Thai wine, anyone?

by AFP/Nareerat Wiriyapong, Feb 1, 2007 | Destinations: Thailand

In Thailand's Chao Phraya river basin, workers in boats traverse small canals among lines of vines, tending to Malaga blanc and Pokdum grapes in the world's only floating vineyard.

The grapes at this unique 25,000-acre (100 square-kilometre) vineyard in Samut Sakorn, 40 kilometres (25 miles) southwest of Bangkok, are part of efforts to boost Thailand's budding wine industry.

The kingdom, long renowned for great food, has never quite garnered the same reputation for wine, but experts say that by concentrating on wines that match the country's famously fiery cuisine, international recognition will follow.

"No other wines match Thai food. Thai wines are dry and soft, and cool down your mouth nicely when you eat something spicy," said Frenchman Laurent Metge-Toppin, a wine maker for Southeast Asia's biggest producer Siam Winery.

He has seen a startling hike in sales of the company's wines, many of which are produced using grapes from the floating vineyard.

"In 1999 we exported a few palettes, three palettes, 1,800 bottles maximum. Now we are probably (exporting) 200,000 to 210,000 bottles a year," he told AFP.

Even critics are warming to the taste of Thailand's distinctive wines and say the industry has a good chance of emerging as an international winner.

"They are good wines for everyday consumption," said James Mullen, food and wine critic for Thailand's English-language newspaper The Nation.

"I think we are still reaching to get to the point where we may have wines that are cellarable and will improve with extended ageing, but the process inside the wineries is also improving an awful lot," he said.

Siam Winery launched its first label, Chatemp, in 1999, and in 2003 the "Monsoon Valley" range was introduced abroad by Chalerm Yoovidhya, whose father Chaleo gave the world the "Red Bull" energy drink.

Kim Wachtveitl, business development director for Siam Winery Trading Plus Co., said things are only getting better.

"Export is growing as the world starts to know that Thailand is a winemaking country," he said, adding that up to 70 percent of Siam Winery's annual capacity of 35 million litres (nine million gallons) is shipped overseas.

"Thanks to famous Asian food, we have gained more destinations to our 14 export markets in 2006," said Kim, adding that the new markets included Scandinavia, Germany, Hong Kong, and Taiwan and China.

"We target for over 300,000 bottles of Monsoon Vally for export markets in 2007," said Kim.

The winery has plans to latch on to the growing popularity of Thai and other spicy Asian food in launching its wines abroad.

"We are going to launch Thai wines for a spicy food campaign in Paris in May, targeting 200 to 300 Asian restaurants in France such as those offering Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, Indian and Chinese food," said Metge-Toppin.

But while exports keep rising, boosting domestic sales is not quite as easy, with a decades-old alcohol tax system hindering growth.

Thailand is one of the world's most expensive countries for wine, with taxes of 200 percent on locally-made wines -- and a staggering 360 percent on imported wine.

This no doubt helps keep a lid on domestic wine consumption of around one million litres a year, only five percent of which is locally-produced.

"Local consumption has not risen steeply because of high taxes," said Kim, who is also vice president of the Thai Wine Association.

So for the moment, Siam Winery is concentrating on improving the quality of its wine and building an international reputation.

Apart from the floating vineyards, Siam Winery also grows Shiraz, Chenin blanc and Colombard grape varieties at its own vineyards the mountains in central Nakhon Ratchasima province, about 130 kilometres northeast of Bangkok.

They also have a 250-acre vineyard in the southern resort town of Hua Hin, scheduled to see its first harvest early next month.

In the floating vineyards, canals run between each row of grape vines, which grow from the ground up onto trellises. Workers walk along the vines to pick the grapes, and then place them in baskets in small boats that ply the canals.

The floating vineyard gives the highest yields. Grapes grow year-round, generating 3.7 tonnes per acre per harvest. With this unique system, every vine could produces up to 15 harvests in its lifespan.

And this makes Thai wine unique.

Most of the world's best known wines have traditionally been grown along the latitudes of 30 to 50 degrees north or south, where seasons allow just one harvest per year.

But in tropical Thailand, year-round hot weather means two harvests a year -- and a lot of raised eyebrows among connoisseurs.

"They say it's not new world, it's not old world. It's totally out of this world, and so we found a new phrase -- new latitudes wines," said Metge-Toppin.


* * * * *