LIKE all of the best travel tales, this story begins over a glass of really great wine. In this case, five months ago, back in a Bangkok restaurant, in the middle of a coup. Yes, picture me going all white linen trousers and Somerset Maugham on you while anarchy rages outside and you’ve kind of got the gist. It was at the Rang Mahal Indian Restaurant at the Rembrandt Hotel, when I was introduced to a fine drop made by Thailand’s only female wine maker, who happened to have studied the art in Australia. Not only was the wine excellent in a country more renowned for its Singha than its shiraz, but I had the burning desire to know more about this woman.
Fast forward to last weekend, and I had the incredible fortune of standing on a vineyard in Thailand’s Khao Yai, interviewing Nikki Lohitnavy about her impossible dream producing great Thai wine. Nikki, who is just 27, started becoming interested in viticulture when her parents started the vineyard in 1999.
“Back then I was in high school in Bangkok and every school holiday I would spend my time here helping in the vineyard and I liked it,” she says.
“I asked if I could go to Australia and finish my high school in Melbourne and then I studied oenology at the University of Adelaide. I wanted to be a botanist, I’ve loved trees since I was a kid.
“In my third year I asked if I could go to Brown Brothers and do the harvest there and in 2008 I got a scholarship from Wolf Blass for excellence in wine making and went there for three years. After that I came back to Thailand to start Granmonte.”
Granmonte, which means “big mountain” in Italian, is named after the mountains of Khao Yai National Park which frame the pretty property. And there’s another element to this tale. Shortly after arriving, I’m told that rogue wild elephants have been known to wander through the vineyard, thus ensuring I spend the next two days imagining how I should react should I encounter a tusked beast. Should I sprint to the cellar door and launch myself into a vat of shiraz? Snatch a discarded bicycle from a vineyard worker and try to outcycle the beast? Stand still and pretend I’m a petit verdot? It’s not every day one has to consider the possibility of an elephant attack on a vineyard and I want to be prepared. For this is a story where even your wildest dreams can come true.
You see, in her first year Nikki produced a modest amount of 20,000 bottles. Now, the vineyard has expanded to 16ha and makes between 80,000 and 90,000 bottles a year. The family has also just purchased another vineyard about 40 km east.
“We started sending our wines to competitions. We couldn’t just say our wines are getting better and are really good,” Nikki says.
“When we were confident our wines were of high quality we were more confident to sell to hotels and restaurants.”
Not only is Nikki’s wine served in top-quality Bangkok restaurants such as the Rang Mahal and Australian-owned Nahm – recognised as one of the world’s top restaurants – but 20 percent of production is exported to Japan, The Maldives, Hong Kong, the US and even a Thai restaurant in Germany. And Nikki has this message to those skeptics who believe Thailand couldn’t possible produce good wine.
“I just say ‘try it’. We have a lot of that attitude towards Thai wine. That’s the main reason we have our cellar door her, that’s how we connect,” she says.
“I’d like to encourage people to give Thai wine another go because now we are producing much better quality wine. Please try again.”
In fact, Khao Yai could be considered one of the more ideal places to grow wine, as there’s no frost and the vines don’t go into dormancy. The vines are pruned twice a year here so they can be harvested. There’s now 12 wines on the list, which boasts everything from a light chenin blanc to a gutsy shiraz, with a couple of experimental blocks of Italian varietals due to come to fruition in the next two years.
The least expensive drop, the Sakuna Rose named after Nikki’s Chinese-born mother, sells for around AUD20, which is remarkable given it is so expensive to produce. There’s a 360 percent tax on wine in Thailand and all of the machinery is imported from places like Australia.
“It’s challenging here but if I was in Australia I’d be doing the same thing as everyone else. There are only a few of us making wine from grapes here,” Nikki says.
And things are bustling along in the Thai wine industry in general, with the Thai Wine Association celebrating its tenth birthday this year with eight members, of which Granmonte is recognised as the country’s best. But more importantly, those global gongs are starting to trickle in, including an award at last year’s Sydney Wine Show.
On my final evening at Granmonte, I bump into Nikki walking through the vineyard in the late afternoon light.
“In a few minutes, go and stand at the front gate and look back over the vineyard. The light illuminates the vines and it’s really beautiful then,” she says.
I do as she says. Stand by the frangipani tree, bask in the humidity, look back over the vineyard framed by the mountains and drink in this intoxicating story of success. And there’s not an elephant in sight.
The Global Goddess travelled as a guest of the Tourism Authority of Thailand. http://www.tourismthailand.org