loves. Their cheeky entry-level white wine, The People's Chardonnay, is aged in metal barrels so it is fresh, mineral and extremely pleasant, while their red, The People’s Cabernet, is rich and robust, with none of the jammy sweet quality sometimes associated with Asian wines. "Many people think that Chinese like sweet and lighter wines, but if you see the tea that we like, which is tannic and strong, you may agree with me that liking sweet and light wine is just an initial phase," says Judy. "Ultimately, Chinese will prefer stronger and more complex wines."
Barrel-aged wines at Grace Vineyard, China. Courtesy of Grace Vineyard in China
Judy is also experimenting with sparkling wines, Petrus-style Merlots, Rieslings and Muscats, which she says are all promising. The Muscat has a nice floral, stone fruit nose, but is crisp and dry on the palate, perfect for sipping in the summer. This high standard is seeing Chinese wines pop up at restaurants across the globe. There are more than 600 wine producers in China, so there is plenty of diversity for discerning drinkers to sample. "Consumers are getting more sophisticated," Judy says, "so it only makes sense for producers in China to make better quality wines."
Whether it's on the sunburnt hills of
Thailand, in the bucolic valleys of Japan or in a 90-year-old vineyard in China, change is afoot in Asian winemaking. We're at a fork in the road and, in a way, it makes sense that it's a generation of young women, who came of age expecting parity and whose parents didn't gender stereotype, that is using innovation and ambition to wrest Asian wines out of their traditional rut and into the realm of real respectability.
No, it isn't always easy. "To be a winemaker at all is still rare in Japan," Ayana says, "and this job is still considered to be a man's job." In fact, Judy recalls that, when she became head of her family's business, "people believed I was there temporarily. Many thought my brother would ultimately take over," she says. "It was tough for me at the age of 24 to manage a team with the average age being 45." Now, though, she's seeing more and more females entering the wine business, both in trade and production.
Still, a rare winemaker is like, one hopes, a rare vintage: memorable. "As there are so few women running a winery, it's easy for people to remember me," Judy says, "and remember Grace Vineyard." I guess it is fair to say I like my emerging vintners like Judy likes her wines—strong and complex. WITH ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY LARA DUNSTON, CHRISTOPHER KUCWAY AND STEPHANIE ZUBIRI.
GranMonte Asoke Valley Vineyard, Thailand; 52/2 Moo 9 Phayayen Pakchong, Nakornrachasima, Thailand; +66 44 009 543; granmonte.com; doubles from Bt4,200; bottle of 2012 Heritage Syrah Bt840. Grace Winery, Japan; 173 Todoroki Katsunuma-cho, Koshu-Shi, Yamanashi, Japan; +81 55 344 1230; grace-wine.com; bottle of Koshu ¥2,000. Grace Vineyard, China; Dongjia, RenCunl, Taigu, Shanxi, Zhejiang province, China; +86 137 5344 6069; gracevineyard.com; doubles from RMB1,120; bottle of The People's Cabernet from RMB99.
Continue the tasting tour at…
Prasat Phnom Banan Winery, Cambodia
This charming vineyard, a mix of thriving vines and swaying palms, just 12 kilometers south of Battambang, also has a strong woman running the show. Leng Chan Tol and her husband Chan Thai Chhoung planted their first grapes in 1999 and bottled their first wine in 2004. They currently offer just one variety of wine, called simply Red, which is a Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz blend, produced on their 15-hectare vineyard. Though this has been their sole offering since 2004, they have ambitions to introduce Chenin Blanc soon. This is Cambodia's only winery and the quality is still not at the level of Japan, China or Thailand, but it has potential, and a strong local following. "Our wines are popular with Cambodians, wealthy Cambodians from Phnom Penh," says Leng Chan. "They love our wine." Banan Rd., 72 Bot Sala Village, Banan Dist., Cambodia; +855 12 665 236; US$2 for entrance to the vineyard; bottle of Red wine US$15.
Aythaya Wine, Burma
On the western slopes of Taunggyi, in Burma's Shan State, this vineyard has been growing grapes since 1998, producing wines since 2004 and exporting since 2008. Cabarnet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Dornfelder, Tempranillo, Moscato and Sauvignon Blanc all thrive on the lush landscape, leading to a varied cuvée for the brand. The relative calm in Burma for the past few years has helped further bolster the confidence of the vineyard's management. "The permanent risk of operating under a fragile legal system was replaced by a feeling that serious efforts are now underway to safeguard the investment, but also to sincerely improve the well-being of the people," says founder Bert Morsbach. Given the current state of affairs, Bert is feeling very optimistic about the future for the region. "In Germany alone we have 20,000 vintners, while in Myanmar we have two, so I know there will be many, many more soon," he says. "I dare to predict that Myanmar will become known for its excellent white wines." myanmar-vineyard.com; doubles from US$150 per night; bottle of Aythaya Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc, US$12.