วันเสาร์ที่ 27 มีนาคม พ.ศ. 2553

A handful of vineyards in Thailand

AS MIDNIGHT NEARS, GUESTS ARE PROMPTLY handed garden clippers, headlamps and small wooden crates. Then, the well-heeled crowd is dispatched into star-lit vineyards. Bulging bunches of grapes are snipped off the vines. Laughter erupts as a violinist and an accordion player move along with the enthusiastic novices, belting out lusty tangos. Then come the maidens in loose peasant dresses jumping into wooden vats to squash the newly cut grapes with their lovely bare feet. It's the Midnight Harvest Party when the first grapes of [he 2005 vintage are handpicked at one of Thailand's top wineries.
Wineries, you say? In tropical Thailand? Decidedly yes. This scene plucked out of what could well be European wine lands, blended with Thai-style sanuk, or fun, was staged at the scenic, hilltop Village Farm and Winery, among the half-dozen major wine-making enterprises in the Kingdom.
Granted, Thai wines are not about to knock French Bordeaux or California's chardonnays off anyone's top wine list, but the decade-old industry is making headway and, over the past year or two, has crafted a few
wines that Bangkok-based connoisseur R. James Mullen describes as "making a statement, wines you can talk about".

THAIS HAVE BEEN CONCOCTING WINE FROM rice and fruit in their backyards for centuries, but the grape variety was only introduced in the mid-1990s when a now-deceased construction tycoon, Chaijudh Karnasuta, started his Chateau de Loei in the mist-streaked hills of the northeast. having imported French rootstock and expertise.
More recently, several wineries have sprung up in what is rapidly becoming Thailand's answer to California's Napa Valley or the "Golden Coast" of Burgundy --- the picturesque, rolling countryside around Khao Yai National Park, just over two hours' drive from Bangkok. Nestled in valleys and clambering up hillsides, where growing conditions are as favourable as they get in Thailand, stretch vineyards of Village Farm; Granmonte and PB Valley Khao Yai Winery, the latter owned by the same folks who brew Singha beer.
"When I was a student in Germany in the 1960s, I didn't like drinking beer. I liked drinking wine but I couldn't really afford it then. And I loved visiting the wine-growing region along the Rhine River," says Granmonte owner Visooth Lohitnavy by way of explaining why he eventually went into the business. After a 30-year career as a top business executive, and a fling on the Southeast Asian car-racing circuit, Khun Visooth and his vivacious wife Sakuna bought land below a range of craggy hills, planted vines and built a lovely family villa.

June 2003 Sawasdee 19The vineyard yielded its biggest harvest this year. with 50,000 bottles expected to be corked. Some will be sold in Granmonte's tasting room or served in the intimate, rustic restaurant VinCotto where Khun Sakunc turns out shrimp-and-grape salad and other superb dishes.
Before dinner, Khun Visooth opened a Granmonte 2002 Celebration Chenin Blanc, relaxing in a breezy pavilion perched above a reservoir that waters his vines. In the vinous vocabulary of the cognoscenti, Mullen, who helps select wines for Thai Airways International's business-class passengers, offered the following appraisal: "It's developed a lovely little lemon-like flavour with a hint of honeydew melon. Clean, good balance and integrated. It's coming across quite pleasantly."
The next morning, Mullen sniffed, eyed and tasted more Thai vintages around towering oak casks and stainless-steel tanks at the nearby PB Valley, which includes Thailand's largest winery, one capable of fermenting enough grapes to produce up to one million bottles a year.
The expansive domaine, featuring bungalows and a new restaurant to capitalise on a growing number of wine-country tourists, is the work of Piya Bhirombhakdi, the "Beer Baron of Thailand". But wine had always been a parallel pursuit. In his youth he experimented with wine-making

at home, then sought out German expertise and went into the business, though with a dash of the quixotic spirit that characterises other Thai vintners.
"I could have made more money elsewhere, but I love to do what's fun. You can't take it with you when you go. The people who make wine are happy and they make those who drink wine happy too," he said over lunch at the estate's Great Hornbill Restaurant. The beverage, of course, came from his surrounding vineyards — a Pirom 2003. "It's moving in the right direction," noted Mullen approvingly.
Luckily, like Khun Piya, most Thais who have ventured into the wine world are endowed with deep pockets because few, if any, have made much money so far. But that's not unusual, says Mullen, noting that many in his home state of California, Hollywood stars and dot-corn millionaires among them, are attracted to the romance rather than the profits of the grape.
For some, like Village Farm owner Viravat Cholvanich, the creation of a top quality wine in Thailand; with its less than ideal climactic conditions and lack of a wine culture, also becomes a challenge, almost an obsession. A meticulous engineer whose core family business involves electricity,