Making quality wine in tropics
As well as being Thailand's first qualified female winemaker, Nikki Lohitnavy is an oenologist at her parents' GranMonte vineyard in Thailand.
Set on 16 hectares in Khao Yai, northeast of Bangkok, GranMonte harvests about 80 tonnes of grapes (50,000 to 60,000 litres of wine) every year and is one of Thailand's leading wineries.
Nikki is the first Thai, overseas-trained oenologist with a bachelor's degree and honours degree in viticulture, which she earned at the University of Adelaide.
Q At what stage in your life did you start showing an interest in winemaking?
A I became interested in wine when I was about 12 years old when my father started the vineyard. I had the chance to try a few drops like most kids growing up in vineyards do.
I did not know much about wine, of course, but I could taste the difference between bottles with different looking labels. When I found out it's because of different grape varieties, different country of the world those bottles are from, that just fascinated me.
So I decided to move to Australia when I was 14, finished high school in Melbourne and went straight on to wine in Adelaide! So now I am living my dream!
Q You are Thailand's first qualified female winemaker, a huge achievement. How have people reacted to this and do people view you as a role model?
A I certainly hope I am a role model for young Thais! I am also the only winemaker in Thailand with a bachelor's degree in oenology. Thais are proud to have a winemaker who is Thai and making internationally recognised wines from their own land.
Q How hard is it to grow grapes suited for wine in Thailand?
A There was a trial 30-40 years back to find suitable varieties.
Some can adapt to our soil and climate very well, for example, syrah and chenin blanc. So most wineries started off growing these two varieties. Then it's trial and error to find other varieties that could do well.
Q What challenges have you faced in climate, soil quality, and how have you overcome these?
A Climate is the greatest challenge for us since ours is a tropical climate.
Soil is not too much of a challenge as grapes can grow in many different soil conditions. We overcome them by choosing the right area of the country, for example, Khao Yai is ideal because it is in the driest part of the country (northeastern Thailand), and high in elevation, resulting in cool and dry conditions during the ripening period. Our techniques in vineyard management are very different compared to conventional vineyards. We have to prune our vines twice a year as there is no dormancy period, but we only harvest the grapes once a year at the end of winter (end of January to mid-March).
Q What are the unique qualities of Thai wine?
A Thai wines definitely have more fruit-driven qualities. The amount of sun and heat that we get helps the vines build aromatic compounds. If you think about the wonderful tropical fruits we have in our country, you'd understand why our grapes are so flavourful! The tannins structure especially in our full-bodied reds is a lot more supple than most full-bodied reds you find around the world. Our soil and climate also gives uniqueness to our wines, like more spices in the syrah and more tropical fruit aromas in the whites.
Q A lot of foreigners who think they know about wine say Thai wine is no good, and they avoid it.
A It is true there are some average Thai wines out there including some that are mixed with other fruit juice. So Thai wine used to have a pretty bad image in the past. But in the last five years, many wineries have raised the standard of Thai wine and we have won trophies, gold medals, silver medals from wine competitions all around the world.
Q What types of grape varieties does the vineyard grow, and what wine varieties do you produce?
A Our main production is syrah, chenin blanc and cabernet sauvignon. We also have explored new varieties and now making wine from them like viognier, verdelho and durif (petit sirah).
Q Why is it that Thai wines of a similar quality to imported international wines are the same price? Shouldn't Thai wines be cheaper given Thailand's nearly 300 per cent alcohol taxes for imported wine?
A Well, the first statement is not necessary true. GranMonte has done a lot of wine tasting and dinners amongst wine critics and wine aficionados across a wide range of wines from all around the world made using syrah grapes for example.
A bottle of our top syrah, The Orient, which retails for 1800 Thai Baht (NZ$70) is often preferred over good drops from California, Australia or France retailing 6000 to 8000 Thai Baht (NZ$237 to $316) a bottle!
Thai wines cost more to produce with imported machines, tanks, equipment, barrels etc and we are also taxed highly – as high as 260 per cent by the Thai law. Which is ridiculous if you ask me.
Q Do you need to use a lot of coolant around the tanks? How do you do this?
A Yes we do at some stages of production. We have imported tanks and fermenters from Germany which have cooling jackets around the tanks and we run cold water at 6 degrees Celsius through the jacket.
Q How do ferments handle the super hot conditions? Do you have to slow them down?
A Good winemaking and diligence can control that. Basically, I monitor the ferments morning, midday, afternoon and evening, checking temperature and sugar drop. If necessary, I then turn on the cooling and manage the ferments by pumping over, punching down etc.
Q How many tonnes of grapes does the winery produce, and how many litres of wine does this make?
A We are harvesting about 80 tonnes from 10 hectares. Our maximum capacity is 120 (tonnes) which we will achieve when some vineyard blocks gets older and are producing 100 per cent. So roughly, it is about 50,000-60,000 litres of wine from 80 tonnes.
Q What are the flagship varieties?
A Our flagship wines are from the rare varieties as I tend to make them into a more classic style with focus on structure of fruit and oak. They are wines that I want consumers to keep for a long time. So our viognier is our flagship white, fruit forward, aromatic but balanced by ageing in barrels for six months. No-one else in Thailand is producing viognier. Our flagship red is Asoke which is a blend of cabernet sauvignon and syrah that was aged 14 months in new French and American oak barrels.
Q Is the wine sold in bottles or bulk, and how is it labelled?
A We sell only in bottles. We do not produce bulk wine as our focus is premium, handcrafted wines from estate-grown grapes.
Our brand is GranMonte so you will see our logo on all bottles. I make nine different wines from our winery and all of them have different names, like Spring for our unwooded chenin blanc, Sole for our slightly oaked chenin blanc-viognier blend, Sakuna (my mother's name) for our syrah rose. We have Heritage for the easier drinker, reds – we have two in the range: a straight syrah and a Cote-Rotie style syrah-viognier blend. There's also The Orient from our top syrah made from old vines syrah, Asoke for our iconic cabernet sauvignon syrah blend, Bussaba, which means flowers, for our late harvest chenin blanc. Simply Viognier for our viognier which no other producers make in Thailand.
We also make a reserve wine which is in a magnificent magnum bottle called The Orient Reserve.
Q What do you see as the Thai wine industry's strengths and weaknesses?
A I'd say our strength is in the Thai Wine Association where my father was a president for seven years. As members in the TWA we have these self-imposed regulations that we have to obey to raise the standard of Thai wine and to promote Thai wine as a whole. Our other strength is that Thailand has been recognised among tropical winemaking countries as the most premium quality producer ... our weakness is the high taxation.
Q In relation to New Zealand, how does Thai wine differ from Marlborough sauvignon blanc?
A First of all, we do not grow sauvignon blanc in Thailand that I know of! I do appreciate good New Zealand sauv blanc and sancerre (from France) but the variety is just not suitable for our soil and climate.
However, for GranMonte, the structure of our whites are quite similar to that of NZ sauv blanc. For example, our Spring chenin blanc is fresh, fruity, aromatic with a hint of grassiness like you would find in NZ sauv blanc, but much less intense. The acidity is very similar as well. Our whites are crisp and refreshing when drunk chilled.
Q Do you have any Marlborough connections, or have you visited the area before?
A Hopefully in the near future as I find the wines there really interesting and I also enjoy pinot noir from Central Otago!
The Marlborough Express