MONSOON IN THE LAND OF SMILES
A thought of making this a destination blog did cross my mind. Introducing Thailand, a stunning country I can never say that I have had enough of. I have been there as a kid, as a teen and few other times after I started my family. The Asian-Indian connection and access from India, in a way, really made it easier to form the links. The history, the challenges, impact of war, involvement of the Royal Monarchy in the development of the country – there is a lot to learn from this culture. The sumptuous and delicate harmony of Thai cuisine is an extension of this heritage. But how can I cover the diversity of food, its heritage and also the upcoming wines from this region, all in one article…..oh yes you heard me say ‘wines’ and your head did turn around, didn’t it?
Ramayana depicted through classical Thai dance (Image: Sumita Sarma)
MONSOON VALLEY VINEYARDS, THAILAND (Image: Sumita Sarma)
NEW LATITUDE WINES – HELLO! WINES FROM THE TROPICS
Whoever said that climate is limiting for grape growing, must have not expected witnessing this new shift growing quietly and steadily. Although an accepted fact that grapes can be grown only between 30 and 50 degrees north and south of the equator, Chalerm Yoovidhya of Red Bull was not going to be held back by this limitation. Having obtained the Royal approval to conduct research under the then King Rama IXth (Huai Sai Royal Research Project), Khun Chalerm’s search for an ‘out of the box’ site location started in 2001 and after a couple of trial projects he finally narrowed down to the cooler sites of Thailand, once known for rearing elephants. It is here that Monsoon Valley vineyards were born. Located 45 km away from the beach, the hills of Hua Hin provide optimal shelter from direct rays of the sun. The moderating cool winds coming down from the hills and the coastal sea breeze all meet here at their vineyard site, creating the perfect recipe for grape growing. Coupled with sandy loam free draining soils, the grapes are able to access the right source of nutrients and water without being waterlogged, a situation that can be risky in the rainy tropical soils of the region that barely touches 13 degrees north of the equator.
New Latitude wines is the umbrella term now used for wines grown in the tropical paradise. Covering vineyards in Thailand, India, Brazil and even Vietnam, it is this search that is fuelling the wine adventure in many wine entrepreneurs.
Meeting the head winemaker, Suppached Sasomsin was the highlight of my trip to Monsoon Valley. I came back inspired by the positive and high spirited vision that he instils in the winery and his involvement that has won many medals in recent International Wine competitions. His background working across wineries in France, Italy and Spain coupled with his modest Buddhist heritage and upbringing in the peaceful coastal fishing village of Hua Hin, is visible through his calm and realistic approach to winemaking in an otherwise, challenging climatic and humid landscape. But one doesn’t take long to recognise the technical knowledge he has gained from working in a traditional winemaking environment. He rigorously and cautiously applies this skill while experimenting with international grapes and local indigenous varietals. “The unique blending powers of local and international varieties, accentuates the quality and renders exclusivity to the wines of Thailand,” he affirms.
The restaurant at the Vineyard. Definitely worth a visit to do a wine and food pairing experience (Image: Sumita Sarma)
Hua Hin Hills at the backdrop of Monsoon Valley vineyards (Image: Sumita Sarma)
LOCAL GRAPES & VITICULTURAL CHALLENGES
With only 50 ha of the 110 ha planted in the Hua Hin hills, the grapes thriving here include international varieties such as Columbard, Chenin Blanc, Muscat, Shiraz, Dornfelder, Sangiovese. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are still under trial basis in their research project in Chiang Mai vineyards. “We have a diverse spectrum of grapes that are doing well although Columbard is our workhorse grape as it is the easiest to grow. Shiraz needs a lot of pruning and can grow vigorously so we need to use SO4 rootstocks (Selection Openheim 4) to control vigour and it has been beneficial for our wet soils and is also nematode resistant, which is risky in our hot soils. We are happy with the results,” Suppached (aka ‘A’) confidently remarks. Jan Erik and Kriantak are the viticultural experts who keep a close eye on shoot positioning through a systematic pruning and spraying program throughout the year. Viticulture is a year-round project in this warm fertile region, that undergoes dual vegetative growth cycles in a year (wet season April to Oct and dry season November to March). However only a “single crop” is harvested as a practice to allow rest periods for the vine to work on its reserves. The harvest cycle happens around Sonkran festival (March to April) every year and hence a very auspicious time for the Thai culture.
Pokdum (‘dum’ being black), the local black skinned grape and Malaga Blanc the white grape are procured from local Thai farmers who grow these table varieties across the Chao Phrayha river delta, just south-west of Bankok where the floating markets are located. The tropical climate poses many challenges that need to be circumvented through adaptive viticultural techniques. Diseases such as downy mildew, powdery mildew and berry rot can create havoc due to high humidity. Several types of flies such as leaf hopper, fruit flies need precautionary measures.
Suppached has identified the recent trend of heavy rains specially in December being linked to climate change and therefore a reverse training of vine systems is followed, keeping a trunk height of 1.5 m and dividing the canopy horizontally using a mix of pergola and lyre style of trellis aiming at opening up of the canopy. This helps sunlight to spread evenly across the canopy facilitating ventilation and reducing risk of rot. Drip irrigation is common here and the winery has set up many sustainable ways through creation of ponds spread throughout the vineyard, to collect rain water to use for irrigation.
On the winemaking side, Suppached has followed stringent and limited use of oak, carefully selecting a mix of neutral oak barrels ranging from 1000-2000 litres used French and German oak barrels to recreate old world aromatics. Use of 225l and 500l new French and American oaks is restricted only to the top cuvee mainly to enhance structure and secondary flavours and give it a touch of a fuller edge. Whites are also aged in these barrels. In general, he aims for subtle use of oak to create harmonious integration with acidity and fruit flavours to ultimately express the delicate aromatics and fresh, refreshing style of wine which he believes pair well with Thai cuisine. The winery is located in Samut Sakhon, south of Bangkok. He has a love for German style of restrained styles of winemaking, one he inherited from his German guru, Katharin Puff who initiated production in the Valley in 2007 and left at the end of 2017 to join back as director of Kloister Eberbach. Suppoched meticulously keeps alive the techniques from old world winemaking while using his creativity to mould the wines into a style that is unique to Thailand.
Thermovinification is used to extract colour from grapes that fail to achieve full phenolic maturity. This is common during summer in this region that witnesses temperatures upto 40C in summer where photosynthesis ceases, to preserve the plants from drying up. By heating grapes and must to high temperatures (60C), extraction and stabilisation of anthocyanins is assured.
Unleashing the potential of indigenous grapes such as Pokdum is his mission but Suppached also wishes to gain acceptance from the international community which is increasingly witnessed through recent international wine awards and commendations and the growing market of Monsoon Valley wines around the globe. Commenting on the uptake of the wines, he adds “By blending with international grapes such as Shiraz, we wish to introduce our indigenous varieties to the global platform. Our grapes are a unique expression of our region and we wish to demonstrate that”. Majority of the production is orientated towards exports to Singapore, Japan, Switzerland, Germany and UK.
Lakes, reservoirs and natural vegetation surrounding the vineyard (Image: Sumita Sarma)
BIODIVERSITY AND PRESERVATION OF NATURAL HABITAT
As to what is done with the extent of land left uncultivated, Suppached comments, “It is Monsoon valley’s conscious desire to preserve and promote the natural habitat by allowing the uncultivated land grow into a natural rainforest.” Indeed that was what I witnessed! Around the vineyards, there is dense and lush tropical vegetation dotted with numerous banana, mango, papaya trees and mulberry shrubs providing shade and green landscape. The surrounding lakes and reservoirs are used actively not only to save rain water and create shade but also as effective ways to promote cooling temperatures and promote wild life; lobsters, fish, lizards and snakes are common site and as natural as life can offer in the tropics. Monsoon valley also aims to preserve biodiversity through ongoing works to save hornbills by recycling and hanging old barrels high up on trees to attract them to form their nests.
LIST OF WINES TASTED
Here is the list of wines that I tasted and the notes on them. Most of them are available in London (and indeed Europe) via Amazon. Most Asian countries are also stocking Monsoon Valley wines (via Links concept) considering their potential to pair with citrus and spicy Asian cuisines. (Price quoted may vary and may be subject to change, is an approximate as advised by the winery at the time of tasting)
Monsoon Valley, Colombard 2018 (BE 2561), 12.5% abv, Circa 800 Baht (Sumilier 85/100)
Packed with grapefruit, lemon citrus notes, hint of ginger spice with notes of peach and white stone fruit, this is a delicate wine with abundance of fresh and vibrant acidity and a long lean finish. With gentle maceration using no more than 3 hours of skin contact, the aim has been to create a balanced wine with soft and ripe notes. Meant to pair with fresh sea food.
Monsoon Valley, White Shiraz 2017 (BE 2560), 12%abv, Circa 990 Baht (Sumilier 93/100)
This wine won accolades winning the Best rose of Thailand in 2018 by James Suckling. Using soft and gentle presses, Suppoched has aimed to recreate a delicate rose wine, in a Provence style using only free run juice. Highly aromatic with fresh red currants, rose petals, mouthwatering acidity and long lemon finish and only a hint of softened tannins, this wine is aromatically a class apart.
Monsoon Valley, Blended White 2017 (BE 2560), 12.5% abv Circa 500 Baht, (Sumilier 90/100)
This wine is blend of roughly 70-80% Malaga Blanc from the floating vineyards in Samut Sakorn (depending on vintage) and the balance is a mix of Colombard and Chenin Blanc. The wine has consecutively been winning awards since 2008 in Robert Parker, Hong Kong International Wine competition as well as Decanter World Wine awards. It also won the best pairing with sashimi in HK International Wine Competition 2018. Pale straw, with floral honeysuckle and jasmin notes, it is distinctly citrus flavoured with subtle tropical mango undercurrants. Focused and delicate with refreshing and piercing acidity that balances well with the off dry 15g of residual sugar, making this wine a stylistic pairing with Asian cuisine.
Monsoon Valley, Signature White 2017, 13% abv, Circa 1000 Baht, (Sumilier 92/100)
100% Chenin Blanc
Select grapes are handpicked for this cuvee. Packed with ripe yellow stone fruits (nectarines and apricots), the wine has richness in flavours and an underlying fleshy texture gained from lees ageing and stirring for upto 6 months. Savoury fennel notes, white pepper from judcious oak ageing (6-8 months in old and new French oak, upto 20% new barrels) adds intensity and the wine finishes long with a nutty edge. Capable of ageing for upto 5-6 years of vintage.
Monsoon Valley, Cuvèe di Siam Blanc 2014, 13.5% abv, circa 1600 Baht (Sumilier 90/100)
Made from grapes picked from the oldest vineyards, this is a blend of 50% Chenin Blanc and 49% Columbard. Hint of Viognier added upto 1%. Made in the Northern Rhone style and produced in limited amounts, this wine also won award in 2018 for the best paring with Moroccan Chicken. Ripe pear, apricot and mango, secondary notes of vanilla and white pepper and savoury notes notes from oak add in elegance and is well integrated with the bright and vibrant acidity. Shows a restraint edge but has enough structure as seen from 2 years of oak ageing post fermentation giving it grace and maturity. The wine was released in 2017 and will hold for another 4 years.
Monsoon Valley, Blended Red 2016 (BE 2569), 13% abv, circa 500 Baht (Sumilier 86/100)
Blend of 60% Pokdum and balance being a blend of Shiraz and Sangiovese. Easy drinking style with redcurrants, strawberry and red cherry wines. Aromatic and fresh, ripeness is well balanced with acidity. Deep ruby comes from thermal vinification for colour extraction. Easy to pair with wok fried meats and sea food.
Monsoon Valley, Shiraz 2016 (BE 2559), 13.5% abv, circa 799 Baht (Sumilier 88/100)
Notes of freshly picked red berries, the structure is soft and ripe and tannins are polished and supple. Acidity is bright and fresh. Attractive liquorice and vanilla demonstrating elegant integration of fruit and oak flavours coming from old second fill oak barrels (both American and French upto 18 months). Typical leather notes just emerging adding hints of complexity. A popular with locals and exports alike. Shiraz has a lot of acceptance in the Thai culture for its versatile food pairing ability.
Monsoon Valley, Signature Red 2014, 13% abv, circa 1000 Baht, Sumilier (85/100)
Dornfelder is a high yielding and resistant variety and is reliable grape for the region. Deep ruby colour, the wine has luscious cranberries and red cherries. Mildly pronounced and spicy tannins and gamey aromas on finish, the acidity is refreshing. Aged in used French oak for upto 24 months, savoury aromas of black pepper and cinnamon notes are noted.
Monsoon Valley, Cuvée di Siam Rouge 2015, 13.5% abv, circa 2500 Baht (Sumilier 93/100)
90% Shiraz, 10% Sangiovese
Having won Gold in the Mundus Vini Awards in 2015 among many other accolades, this wine is aimed at bringing out wine craftsmanship. Mainly targeted for the export market, grapes are hand selected and the resulting wine made in limited volumes in traditional old world style. Full bodied with aromatic and intense red fruit concentration, the wine has been aged for upto 18 months in a broad range of oak barrels ranging from new 500l French barrels to neutral 2000l German barrels to bring out the lusciousness. Silky tannins interwoven with ripe fruits, black pepper and complex chocolate notes show the ageability of this wine which has a potential to evolve another 5 years atleast.
Monsoon Valley, 2018, Late harvest Chenin Blanc, circa BE 2561, 10.5% abv, 799 Baht for 375ml (Sumilier 87/100)
Made in Italian passito style, Chenin Blanc is picked,dried and raisined on mats and then pressed to give a concentrated must with notes of dried apricots, raisins, honey, dried mango peel and pineapple. Fermentation is arrested by chilling the must to leave residual sigar of 130g/l and wine is then sterile filtered and bottled. Only 3000 bottles produced in a year.
Monsoon Valley 2018, Muscat BE 2561, 15% abv, circa 799 Baht, (Sumilier 83/100)
Made through fortification method by adding neutral alcohol, the wine is luscious and sweet, and meant to be paired with traditional egg yolk and red bean and date puddings. A great pairing with local Thai desserts.
The wine tasting, walk around the vineyards and meeting with Suppoched, opened my eyes to how innovatively viticultural and delicate winemaking styles have been adjusted seamlessly to create elegant fruit forward, expressive and moderately low levels of alcohols (11-13.5% across the dry range). The range of premium cuvee all display reasonable restraint and elegance with underlying backbone of acidity and integrated oak and fruit dynamics. When asked about food and wine pairing Suppoched comments, “I want our wines to be easy drinking but also be refreshing and fruity to pair with the spicy and citric flavours of Thai cuisine. High alcohol and full-bodied wines completely clash with Thai culinary creations. What I look for in wines is an elegance that reflects our gentle culture and character of who we are.”