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The Thai Connection

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By The Glass

VISOOTHA “NIKKI” Lohitnavy of Thailand’s GranMonte winery holds a GrandMonte wine bottle at the Dusit Thani’s Benjarong restaurant. — SHERWIN A. LAO

THE Dusit Thani Hotel Manila pulled off a wine dinner coup of sorts recently when it held Epicurean, a Thai gastronomic journey, at its top-rated and critically acclaimed Benjarong restaurant. This was the first wine dinner of its kind in the country, where both an established Michelin star restaurant chef and a winemaker from Thailand, came over to collaborate on a six-course Thai wine-pairing dinner. While wine dinners are obviously nothing new, it was the concept of going all-authentic Thai that made this unique.

The visiting guest chef, Thanintorn “Chef Noom” Chantharawan, is the chef of Siam Wisdom, a Bangkok Michelin-star restaurant, while all the wines were from GranMonte, a winery from the Khao Yai district in Nakhon Ratchasima Province, northeast of Bangkok, which has been making a name for itself in international wine competitions. It was represented by Visootha “Nikki” Lohitnavy, the winemaker and general manager. The dinner was a collaboration between Chef Noom, Nikki, and Benjarong in-house chef Watcharaphon “Chef Ja” Yongbanthom.

And, YES, Thailand makes wines.

THAI WINERY GRANMONTE
Gran monte means “great mountain” in Spanish, and the location of the winery and its vineyards are in Khao Yai, which in Thai language also means “large mountain.” Khao Yai is roughly 180 kilometers away (just over a two-hour drive) from Bangkok. Khao Yai is already known for its very popular local park (of the same name) and for being part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Khao Yai is undisputed as the best Thai district with the right growing conditions for vineyards. As visiting winemaker Nikki Lohitnavy revealed, the “average evening temperature in Khao Yai is just 12°C and the altitude ranges from 350 to 600 meters above sea level.”

Aside from GranMonte, Khao Yai also hosts Village Farm and PB-Valley Khao Yai Winery, among others. GranMonte may not be the first Thai winery — that distinction goes to Chateau de Loie, operating out of Loie province and credited with the first commercially released Thai wine in the mid-1990s — neither is GranMonte the first winery in Khao Yai as that recognition goes to PB-Valley Winery. However, GranMonte is riding high on the recent wave of Thai wine interest and has done very well in export.

The winery has also won various international awards as proof of its acceptance in the international wine scene. Recently, its wines were imported by Philippine Wine Merchants for distribution exclusively at the Dusit Thani hotels in the country, which includes Makati City, Cebu, and Davao hotels.




A TETE-A-TETE WITH NIKKI
GranMonte’s Nikki Lohitnavy best exemplifies the future of the Thai wine industry. She is young, passionate, well-educated and very driven. She finished a bachelor’s degree in oenology from the University of Adelaide in Australia, and is as engaging and smart as any veteran winemaker I have met and interviewed from around the world.

Q: GranMonte is your family’s business. How did it start? Is your dad like a huge oenophile and he just wanted to pursue this wine venture to chase his dream?

A: My parents like wines, but they are not really into serious wine collections. They just enjoy drinking wines. My father actually just wanted to do something in his retirement. As a start, he planted a little bit of vineyard. And when we started making wines, there was kind of a good demand for the wines. And then my father slowly expanded and made this into a serious business.

I sort of grew up in the vineyards. I really liked it a lot, though initially I wanted to be a botanist, which really is not much different from oenology, except on the winemaking part.

Q: Can you tell me a little bit about your vineyard size, your present volumes and expansion plans?

A: We started with around 14 hectares of vineyards from our original site (20 years ago), but we have added three extra sites in the last few years, also within Khao Yai. Our present volume is around 7,500 cases (of nine liters), but we expect to triple that in the next five years. Since there are really no existing wine grape growers in Thailand, it really takes time. We have to plan and plant the vineyards from scratch.

Q: How many different wines do you do at present, and what are your most grown grape varietals?

A: We do 13 different wines at the moment, and we grow several varietals in our vineyards, ranging from syrah, cabernet sauvignon, chenin blanc, durif, merlot, grenache, verdelho, semillon, muscat and viognier. We are even experimenting with cabernet franc now. Forty percent of all our vineyards are growing syrah, followed by cabernet sauvignon and chenin blanc.

Q: Given the relatively small volume of your production and vineyard size, is the idea to produce many wines simply to test the market on what works and what does not, and then eventually to concentrate on a few wines and varietals?

A: Not really. To me it is very important for us to have many different wines. This industry in our country is quite new and we need to explore what varietals we can grow, what varietals suit our climate and soil best, what style of wine we can make, and, eventually, what to drink. Also, this makes my job challenging and not boring. I really do not see myself making only four different wines. I want to grow different varietals and make them into our wines.

Q: We all know that Thailand has one of the world’s highest tax rates levied on wines. Is there therefore an advantage for GranMonte, being local produced as against imported wines?

A: Actually, we do not enjoy much of an advantage against imported wines. The bulk of the wine tax is based on excise tax as a luxury product, and not on import duty. It is, sadly, kind of unfair as the wine tax law has been enforced for like 40 years already. When this law was created during those times, wine was not popular among local drinkers and there were no Thai wineries too back then.

This is therefore quite remarkable. A Thai-made wine competing head-on with imported wines at almost a level playing field and is still succeeding both domestically and even exporting. As a parting shot, I asked winemaker Nikki what her wine influences are, whether she likes Burgundy or Bordeaux wines, and her answer was quite succinct: “I just like Thai wines.”

There you have it. The Thai wine industry is in good hands and the future looks really bright with dedicated hardcore Thai winemakers like Nikki leading the charge.

The author is a member of UK-based Circle of Wine Writers. For comments, inquiries, wine event coverage, and other wine-related concerns, e-mail the author at protegeinc@yahoo.com. He is also on Twitter at twitter.com/sherwinlao.