Asked to name the world’s best wine country and you’ll most likely tout the undulating vineyards of Italy, France or California. But Thailand? With its smouldering weather and chalky soil, Thailand is not top of a vinophile’s bucket list. But Tamara Hinson discovers why it should be.
Cocktails and Chang beer are no longer the only drinks being served in Bangkok‘s chicest rooftop bars. The city’s upwardly mobile masses have a new-found thirst for wine – but the extortionate taxes slapped on imported alcohol mean that it’s a luxury few could enjoy. Until now.
Tucked between the rolling hills of Hua Hin, away from the coastal region’s sandy beaches and five-star resorts, Monsoon Valley Wines‘ vineyard is a hive of activity. Local workers move slowly along the vines, filling baskets with ripe grapes and wafting away the heat with homemade fans. A family of four cycles past, leaving behind wisps of chalky soil.
This hot, humid chunk of Thailand isn’t an obvious choice for a vineyard. The same could be said for the entire country. But that didn’t deter Chalerm Yoovidhya, who founded Monsoon Valley Wines in 2001.
Yoovidhya, the Thai billionaire behind the Red Bull empire, had always loved fine wine, and felt that a Thailand-based winery would boost the blossoming wine culture in his country.
The tourists who flock to this beautiful corner of Hua Hin to sip wine in the sun have little idea about the challenges faced by Thailand's winemakers
Critics scoffed, pointing out that decent wine simply couldn’t be made in this hot, humid country, with its chalky soil and searing heat. But Yoovidhya persisted, and today his company is one of Asia‘s most successful wine brands, with the largest network of international distributors.
But it wasn’t easy. Luckily, Yoovidhya had the financial clout to assemble a crack team of wine experts, including Kathrin Puff, a German winemaker.
Chief winemaker Kathrin, who studied viticulture in Spain and New Zealand before landing a job in Tuscany, jumped at the opportunity to join a young brand based in a country not known for its wines.
Since then, Monsoon Valley Wines has won countless awards.
The winery’s accolades include a gold at the world-renowned Decanter World Wine Awards, and its portfolio boasts reds, whites, rosés and sparkling wines.
Kathrin splits her time between the winery at Samut Sakhon, south of Bangkok, and the vineyard in Hua Hin. Today, it’s one of the area’s biggest tourist attractions.
But the tourists who flock to this beautiful corner of Hua Hin to sip wine in the sun have little idea about the challenges faced by Thailand’s winemakers. Surprisingly, the biggest obstacle isn’t the climate, although Kathrin admits that she’s seen her vines succumb to diseases she’d never seen during her stints in vineyards in Tuscany and New Zealand.
Monsoon Valley Wines has some of the world’s top viticulturalists on its payroll, and Yoovidhya spends a huge amount of money on research.
The brand is currently working with a German university to develop a type of grape which can cope with Thailand’s searing summers and torrential rainy seasons.
“The biggest obstacle is actually the high tax on wine in Thailand,” says Kathrin.
“The local excise tax is absurdly high – whether you’re a local producer or not. So Thai wine is very expensive, which puts people off. The other obstacle is that we’re unable to mechanise much of the vineyard.” This is due to the tropical location, which produces plants which mature at different times.
Critics scoffed, pointing out that decent wine simply couldn’t be made in this hot, humid country, with its chalky soil and searing heat
“Even in the same row, plants can have completely different maturity stages,” explains Kathrin. “So we could never pass a harvester through our vineyard as there are too many differences in the ripeness of the grapes.”
Another obstacle has been filling the various roles: “In Thailand, it’s hard to find people with a viticultural background. People who like to work outside in the fields in the heat all day long are also hard to find.”
But Yoovidhya’s efforts have paid off. Monsoon Valley may initially have been viewed by many as an indulgent hobby by a wine lover with too much money – but the bulging awards cabinet is proof of the brand’s success. And that’s surely something worth raising a toast too.
Got the taste for some Thai wine? We've picked the top places across the country to try it:
Monsoon Valley's sprawling Hua Hin vineyard can be explored by jeep or by bike. There's a shop and a restaurant, and a wide range of activities for wine lovers, including bottle-painting sessions, wine tastings and wine safaris. The tours include the nearby Kuiburi National Park, as well as of the vineyard.
This 1000-acre vineyard, perched on a hill next to Khao Yai National Park, was founded in 1989 by Thai businessman Dr Piya Bhirombhakdi. PB Valley Khao Yai Winery produces eight wines, including a rosé and sauvignon blancs, several of which have been served at official functions attended by the Thai royal family.
At the helm is Prayut Piangbunta, the country's first Thai winemaker. For this reason, Khao Yai is seen as the birthplace of new latitude wines. There are daily tours of the vineyard, which includes a restaurant and shop.
Silverlake's vineyard can be found in Pattaya – a region more associated with full moon parties and backpackers than fine wine. Founded in 2002 by Surachai Tangjaitrong and Supansa Nuangpirom, this vineyard is known for its hi-tech machinery (imported from Italy) and has been credited with promoting Thailand as a top new latitude wine region.
Tangjaitrong and Nuangpirom are both keen music lovers, and the Silverlake music festival, held on the estate every year, is now one of Thailand's most popular music events. There are daily tours of the vineyard, which offers overnight accommodation, and there's also a restaurant, café and shop.
Tamara is a former snowboard instructor who's been a freelance travel writer for 12 years. She loves snowboarding, hiking, mountain biking and scuba diving, and the regions she knows best are Asia, America and Africa. Europe-wise she knows Germany and France very well. In normal times she does two or three trips a month. Follow her on Twitter