Saturday, October 13, 2007

Thai Shiraz up there with the best


ROWS of grape vines. Rolling hills. Cool breeze. The locale could be a vineyard in Napa Valley in California or Barossa Valley in South Australia.

But it’s in Thailand’s Khao Yai wine region. To be exact, PB Valley Khao Yai Winery, which produces award-winning wines made from grapes grown in the tropical latitude of 14.3°N.

Like Brazil, Thailand is in the New Latitude wine regions, which are outside the traditional winemaking countries located at the 30th and 50th parallels in both the northern and southern hemispheres.

PB Valley Khao Yai Winery, about 140km north-east of Bangkok, is a 320-hectare plantation situated 300m to 350m above sea level at the edge of Khao Yai National Park, Thailand’s oldest and most popular reserve.

About 80 hectares are utilised for growing Shiraz, Tempranillo, Chenin Blanc and Columbard grapes.

The winery is the pet project of Piya Bhirombhakdi (the winery's name is taken from his initials), who is the scion of the Singha beer family. The idea to produce Thai-made wine came soon after Piya (pix) successfully grew table grapes in the 1980s in his Khao Yai plantation.

Encouraged, the publicity-shy Thai tycoon imported vines of grape varieties used for making wine. Subsequently, he produced wine in a lab and found the quality ‘not so bad’.

In 1989, he established a winery simply because “I like drinking wine”. And his multi-million baht ‘hobby’ – the largest winery in South-East Asia, producing 120,000 bottles a year – bore fruit. PB Khao Yai Reserve 2002 won a Silver medal with 86.9 points in the Shiraz class at the world’s second largest wine challenge ‘awc vienna 2006’ in Austria.

“The prize was a big surprise for us as our winery was only eight years old and there were many other Shiraz wines in the world,” relates Piya.

One of the factors to the winery’s success in the business of turning grapes into wine in the tropics, according to Joolpeera Saitrakul, its assistant winery manager, is grafting.

For example, the rootstock – which is from Brazil and very tolerant to Thailand’s soil condition and weather – is grafted with a Shiraz variety from France.

“If you use a grape vine from France, it might not grow or produce good quality grapes in Thailand,” explains the 27-year-old winemaker.

Khao Yai’s climate – 10°C to 15°C in November and December – is also suitable for grape cultivation.

In Thailand, the big challenge for the Piya, the new latitude vintner, is imported wine (which in the kingdom is sold cheaper than Thai wine because of government tax).

Piya is sure that Thai wine connoisseurs consume his wines. PB Khao Yai Reserve Shiraz 2001 is sold around 470 baht or RM50 and Pirom Khao Yai Reserve Tempranillo 2004 is about 880 baht or RM94.

But, he acknowledges that new wine drinkers prefer sipping imported wine.

“They rather pay for a well-known foreign brand as they are not sure of our wine quality,” he says.

According to Piya, the best way to convince Thais and the world that his wines are as good if not better than the established brands from the Old World (France, Italy and Spain) and New World (Australia, Chile and United States) is for them to taste it.

“You can place many advertisements, but they wouldn’t know its quality until they try it,” he says.

But the international reputation of Thai wine is not helping PB Valley Khao Yai Winery.

Joolpeera notes that made-in-Thailand wines are still relatively unknown as the country produces less than 1% of the world’s annual output. And Thai wines have a reputation of not being up to international standard.

“Some Thai wines have an oxidised taste as they are produced using table grapes,” he admits, but quickly added: “PB’s wines can compete with established wine brands – 100%.”

Easy to drink. Fruity. Basically a New World wine. That’s Joolpeera’s tasting notes on the award-winning PB Khao Yai Reserve 2002.

Try it. You might fall in love with this tropical wine.

(Published in The Star on Oct 13, 2007. Photograph courtesy of Vera Mopilin)