Wine Vineyards In Isaan? You Gotta Be Kidding!
Restaurants and sidewalk cafes are abundant everywhere in Thailand, but unless you are in Bangkok, the beach resorts, or one of the major cities on the tourist circuit, don't be surprised if it is hard to buy a decent glass of wine anywhere. And if you do succeed, chances are it will cost you an arm and a leg compared to other beverage prices. (Perhaps as much as 2,000 to 3,000 baht per bottle) Why? The answer lies in the fact that most wine is imported; and therefore subject to high taxes. Also, if you are in the Isaan region of Thailand, wine becomes even scarcer.
My wife was born in Isaan (Phon Thong) but is now a U.S. citizen. We travel to Thailand at least once per year and spend most of our time in central Isaan visiting her family in Khon Kaen. Isaan, although considered a cultural cradle of Thailand, is seldom on the list of places to visit by most foreigners in Thailand on vacation; and therefore there is no tourist demand for wine motivating Isaan restaurant owners to stock up on it. And as for the locals, they prefer water or Singha beer with their traditional fiery dishes. To them, so my Thai wife explains, wine just doesn't seem to taste right with popular Isaan entries such as spicy grilled chicken (kai yang), beef salad (nue nam tak), and papaya salad (som tam). These are among my wife's favorites. An Isaan meal hardly seems complete without at least one of these dishes, and of course, plenty of sticky rice (khao nio) served in bamboo baskets.
Growing up eating traditional American food, I occasionally enjoy a glass of wine with my meals while dining out in the Atlanta area where we live. That is an acquired thirst that usually goes unquenched when we make our annual pilgrimage to Thailand. But last year was an exception. One evening at one of the finer restaurants in Khon Kaen, I was pleasantly surprised to find that there was a separate wine list. Even more surprising, the list included several wines produced and bottled in Thailand. I decided to order a couple of bottles for our table. My wife's family was curious to try it, because they had never tasted any wine before, imported or otherwise. I too was curious to sample its taste, simply because I had never tasted a wine from Thailand. And my wife being the accommodating person that she is, agreed to go along with my plans. We ordered the Chateau de Loei red wine, vintage 2541.
The date jolted me a little until I realized that the winery was using the Buddhist calendar based on Buddha whose birth preceded Christ (the basis of my calendar) by 543 years. Some quick calculation in my head told me that I was buying wine bottled in 1998 and not a futuristic product of a Thailand time warp. Obviously having no prior knowledge of wine production in Thailand, I had to wait and hope that 1998 was a decent year for this particular Thailand wine. Our wait was rewarded with one of the best tasting wines that I had ever encountered...French, Italian, Australian, German, Brazilian, Napa Valley...or any other source. The wine had a deep purplish-red, plum-like color. It had a pleasing bouquet with only a slightly sweet taste and a barely detectable acid undertone. Contrary to expectations, it seemed to complement the spicy foods we were eating. Even my wife and her family appeared to enjoy it.
The next day, Juli, one of my wife's favorite cousins in Isaan, invited us to have lunch at her sister's house on the outskirts of town. Juli's sister and brother-in-law are professors at the local Khon Kaen College. They have a beautiful home in a modern suburb that is a sharp contrast to the usual housing found in the central and rural areas of Khon Kaen. The average Isaan person has little income and can hardly afford nice homes. In fact most of my wife's relatives fall into this lower social-economic class. Juli, herself, cannot afford such a large and luxurious home. She was only in town visiting. Juli's home is in Phon Thong in a modest one-room dwelling built on a rice farm, some 120 miles east of Khon Kaen.
Juli's sister and her brother-in-law speak fluent English. During casual conversation with them, I mentioned my surprise of the previous evening, having discovered wine bottled in Thailand. I learned quickly that they were far more knowledgeable on the subject than your average person. They explained that before 1960, most every type of grape available in Thailand was exported from either the United States or Australia. Since that time, Thailand through government subsidized programs designed to stimulate agricultural growth, and academic institutions experimentation and analysis, had made great progress toward building successful vineyards in Thailand. Growing grapes in Thailand is not particularly easy because of the high humidity, rainy seasons, and lack of frost that gives the canes their natural dormancy experienced in other climates.
Initially, the grapes were harvested primarily for table consumption; and were located in the Central Plain region of Nakhon Pthom, Rachaburi, Samut Sakhon and Samut Songkram provinces--all very close to Bangkok. Some of them were so-called "floating vineyards" where the grapes are actually harvested by pickers moving along in boats through irrigation ditches between the canes. Further, they explained that it had only been recently that the vineyards had found their way into the Northern, Northeastern and Western regions. It wasn't until later that the Thai vineyards started growing both table and wine grapes.
Our learned hosts jokingly commented that early attempt by Thai growers to make wine using table grapes had produced wine that either tasted like vinegar or overly sweet grape juice. "This is all changing today", they added. Further, they related the fact that for about the past 9 years in the Loei province of Isaan, there has been a small vineyard by the name of Chateau de Loei producing some world-class wine. I concurred with the assessment having tasted the wine the previous evening.
It was unusual, I know, to find two people in Isaan so knowledgeable on the subject of grapes and wine. The next day, I decided to convince my wife and several of the relatives that we should plan a day trip to Loei and check out the vineyard there. Surprisingly, I did not meet with much resistance since that part of the country has the beautiful Phu Kradung mountain range and some very well known Buddhist temples that my wife wanted to see. And her nieces and nephews were anxious to visit the many parks and waterfalls along the way. We decided to hire a van rather than drive ourselves. The vans are air-conditioned, inexpensive, have built-in video playback monitors, a good music system, and comfortable seats. You control the agenda, stopping as many times as you wish along the way to exercise your legs and sample the roadside shops and restaurants.
It was a tight schedule, but we managed to work in my trip to the Chateau de Loei vineyard. We were able to drive through the grounds and get out to take pictures. Of course, we were not allowed to pick or taste any of the grapes. The vines were beautiful. I learned from a booklet picked up at the vineyard-owned gift shop that the original canes were brought from France. The roots are propagated by asexual methods involving marcotting (air layering), budding and cutting techniques. It takes a lot of time and patience, plus technical know-how, to be successful with the plantings.
All the grapes at the vineyard were for making wine, not for eating. There were two varieties: (1) white wine Chenin Blanc and (2) red wine Shiraz. The picture above shows my wife and I standing next to some Shiraz canes. The Chateau de Loei alone produces almost 300 tons of grapes annually. These grapes are crushed, pressed and then fermented in stainless steel tanks before finally being matured in oak barrels.
Never having visited any vineyard before, I found the trip quite interesting and worthwhile. I have since discovered that there are many organized tours out of Bangkok and other major hubs to visit these vineyards. Thailand itself produces nearly 40,000 tons of grapes annually with only about 2,500 tons destined to become wine. That may be changing though as the industrious and patient grape-growers of Thailand become better at the farming nuances of wine grapes, develop more aggressive export marketing strategies; and the world eventually recognizes their wines as serious contenders in a very competitive global marketplace.
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Published on 12/23/02