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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, 2014

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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.

Grace Vineyard in China

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.

Nikki Visootha Lohitnavy

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."

Granmonte Asoke Valley Vineyard
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."

 

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Asian Vintage, Asian Winery, Asia Vineyard, Asia Travel
  • Asian Vintage, Asian Winery, Asia Vineyard, Asia Travel
  • Asian Vintage, Asian Winery, Asia Vineyard, Asia Travel
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