A toast to Thai tenacity

Last updated 12:00 20/02/2013
CHEERS: Massey development studies lecturer Glenn Banks.

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If you fancy a glass of wine in Southeast Asia, you will mostly likely be served up an import. Because in the humid, temperate climate, vineyards are not common in the region.

Which is why Massey researcher Glenn Banks finds Thailand's burgeoning wine industry so fascinating. He tells Talia Shadwell about his travels to Thailand to investigate the "elephants in vineyards" phenomena.

Anyone who has ever tried to buy a nice glass of sauvignon blanc in Southeast Asia knows the tipple is hard to come by.

The first challenge is to find a bar that stocks wine.

The second, to get it at a reasonable price. The taxes on importing wine are astronomical in some countries, particularly in dry countries, such as Indonesia.

Beyond the key tourism regions, the predominantly Muslim and, by consequence, teetotal population ensures an excise tax that can conflate the price of a nice drop by up to 400 per cent before it even reaches the restaurant table.

That's not to mention counterfeiting and smuggling - fake Gucci handbags and Ray Ban sunglasses are a dime a dozen in Southeast Asian tourist traps.

So even if a diner can stomach the premium price of a bottle of wine, there's no guarantee that what ends up in their glass hasn't been diluted with an inferior quality product, or sold with a false label.

However nine wineries in Thailand are offering the real deal.

Massey University development studies lecturer Glenn Banks travelled to Thailand to discover how and why some of Thailand's elite businesspeople are facing off a hostile climate and a market unaccustomed to wine, to grow grapes. The wine business Thailand's total of about 300 hectares of vineyards spread between nine vineyards is dwarfed by New Zealand's own 34,000ha.

Imported grape cuttings meet an unforgiving climate in Thailand. The industry took off in the 1990s and, in the past 20 years, the emphasis has been on finding a varietal hardy enough to not only resist death in a humid and winterless climate, but to produce a flavour worthy of bottling.

Vines have to be pruned twice a year and those planted in the early stages of the Thai foray into the industry are now beginning to wither. One vineyard lost almost 90 per cent of its harvest last year because of a period of unseasonal rain, Banks says. Owners have found that, unlike in the French and Italian regions from which their vines are sourced, a vine battling a monsoonal climate might live for only 15 to 18 years before it must be replaced in full.

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Prominent Australian wine consultant and world-leading viticulturist Richard Smart was enlisted in recent years by the Thai grape growers to share his expertise.

The problem of a white powdery mildew that plagues vines is exacerbated by the humid climate.

Smart's area of expertise is canopy management techniques, and the development of a trellis system that allows fresh air to pass freely through the vines, for which he is world-renowned within the industry.

Vineyards Banks visited were mostly growing Shiraz and Syrah - the red grape varietals that have proven hardy enough to grow in Thailand's challenging climate. Italian varietal Tempranillo is also being investigated as a possible candidate suitable for the swampy Southeast Asian climate. Elephants among the grapes Banks' initial reason for travelling to Thailand was to see the elephants that have become a tourist attraction at the Hua Hin Hills vineyard, two hours southwest of Bangkok.

"I set out to investigate the ‘elephants in vineyards' phenomena, and build up the first complete picture of the Thai wine industry.

"While grapes do have a long history in Thailand - Louis XIV sent wine and grape cuttings out from France with an envoy in the 1600s - the modern industry only dates from the early 1990s."

Hua Hin Hills is designed for tourists, with an architecturally stunning cellar door and restaurant, gorgeous views over the surrounding countryside, and three elephants for tourists to ride along the vines, he says.

"The elephants are apparently little use for much else in the vineyard, but their presence itself can transform the view of rows of vines from the pleasantly familiar to the wonderfully exotic. These striking images were part of the reason I wanted to do this research." A family affair Considering the trials of growing grapes in Thailand, why bother?

Banks says the seed of the idea began with a passion for wine among a small group of Thai business elites.

"The motivation for the guys investing in the industry there? They are pretty wealthy people, they have all developed a taste for [wine] overseas while travelling and thought ‘I can do this' - and they do have the money and the resources to have their own little vineyard.

"Apart from the common factor of wealth, they are a diverse group of owners: a former deputy prime minister; the inventor and founder of Red Bull; owner of one of Thailand's largest construction firms; a gem trader; and founder of one of Thailand's major breweries. There are only two operations where the owners, self-made engineers in both cases, really are ‘hands-on' in terms of the wine production itself."

One of the pioneers of the Thai wine industry was the late founder of global energy-drink franchise Red Bull, Chaleo Yoovidhya. Thailand's third-richest man at the end of his life, he also established one of Thailand's first wine businesses, Siam Winery, in 1986. It was inherited by Yoovidhya's son when he died in March last year.

The Red Bull tycoon started with "wine coolers" - a ready-to-drink mix aimed to ease Asian markets into wine, as Yoovidhya believed Thai people were not yet ready for wine, Banks says.

But, by the time he segued into wines, the business was still small-fry compared with global wine producers, selling about 10,000 bottles of Thai wine a year - too little to be anything more than a pet project for the energy-drink giant.

Money to be made? According to the Asian Development Bank, Thailand's middle class is ballooning. A total 17.6 million Thais from 70 million joined the middle classes between 1990 and 2008.

Siam Winery's slogan "building a Thai wine culture" speaks volumes about the prism through which the Red Bull mogul viewed the burgeoning industry.

"Wine, with its associated image of Western sophistication, is starting to turn some - although only a few in reality - Thai middle class from beer and whisky drinkers into more ‘sophisticated' wine drinkers," says Banks. "Upmarket wine bars are springing up around Bangkok to cater for this shift, and the local interest."

Siam Winery remains in the Red Bull family and imports premium wines from around the world, including New Zealand varietals for Thai consumption.

A glance at the wine list reveals a business clearly oriented to elite consumers.

"They would have to be aiming for a prestige market because of the cost of production and labour intensiveness," Banks says.

However they had found there was real money to be made in "cellar door" tourism, Banks says.

All of Thailand's nine vineyards are clustered in the south, within two hours' drive of Bangkok. Tea plantations and rice paddies have long been a tourist haunt throughout Southeast Asia. Banks says the location of the vineyards he visited were not calculated on the optimum climate for grapes, but for ease of access for tourists taking day trips out of the sprawling metropolis.

Siam Winery's 120ha of vineyards lie in Samutsakorn, just 50 kilometres southwest of the city, and it is no stretch of the imagination to conclude that custom would be strong from the large expat community living in the metropolis.

Banks says most of the grape growers he met do not view their business as great money-making ventures. Instead they're branching into wine because of a love for the grape, much the same way Kiwis keep small vineyards for lifestyle purposes. European influence Thailand's vineyards are heavily reliant on imported expertise, Banks says. Many employ French and German winemakers, shipped in to guide the owners through the finer points of winemaking.

That influence is discernible in the wines produced in south Thailand. Not just in the taste, but in the names of the wines, picked to appeal to an international market.

Wines produced by Siam Winery include "Monsoon Valley", "Boones", and "Fresco" while competitor Granmonte ("grand mountain") appropriates the romanticism of Italian wine in portmanteau.

In the formative years of the Thai industry, it was common to see labels that informed the consumer the wine may contain traces of French or Italian wine.

Hardly a turnoff, considering the quality of grape associated with those regions, but the combination would be a turnoff for serious sommeliers, Banks says, as it would be viewed as compromising the integrity of the wine's terroir.

Now, the practice is less common, Banks says. But as grapes do not occur naturally in Thailand, varietals must still be imported from Europe as growers test which best adapts to the temperate climate.

And the fruits of those vines do travel back to their roots. Banks was told by vineyard owners of a healthy market for their produces in Thai restaurants in Britain.

There is a taste for wine from unusual sources in the global wine industry, Banks says.

"As globalisation increases so does the spread of interest in wine, especially with the growing middle-classes in the developing world.

"There has been a shift away from wine production and consumption in the so-called ‘old world' (France, Italy, Spain) towards both the ‘new world' regions (such as New Zealand), and emerging or developing regions. China, for example, now produces more wine than Australia, Argentina or South Africa, and consumes more than Spain or the United Kingdom."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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