History and Wineries
Thailand has come to the world of wine, what we consider wine in the European sense, only within the last 15 years or so. Prior to this, European wines were always available in upscale hotels and in foreign restaurants, but were consumed mainly by tourists and expats, and by upper class Thais as part of a fancy meal in a Continental restaurant, or as a ceremonial beverage. Sweet fruit and herbal wines were produced traditionally, brought to Thailand by Chinese traders and immigrants (where the practice goes back a thousand years or more), but these are sugary, fruity, and generally high-alcohol; almost liqueur-like in their finish. Some of these are also fortified with rice-based liquor. These fruit and herb wines are regionally produced and heavily promoted as OTOP products (“One Village, One Product”, a program developed to promote agricultural products from smaller areas).
The Portuguese imported grape vines in the 1500’s, and made wine on a limited basis for their own consumption, with some of those grape varieties surviving. The Dutch, English, French, and Italians were all active trading partners in Siam through the ensuing centuries, so there was ample opportunity for grapes and wine making knowledge to be imported, especially by the French and Italian traders.
Before 1960, table grapes were imported to Thailand from Australia and the US, but they always had excessive import duties added to the price, making them an expensive commodity for the average Thai shopper. In 1956 Kasetsart University started testing over 100 different varieties of grapes from all over the world in trials, and developed varieties that proved to be ideal for table grape production. These were grown primarily in the Central Plain and southwest of Bangkok, but now table grapes are grown nationwide as a cash market crop, and are also sun-dried for raisins.
The late Dr. Chaijudh Karnasuta is considered the father of Thailand’s grape wine industry. He had a vision of growing classic varietal wine grapes in Thailand to produce wine, and planted Thailand’s first wine grape vines at Chateau de Loei in 1991, in a cool mountain valley in Northern Thailand. Chateau de Loei enjoyed its first commercial harvest in 1995. This was followed by the planting of the P.B. Valley vineyards in 1992, Chateau des Brumes in 1997, and GranMonte in 1999.
With the introduction of temperate wine varietals, European winemaking methods and winemakers, understanding viticultural science, modern equipment, cheap labor, and prime real estate for establishing vineyards, Thailand’s wine making production is off and running, and enjoying some critical success. Over the years there has been a considerable increase in quality and taste, ratings and prices. In 2004 the Thai Wine Association established the Thai Wine Charter to establish European standards, quality, and labeling that adheres to international standards. The year 2010 will see Thai wineries producing about a million bottles, while employing some 1500 people.
There are three main wine production areas in Thailand: north, east-central, and central, and they cover a wide range of growing conditions. In the north, in what is called the Chiang Rai-Loei-Pichit area, the primary grapes grown are Chenin Blanc, Syrah, Shiraz, Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Merlot. Château de Loei, Thailand’s first winery, sits in rolling hills that resemble the French or Tuscan countryside. Mar Chan Valley Vineyard sits in a misty valley near Chiang Rai, an area that might resemble the foggy valley coasts of California. Shala One Winery sits in a rolling valley near Pichit, still considered north, but located about halfway between Bangkok and Chiang Rai, south of Phitsanulok and north of Nakhon Sawan.
Thailand’s premier wine growing region is located on the slopes of the Khao Yai Mountains, which rise majestically up from the Khorat Plateau, about two hours drive northeast of Bangkok. Varietals grown there include Tempranillo, Chenin Blanc, Shiraz, Colombard, Verdelho, Viognier, and Sauvignon Blanc. Many of the vineyards are located in a band between about 1000 and 1500 feet in altitude, with hot days and cool nights. P. B. Valley Vineyards was the first to get established in that area, starting to test 50 different varietals in 1989, and planting the best selections a couple of years later. Village Farm Winery (Château des Brumes) was next in 1997, followed by GranMonte Family Vineyards in 1999. Alcidini (a premium Shiraz producer) and Holiday Park Vineyard are fairly recent additions to the popular wine-producing region.
The third main region is the Chayo Phraya River Delta located some 60 to 75 miles or so southwest of Bangkok, where the majority of Thailand’s table grapes are grown. Pok Dum (“Black Queen”, a “native” variety that can be traced back to a Portuguese introduction in the 1500’s, although now known as “Black Grape” these days – to avoid any hint of Lèse Majesté from insulting Royalty), Black Muscat, Malaga Blanc, Colombard, Chenin Blanc, Sangiovese, Tempranillo, and Shiraz are wine varietals grown here. Malaga Blanc (or Panse de Provence, as it was known in France) came from the South of France in the mid 1600’s as a gift from Louis XIV to King Narai the Great of Siam. The thick skins of this grape make it unusually resistant to damage from persistent rainfall. Siam Winery (Monsoon Valley Wines) is famously known as the “floating vineyards”, growing 90% Malaga Blanca and 10% Pok Dum. The vineyards don’t really float, but the grapes are planted on arbors on raised beds separated by narrow canals just wide enough for workers in canoes to tend the vines and harvest the grapes. They can also tend the vines by placing boards as scaffolds between the “islands”. Hua Hin Hills Vineyard is planted on the mountain slopes outside the city and relatively new, starting development in 2003, but they have won four European awards since 2008.
Silver Lake Vineyard and Winery, located about 20 miles southeast of Pattaya, is Chonburi province’s first vineyard and winery, located in the beautiful valley adjacent to Khao Chee Chan Buddha lasered image and bordering a glittering reservoir called Silverlake. They have a dozen varieties of table grapes and are growing shiraz and cabernet sauvignon varietals, and experimenting with many more. The trend toward expansion of Thailand’s wineries will only grow with time. Export of Thai wines to Thai restaurants around the world is starting to become a trend, and has met with the most success in England.
Every Thai winery is accompanied by resort accommodations for the traveler, with spas, lush gardens, and impeccable restaurants, all meant to welcome the visitor on a winetrail tour.
When you look at a Thai wine label, try not to get confused by the date. Vintages are based on the Buddhist calendar, which counts time since the Buddha's birth in 543 BC. Deduct that many years, and you have the current date for the “real” vintage which a non-Thai can understand.
Thais and Wine
There has been considerable growth recently in wine as a legitimate social drink in Thailand; it’s not just for drinking with Italian food (which is very popular all over Thailand), and not just for the tourists anymore. It is estimated that 10% of the population can now be called wine drinkers, but wine accounts for a mere 3% of total alcoholic beverage sales in Thailand. The typical Thai wine consumer is middle-aged, mid to upper income, and higher-educated. The health and heart benefits of wine drinking are a major influence on increasing consumption; Thais traditionally consider any food or drink a form of holistic medicine, and everything you consume is yin or yang, “hot” or “cold”. Wine is also becoming a very popular gift for social occasions; Thais are expected to show up at someone’s house or at a party bearing a gift for the hosts, and while flowers or baskets of fruit were popular gifts in the past, bottles of wine are making considerable headway.
One factor restricting sales in Thailand is retail price. Thai consumers typically are willing to pay an average of $23-29 (Baht 800 – 1,000) per bottle of wine, and most consider $14 (Baht 500) as the minimum price for a decent bottle of good red or white wine. Wine isn’t nearly as inexpensive as beer and whiskey in Thailand, and the Thai government certainly doesn’t help that situation. It levies a 60% “sin” or luxury tax on imported wine, while it adds up to an amazing 200% for domestic Thai wines (inferior fruit wines pay only 20% tax). This seems very counterproductive since a government usually imposes taxes to level the playing field for their native products when they are competing against imports. It makes Thai premium wines more expensive than similar quality imported wines, and opens the market up to lower cost imports, since demand is rising and Thais are, for the most part, cost-conscious purchasers.
Old World Italian and French wines were the first wines available in Thailand in modern times, spurred on by the presence of Italian and French restaurants. New World wines are quickly building popularity. South American (Chilean and Argentinean), Australian and New Zealand, and U.S. wines are now as popular, or even more popular as French and Italian wines, due to quality and competitive pricing.
Matching Wine with Thai Food
It is much easier to pair an ice cold beer with Thai food than try to match a wine with Thai dishes. Thailand violates the first rule of pairing wine with food: “drink local wines, since they have evolved with the local cuisine”. Thai wines have not evolved with Thai cuisine; they are a very recent introduction. Thai wines are not widely available outside Thailand, so we are forced to look elsewhere.
The sweet-sour-salty-spicy-herbal combination of Thai cuisine plays havoc with many wines, but there are quite a few choices when you stop and think about the rules of complimentary flavors. Key to the process is to match the wine with the sauce and not with the meat (or seafood). The ideal wines for Thai food are fruity, spicy, robustly flavored and low in acidity and tannin. Just remember that full-bodied wines are best served with robust, heavy dishes, and lighter wines match best with lighter fare. Spiciness in a dish tends to accentuate the perceived dryness of a wine, so a little more fruit is always balancing with the piquant side of the Thai menu. Most crisp, acidic wines will pair well with richer fatty dishes, while soft wines are better suited to food with a hint of sourness.
You want a nice subtle backbone of acidity, as it tends to balance any sour elements in the meal (such as in a Gaeng Som sour curry or a Yum-style salad with a sour dressing). Slightly acidic wines also tend to pair well with salty dishes. The vanilla overtones of oaky whites tend to conflict with exotic spice and herb flavors. Too much tannin tends to be a hard match with spicy and sour.
Riesling and Gewürztraminer are some of the best white wine choices for Thai food. “Gewurtz” means “spicy” in German, and the wine is known for its spice notes, along with typical lychee and rose petal flavors. These wines offer floral, citrus, peach, and mineral accents that match well with robust dishes, while the slight sweetness and residual fruit tends to balance spiciness. A little residual sugar also works well with Thai dishes from the Central region, as they tend to be prepared with a little bit more sweetness, and the two balance out. Look for the terms Kabinett or Spätlese on the label; these indicate German wines produced in a drier style which is not as cloyingly sweet. Scheurebe is a cross between a Riesling and a Sylvaner: nice and fruity, aromatic with a crisp finish. A Pinot gris also works well.
Vouvray, Savennières, and Saumur Blanc are all fine matches from the Loire Valley, with citrus on the front end and a crisp mineral finish. Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc combinations are especially good, as is an Argentinean Torronte (think a blend here of Muscat and Viognier) or a Crios (grassy exotic fruit with a floral finish). Sweeter, fruitier Chenin Blancs and Sauvignon Blancs pair well, as long as you avoid the overly drydry-oaky styles. Flowery or exotic-fruit whites like a Viognier tend to match well if you get one with a little spicy or acidic backbone.
Good Chardonnay offers nice apple, melon, and pear flavors, along with suggestions of spice, honey, butterscotch, and nuts. Look for lightly-oaked versions that are refreshing and not too heavy or buttery. Also consider that the light or soft nature of many Italian whites usually matches well.
A general rule with reds is to avoid tannin or oaky reds, as they tend to conflict with spicy, hot, and sour flavors, while making the wine taste bitter. Tannic wines also tend to accentuate the spiciness of chiles (if that is a problem with you). A perfect red wine match with Thai food is a red which is soft, fruity and light-bodied, with low herbaceousness and tannins. Reds should be served slightly chilled with Thai food, especially when it is eaten outdoors.
Oddly, Cabernet Sauvignon is the most-ordered red wine in Thailand, but other varietals seem better matched pairings with the Thai menu. The wines of the Rhône Valley, such as Syrah, Grenache, and Mouvedre are ideal partners with Thai food. They are not too heavy, and their peppery character and fruitiness makes a perfect complement to rich Thai dishes.
California Zinfandel's peppery and jammy blackberry flavors work perfectly with the more hearty Thai dishes as well, as long as they aren’t too dry and oaky with tannins. California Gamay Beaujolais is another wine that generally matches quite well with Thai menus, as does the velvety softness of a nice Merlot. A light, fruity Pinot Noir is a good match with spicy dishes, especially if it is chilled for 30 minutes or so beforehand. Italian reds have an uncanny affinity for Thai food; the Sangiovese-based wines of Tuscany are perfect with Thai food, and the wine's flavors come alive when paired with Thai, especially with beef. Many Rioja reds balance well as long as they are “ready to drink” and relatively low on residual tannins, and never discount a Cabernet Franc.
Probably the second best match with Thai food overall is a floral or off-dry/demi-sec sparkling wine (Champagne, Cava, Proseco, Lambrusco, Rosé, Brachetto, etc). The effervescence is perfect with fried foods and coconut milk-based curries especially, as it tends to cut through the fat. Look for a sparkling wine that is not bone-dry; you want some residual fruit and sweetness for a nice pairing, and you want to serve it well-chilled.
A dry Rosé is also an excellent match with many spicy Thai dishes, and there are some really nice dry Rosé’s from California, Spain, Australia, and France (Rosé was typically a dry style wine until the introduction of mass-market sweet Rosé after WW II, such as Mateus and Blue Nun). Having the vibrancy of a crisp white, they have a bright strawberry nuance, some of the weight of a red wine, and are versatile enough to match with almost anything.
Bottom line, when you are matching wines with Thai cuisine and you do not consider yourself an expert on either, you can usually safely rely on the wine list of the restaurant, since the local wine distributor’s representative knows their wines, and they have consulted on the labels selected. And if you fancy yourself something of a knowledgeable aficionado, you can always bring your own bottle(s) and pay a slight corkage fee extra.