Khun Viravat may be the most committed winemaker in the country.
"This will all turn into 40,000 bottles next year," he said, proudly surveying vineyards planted on a 630-metre high plateau and watched over from a nearby hilltop by a Buddhist temple. Khun Viravat puts high hopes into his Shiraz rootstock imported from Israel's Jordan Valley. Thai growers have tried virtually every vine variety, but Shiraz, which may have originated in Iran in ancient times, seems to do particularly well in Thailand, along with chenin blanc from France's Loire Valley.
THAT NIGHT, AT THE HARVEST PARTY AND as 60 genuine grape pickers spread out over his estate, Khun Viravat unveiled "La Fleur", at 3,900 baht (US$102) a bottle the most expensive Thai wine ever. With only 1,100 bottles turned out, several invitees snapped up the Shiraz. "Medium bodied with a lovely bouquet and a long aftertaste," pronounced Mullen, who pens a weekly wine column for The Nation in Bangkok.
As fireworks burst overhead and guests soaked up the wine and an atmosphere reminiscent of French provincial festivals, the real work of wine production was beginning at the winery, a charming, Old World structure built right into a rocky hillside.
At its entrance, workers supervised by
two French experts sorted through incoming baskets of grapes from the chilly countryside — picked when cool, the grapes take on more colour — eliminating greenish, unripe bunches. It's attention to such details, down to the size and shape of the oak casks, that makes the difference between first-class wine and yin ordinaire.
"The only way to produce a good wine is to be passionate about it," said Raphael Vongsuravatana, the son of Thai-French parents who own three vineyards in France. The Bordeaux resident was employed by Khun Viravat to instil just such passion and precision into his operation, along with a French oenologist, a Thai soil expert and another Frenchman, Jacques Bacou, whose already wine-savvy children constitute the tenth generation of wine-makers in his family. Naturally, Khun Viravat's winery and its techniques are modelled along classic French lines.
"Two years ago I wasn't so optimistic. But since then, there's been huge progress and the potential is high for Thai wines," said Raphael, inspecting with Jacques every aspect of the winery operation the next morning. "There will be a good market when people realise there is good Thai wine."
But hurdles remain and output is modest. Last year, Thailand produced 860,000 bottles, mostly for domestic consumption, compared to some 850 million from 13,000 wine growers in Bordeaux alone.
The skills of everyone from pickers to winery operators still need to be upgraded. On the marketing side, the Thai Wine Association, founded last year, hopes to educate the public about Thai wines and push for lowering of one of the world's highest excise taxes on the product. This makes them barely competitive on the domestic market and, as association president Khun Visooth points out, it's cheaper to buy Thai wine in Paris than in Bangkok.
Then there are the wild elephants. Last year a mother and her calf sneaked out of Khao Yai National Park at night to feast, not on grapes but in a cornfield right next to Khun Visooth's estate. The trespassers had to be shooed away from the vineyard.Now, tell me about a Tuscan or Burgundian wine grower who has to worry about jumbos?