The New Boundaries of Wine – A Look at The Wines of South East Asia
With the never-ending landscapes of South America, from the high elevations of the Bolivian Altiplano to the hot and dry Zonda winds of Mendoza, we have been given a good look at what one calls, the “New World”.
We have learnt how many generations have cared for healthy grapes here, and by the look of the thick, dark vines bursting out of the ground, nothing looks very new anymore.
So, is this whole “New World/Old World” debate a sort of fantasy, a dream that us wine lovers keep pretending is the truth, as it might have been 200 years ago? Terroirs, thousands of kilometres apart, like Mendoza & Bordeaux or Leyda & Burgundy, were being compared based on soil & climate similarities.
Winemaking habits, such as the choice of American or French oak or the use of stainless steel, are quickly changing in both New and Old World to the point where potential differences of the past could become less obvious in styles. The New World was getting old too, setting up its own PDO’s (Protected Designation of Origin) on the European model (DO Lujan de Cuyo for example).
However, perhaps a division is still occurring today, and perhaps it isn’t just Europe versus the rest of the world anymore. The “Old VS New World” geopolitical system of the past has been replaced by a more scientific one that seemed to be climate-based.
When you learn the basics of wine, one of the first facts you have to take for granted is that wine can be produced within the 30th & 50th parallels both north & south. However, this “truth” might have been indeed true a few years ago, but experimentations outside of these areas are giving incredible results nowadays.
This very new world that was happening before our eyes was outside of most wine books and publications, yet the wines were here to be drank. So, we both decided to head towards one of these unnoticed new players of the wine world: South-East Asia.
We arrived in Bangkok on the early morning of January 1st. The Thai, with their Lunar calendar, traditionally celebrate New Year’s Eve later in the year. But they also rarely miss an occasion to party, so why have one NYE celebration a year when you can have 3?
This is how in just 3 months, we celebrated the Western NYE, Lunar NYE & Chinese NYE in Thailand. What would you drink if you were partying there?
Buckets of local spirits (Thai whiskey can be very good, although the next morning might not be) can be purchased from the party neighbourhoods for foreigners. Light beers are also very common (Chang, Leo & Tiger mostly). they all come in 620ml glass bottles that were probably intended for sharing although no one does.
So, unless you are in a fancy restaurant, wine is not the drink you’d be ordering in Thailand. The main reason for that is the very high price of wine compared to other drinks. The high duty on this traditionally imported good slows down the expansion of domestic vineyards, but the quality can be impressive!
In the middle of Thailand, about 4 hours north of Bangkok and 2 hours from the ancient capital Ayuttayah, is the beautiful Khao Yai National Park. Here, in the Asoke Valley, lie some of the best vineyards in the country.
We contacted one of them, Granmonte, who very kindly invited us to come and discover their estate. Chief winemaker Nikki Lohitnavy joined us and shared her passion and knowledge.
The first and only woman winemaker in Thailand is a graduate from the University of Adelaide (Australia). She has experience working in some great wineries (Brown Brothers, Wolf Blass), along with top wineries in France (La Fleur de Bouard, Chateau Angélus), Portugal (Quinta de Roriz), California and many more!
She opened Granmonte winery in 2009 on the estate where her father had been growing wine grapes, first as a hobby but then as a full-time job. She explained their interest in grapes very simply. The late king Bhumibol had launched, as one of his Royal Projects, official researches on suitable varietals for the Thai climate.
From these researches, two varietals had shown fantastic results – Syrah for reds & Chenin Blanc for whites. At Asoke, both varietals were planted along with Durif, a lesser-known varietal that originates in California and is known there as Petite Sirah.
The vineyard was set in the Asoke Valley for many reasons. Firstly, this tiny pocket of land is made of the typical Mediterranean Terra Rossa (limestone-based soil), rich in minerals & where vines thrive, that can also be found in parts of Australia or California.
Secondly is the fact that it lies within a National Park with untouched land. Here, the biodiversity is well-respected. The big elephant-shaped mountain overlooks impeccable lines of grapevines.
Here, from a winemaking point of view, everything seems to be unique. The tropical climate could lead to two crops a year. Can you imagine the labels of wine looking like an Irish reg’, with this year’s cuvées labelled as a 181 & 182 wine?
To be honest, quality-driven winemakers told us that vines were a bit like humans; they could do a lot of things OK or a few things very well. Two harvests a year would lead to a lot of watered-down, poor quality vino, when forcing the vine to produce one batch can only enhance the quality.
This is how these pioneers of the Tropics decided to trim their vines down to the ground once a year, to let them grow from the scratch over the course of a season.
Another pretty incredible moment was when we spoke about diseases. When you visit a traditional vineyard, most talks about pests and diseases are about mildew, odium, hungry birds & other botanical issues.
Here, the main source of fear were the clumsy elephants who would at times cross the vineyards, not necessarily looking for grapes but destroying most vines as they wander about.
Thailand is not isolated in this global change, in the region we also found wine in Vietnam, although the tradition seems to be a blend of grape & mulberry wine, like what you can find around Dalat or in the North around Hanoi. The long French influence has developed the wine culture in this country, where it isn’t uncommon to order wine on a night out. However, the lack of vintages on the labels and the presence of other fruits in the blend lead to a scary diversity in quality levels.
In Cambodia, although an attempt of winemaking can be found in Battambang, where a local family found the idea interesting for getting rid of the grapes they couldn’t sell on the local market, what is commonly referred to as “wine” is usually rice wine. If the process is closer to a spirit, the finished product is smooth and taste like bread dough. Some similar versions in Vietnam are worth trying, and if you are lucky enough to get lost with the local tribes of the North around Sa Pa, you will be given enough “happy water” to remember its taste…
On our last night in Bangkok, and in Asia overall, we decided to treat ourselves to the Michelin-starred cuisine of Paste Restaurant. If some details might shock us in our own Western culture, like the fact that this heaven of fine dining is located on the first floor of a shopping mall, their food is pure genius. Thai cuisine is all about balance, between sweet and spicy, or acid & bitter.
Every bite is an explosion and Paste seems to master it. We decided to pair our tasting menu with a Verdelho from Granmonte and the floral, stone fruit aromas of the wine made total sense with every nuance of the food. A total foodie experience we would recommend to anybody going there!
Originally from France, Solene and Maxime met in Ireland, where they both lived for 5 and 7 years. Solene decided to move there to improve her English and eventually fell in love with the island. Working for an Irish food importer as their sourcing manager, she got the opportunity to travel the world and meet producers. With a diploma from the International Olive Oil Council, she decided to focus particularly on this subject.
Maxime first arrived in Ireland to work as a trainee in a restaurant. A few years later, after finalising his studies in Restaurant Management at the Ferrandi school in Paris, he decided to go back and take on a management position at the Dublin Wine Rooms. Eventually moving to work for a wine importer as their wine educator, he travelled the country to train restaurant and hotel staff for a couple of years.
Pushed by their passion for Food and Wine, Solene and Max founded foodvinebrations.com 2016. Partners in the real life as well as online, they are both travelling the World from South America to Asia and Europe to discover the traditional foods, cooking techniques, wines and cultures of the globe![TT-FOURBLOCK ID=”200556, 200560, 200558, 200563″]