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Taking Thai Wines To New Heights

In the budding wine region of Khao Yai, family-owned GranMonte Vineyard and Winery is hoping to elevate the Thai wine industry.

By Joyce Huang | 28 February, 2018 | #featurefriday, Boozy, Drink, Features, Travel
2018-02-28 11:06:06 2018-02-28 11:06:06
Grapes from the GranMonte Vineyard
Grapes from the GranMonte Vineyard

I am on the second floor balcony of the GranMonte Vineyard and Winery estate guesthouse, sitting out the last of the midday shower. Before me, tidy rows of grapevines, with leaves heavy and glistening from the rain, guide my vision to the towering mountain range that lines the backdrop. The light drizzle has caused clouds of fog to hug the green-covered peaks. I take a while to reconcile this scenery with the fact that I am actually just three hours away from Bangkok city and not some idyllic wine region in Europe.

This is Khao Yai, Thailand’s third largest National Park and home to the country’s very own promising wine region. Just 160km northeast of Bangkok, Khao Yai (“large mountain” in Thai) comprises a crescent-shaped mountain range with forested peaks that reach up to 1,350m. Because of this elevation, the climate here brings warm and sunny days then cool and dry nights (with temperatures averaging 16 to 19°C in winter), making the area not just popular with weekend merry-makers from the city but also ideal for agriculture—particularly for grapes as the temperature swing helps the fruit develop flavour and preserve lively acidity.

“Our estate is located in the northwest of Khao Yai National Park and what’s really special here is that all these mountains are made of limestone,” notes Nikki Lohitnavy, second-generation owner of GranMonte Vineyard and Winery, chief winemaker, as well as Thailand’s first and only fully-qualified oenologist. In GranMonte’s wine tasting room, the 30-year-old gives me a breakdown of the vineyard’s soil analysis with the aid of two display columns of soil, replicated to represent 70cm to 1.5m beneath the estate’s grounds.

The soil make up of the area makes it very suitable for growing grapes.
The soil make up of the area makes it very suitable for growing grapes.

“What you see here is 50% red clay, 30% silt and 20% sand. All that at the bottom, the parent material, is calcareous limestone and shale. When they both break down, it becomes porous terra rossa, which drains very well. That, coupled with the mildly acidic to neutral pH levels of our soil, makes it very suitable for growing grapes,” she explains.

ALL IN THE FAMILY

When Lohitnavy’s parents, Visooth and Sakuna, bought the former corn and cashew plantation back in 1998, they had no idea about the 16-hectare plot’s favourable soil conditions. The family had previously owned a holiday home in the area and Mr Visooth Lohitnavy harboured an idea of looking for land in Khao Yai to grow grapes, because he loves wines.
“In the beginning, we only planted three hectares of Syrah and Chenin Blanc, and made a little bit of wine from our first harvest in 2001 with the help of a neighbouring winery. People became interested and wanted to buy more, so we started expanding and planting more,” recounts Nikki.

Nikki Lohitnavy, oenologist and second generation owner of GranMonte.
Nikki Lohitnavy, oenologist and second generation owner of GranMonte.

Having grown up in the vineyard, Nikki’s interests in botany, grape-growing, and winemaking led to studies in oenology and viticulture at the University of Adelaide, which she graduated from in 2008. Her graduation present from her parents? Her very own winery.

After encountering problems with their contract winery, the Lohitnavys decided they needed to start their own. “My parents built the winery in my final year of university. When I came back from Australia, all the tanks and equipment (imported from Europe and Australia) were outside the winery, waiting for me to put them inside— worst present ever!” She jokes about being thrown into the deep-end of the pool. In truth, it was a rather pressurising period for the fresh graduate, having to set up the winery while simultaneously handling harvest and then immediately pressing their very first batch of grapes.

That was 10 years ago. Today, Nikki flourishes not only as GranMonte’s winemaker and viticulturist, continuously experimenting with vineyard management, new grape varietals, and winemaking techniques; but also as the estate’s general manager, handling added responsibilities like the staff’s hospitality training.

In fact, the entire family chips in to run the estate’s winery, vineyard, restaurant and guesthouse. Mrs Sakuna Lohitnavy comes up with the menu at the estate’s 120-seater Italian restaurant Vin Cotto, providing hearty and comforting family recipes that match well with the GranMonte wines; while Nikki’s sister Mimi is the winery’s director of marketing and public relations. Visooth himself takes the time to join in on the twice-weekly morning vineyard inspections.

ADAPTING TO THE LAND

The air is moist from the overnight showers when I step out of my room at the guesthouse. Day just broke and I meet Visooth, Nikki, and their team at 6.30am in front of the estate’s main building. It might be a Sunday, but everyone is up bright and early to inspect the 20 blocks of vines. Each person takes a row and peruses the vines, monitoring their health and looking out for anomalies on the leaves and branches that might indicate diseases or bug infestations.

Grapes in warmer climates tend to develop diseases or bug infestations more easily.
Grapes in warmer climates tend to develop diseases and bug infestations more easily.

I trail behind Nikki as she heads down a row of Syrah. She zooms in on a particular vine, inspects the leaves and beckons me for a closer look: “See these tiny white spots? Indication of mites.” She notes this down on her inspection sheet and moves on swiftly. It takes us a good 45 minutes to cover the entire vineyard by foot. On our jaunt, I spot rows dedicated to Durif, Petite Verdot from Japan, and Cabernet Sauvignon from France, Japan, and Australia. The team convenes outside the winery to discuss their findings and possible solutions.

Tropical viticulture is still a rather new phenomenon, and growing grapes in GranMonte’s warmer climate requires vineyard management techniques that are different compared to that of conventional vineyards.

This is something Nikki has had to adapt from her learnings in school and experiences working in other vineyards. She reveals, “The knowledge of grape-growing in Thailand was brought in by the Germans. At the beginning, we were reliant on herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides because grape-growing here was new and we were all learning. When I went to Australia, I learnt more about grape-growing and winemaking, and started adapting and changing a few things here. We could see that it was expensive and not environmentally friendly using that much chemicals so we have cut down significantly on our spraying. And when we do that, we lay hay under the vines to stop weeds from growing. This also reduces the humidity and we don’t get as many problems with diseases on the leaves and branches.”

The shift towards more sustainable practices of vineyard management that include the creation of their own Effective Microorganism—a liquid compost that GranMonte makes using food scraps from the restaurant and organic waste from the winery—as well as integrated pest management using biological controls, have proved successful. “It really improves the fertility of the soil, we see that the vines are healthier and the quality of grapes have also gotten better,” notes Nikki.

By using their own liquid compost, GranMonte has produced better quality grapes and healthier vines.
By using their own liquid compost, GranMonte has produced better quality grapes and healthier vines.

Having developed an understanding of the land, Nikki is now looking to experiment growing many more grape varieties. “We’ve expanded into two blocks of Verdelho and Durif, two varieties that Thais definitely aren’t familiar with. I’m trying out different clones of different varieties: Pinot Noir from Australia, various clones of Australian Shiraz, Cabernet France, Semillon, and Malbec to name a few,” she shares.

 NEW LATITUDE WINES

The plucky Thai has also been seeking out fellow makers of New Latitude wines (wines made outside of the traditional band of latitude between 30° and 50°), and heading over for winemaking stints in regions like northern Australia and Mexico, in a bid to confer knowledge and learn from each other. Most recently she was in Brazil, specifically a region close to São Paolo that she describes as “very similar to us: subtropical because they are high up in the mountains and have slightly lower temperatures during the ripening”.

When it comes to the wines, Nikki’s winemaking style favours towards emulating lower-alcohol, fine structured wines from much cooler climates. White wines are fermented at 21-23 Brix (a marker of sugar concentration), while red wines at 23 Brix, so as not to result in wines that give too big an alcoholic punch. Temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks are used for fermentation, with Nikki checking in on them up to four times a day to monitor their temperatures and sugar drops.

For aging the wines, a mixture of French and American oaks (old and new) are employed, dependingon the grape. For example, she wild ferments her Viognier (GranMonte is the only Viognier producer in Thailand) in new French oak puncheons to give the intensely fruity and aromatic wine a balanced round body. The entire range of GranMonte wines spans over 15 labels, with the flagships being the Viognier and the Asoke Cabernet Sauvignon Syrah blend, which is aged for 14 months in new French and American oak barrels to result in a full-bodied wine full of red fruit, spice, and elegant tannins.

Nikki uses a mixture of French and American oak barrels to age her wines.
Nikki uses a mixture of French and American oak barrels to age her wines.

As part of our winery tour, we taste four awardwinning wines including the 2017 GranMonte Verdelho, bursting with aromatic tropical fruit and bracing acidity; and the 2016 Sakuna Syrah Rose, a wine named after Nikki’s mother and is basically strawberries and cream in wine form, perfect with spicy Thai dishes. It’s the Syrahs that stand out for me: the 2014 Heritage Syrah is full of blackcurrant, berries, and pepper, with hints of tobacco and enveloping tannins; the 2011 Orient Syrah is even more complex: layers of dark cherries, chocolate, cloves and other spices giving way to coffee and cedar notes, and a long, lingering finish.

RALLYING THE COMMUNITY

Since the winery started in 2009, GranMonte has been chalking up accolades from countless international wine competitions. From getting Gold in the Austria Wine Challenge in Vienna 2015 for their GranMonte 2009 Heritage Syrah, GranMonte 2009 The Orient Reserve Syrah, and GranMonte 2014 Verdelho; to being awarded Best Thai Wine at the Japan Wine Challenge in 2013 and 2015 for the GranMonte 2012 Heritage Syrah and GranMonte 2014 Durif respectively, the winery’s global recognition not only bodes well for them, but also boosts the reputation of Thailand’s budding wine industry.

As New World, and more specifically New Latitude, wines, Thai wines are still foreign to many wine drinkers around the world. Mimi makes it a point to send their wines to these competitions, to see how their wines measure up against international standards. From a marketing standpoint, it is hugely beneficial and in the case of Thai wines, essential.

As New World, and more specifically New Latitude, wines, Thai wines are still foreign to many wine drinkers around the world.
As New World, and more specifically New Latitude, wines, Thai wines are still foreign to many wine drinkers around the world.

Because of ridiculously high excise taxes—as high as 260%—and restrictions on marketing and advertising of alcoholic beverages by Thai law, winning over a domestic Thai drinking market, one that doesn’t have an inherent wine-drinking culture, is an uphill task. “We can only market our wines as part of a lifestyle,” Mimi admits and that’s why GranMonte works very closely with the nation’s food service industry, pushing to get their wines listed in hotels like Shangri-La and Six Senses, as well as reputable dining establishments like modern Thai fine dining restaurant Ledu in Bangkok. There, chef-owner Thitid Tassanakajohn recommends enjoying the GranMonte Sakuna Rose with his grilled river prawn with mountain rice cooked in shrimp paste.

Back at the estate, plans for expansion are already on the cards for the Lohitnavys. Nikki says, “We can’t expand by buying land now, or at least in areas that we really want. So we’re expanding by working with other growers, people who have land and want to start a vineyard. We start a vineyard for them, help them manage it, and train their staff. In return, we get half the harvest and can buy grapes from them. I think that’s the best way to do it, as we can also control the quality of the grapes that we’ll be getting.”

GranMonte is currently producing 60,000L of wine from around 80 tonnes of grapes. Their current winery’s production capacity is 120 tonnes. With the new winery that they are hoping to complete in a two year’s time, they are looking to double their production. “We still have a few young blocks that will start producing next year and all these new vineyards that we’re working with so we’re expecting a sizable increase in production. And it’s really cool to have different sites, the wines made are completely different; it’s nice to have that diversity,” Nikki shares excitedly

GranMonte is currently producing 60,000L of wine from around 80 tonnes of grapes.
GranMonte is currently producing 60,000L of wine from around 80 tonnes of grapes.

The new winery is part of ambitious plans to amp up eno-tourism in the Khao Yai region. The sisters are looking at building a training centre “because we’re forming a Thai Wine Academy to teach sommeliers and whoever is interested in wines”. “So that more Thai people can join the industry easily if they wish,” Mimi chimes in. The academy will be run by the Thai Wine Association (TWA) together with a few other organisations and some importers.

The Lohitnavys have already been playing vital roles in the TWA since it started in 2004; Visooth served as its first President for seven years until 2011. Members of the TWA follow self-imposed regulations when it comes to vineyard management and winemaking as there are no specific wine laws in Thailand. Nikki notes, “Because the Thai wine industry is so small, the people in it tend to do everything on their own. I hope that we can work together more, to help each other improve, elevate the quality of Thai wines and grow together.”

GranMonte Vineyard and Winery

52 Moo 9 Phayayen, Pakchong, Nakornrachasima, Thailand 30320

Tel : +66 044 009 543 / +66 044 009 544

Brought up on a diet of books and family dinner parties, it’s hard to ascertain which came first, Joyce’s love for words or her infatuation with food. A writing career that started at a local food magazine meant she didn’t have to choose between either – because her heart, and nose, became fixed on vino. Ever since the job opened her up to the wonderful world of wine, she’s been #alwaysthirsty.