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Grape heaven!

Make grape wine in Thailand? “Can’t be done,” the pundits said. “Thailand’s too hot. Don’t you know it’s in the tropics?” Yeah, sure.

January 2009

Telling a Thai something can't be done is like waving a red flag in front of a bull. They'll try it, come hell or high water. And more often than not, the job gets done. But it'll be done the Thai way.

Today, Thailand produces wine and even hardcore sceptics are beginning to admit some of it is pretty good. And predictably, the most successful producer has broken with tradition and is doing things the Thai way at the "Floating Vineyards" of Samut Sakorn.

Chalerm Yoovidhya of Red Bull fame and owner of the winery near Samut Sakorn, may model his premium wines after the traditional Western wines, but some of his practices are very different.

To start with, two of the grapes used exten sively by the winery - Malaga Blanc, a white, and Pokdum, a red - are 'local' grapes rarely seen elsewhere.

Introduced into Thailand in 1685, Malaga Blanc is a popular Thai table grape but has seldom been used to make wine in other countries.

Pokdum, on the other hand, is a local mutation of the European Golden Queen and Muscat Bailey grapes andis encountered only in Thailand. It shows great promise and possesses a taste that stamps it uniquely Thai.

What really raises the eyebrows of wine traditionalists is the way many of the grapes are grown. The region around Samut Sakorn is a fertile delta formed by the Chao Phraya and other rivers emptying into the Gulf of Thailand.

It is crisscrossed by large canals built during the reign of King Rama IV. Farms in the area have traditionally been irrigated by siphoning water from these canals and letting it flow through smaller "canals" that pass through the numerous orchards and vineyards.

Water percolates from the smaller canals to the crops, eliminating the need for any other form of irrigation.

Grape vines growing on little islands made Western tongues wag and caused a wine writer to refer to the vineyards as 'floating vineyards'.

The plots under cultivation are, in effect, small islands surrounded by water from the canals. That moniker was a publicist's dream come true. Tour groups now flock to see Samut Sakorn's "famous floating vineyards".

A fascinating sight - and one that also produces reams of free publicity - is the panorama presented when the grapes are harvested.

The canals around the vineyards make it difficult to transport the harvest by traditional means. As a result, grapes are transported by small boats from point of harvest to trucks waiting at roadside collection points

The premium products are marketed under the Monsoon Valley label. There are three primary Monsoon Valley wines created from grapes grown in the Chao Phraya delta vineyards:

  • The medium-bodied Monsoon Valley Red is 70% Pokdum, 20% Shiraz and 10% Black Muscat. It is garnet red with a violet tinge, possesses bright and clean red fruit aromas and a spicy character. 
  • The light-bodied Monsoon Valley Malaga Blanc is 85% Malaga Blanc and 15% Colombard. It is pale yellow and possesses aromas of lemongrass and watermelon. A fine complement to fish dishes, it also makes for a pleasant aperitif. 
  • The Monsoon Valley Rosé is perhaps the most exotic of the trio. Made from Malaga Blanc and Pokdum, it goes very well with a variety of Thai dishes that are often difficult to match with wine, including the Kingdom's delicious spicy salads.

Does following your own drummer work? It seems so. Chalerm Yoovidhya's company is now the largest winery in Southeast Asia, employing more than 700 people. Sales of its premium wines locally are quite modest, but have taken off overseas, particularly in the United Kingdom. In the first half of 2006, there was a 125% increase in sales compared with a similar period in 2005 - proof that doing things the Thai way frequently pays off.

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