Wines for Spicy Foods

“In the beginning it was like a joke, and people were laughing when I told them I was making wines in Thailand,” recounts the Frenchman Laurent Metge-Toppin, oenologist of Siam Winery. “My friends thought I had gone mad.”  

 

Ten years on Laurent is having the last laugh: the wines he developed have earned encouraging international recognition in the past few years, and local sales jumped by more than five percent last year alone. Siam Winery, the largest of seven professional Thai wineries that have sprouted up in the past decade, is best known for its Monsoon Valley wines. Cultivated at the Chao Phraya River delta at the aptly named Floating Vineyards, the plants are grown on strips of islands surrounded by water canals and trained on trellises that span the canals; and workers sometimes move around in small boats. It’s an evocative sight, and although the fields are designed in that manner for the mundane reason of draining the water from what would otherwise be a swamp, it’s a winner in marketing: it conjures the endearing impression that wine made in Thailand is different and exotic.  And the wines are also good.  

 

“The perception that the quality of Thai wine is good is being established,” says Kim Wachtveitl, vice president of the Thai Wine Association. “More than ninety percent of five-star hotels in Thailand stock Thai wine, and we are now starting to move into other hotels.”  

 

Set up to raise the profile of the industry by collective marketing and enforcement of high-quality production systems among its members, the Thai Wine Association was formed in 2004 – ten years after the first professional wine was made in Thailand. Back then, in the early nineties, Dr Chaijudh Karnasuta, a Thai wine aficionado, established Chateau De Loei Winery in the northeastern mountains. Another six professional wineries have since followed, and the industry now counts 1 million bottles annually and 1,200 employees. Grapes are grown in three regions – in the far north, in the northeastern hills near Khao Yai, and in the Chao Phraya River delta – and the wineries all grow the same half-dozen grapes, including the Pokdum, the indigenous grape.  

 

Pokdum is enticing because it’s unique, but whether it is Pokdum or other varieties transposed from elsewhere, all wines made in Thailand are distinctive due to the local ecological conditions. Generally speaking, the wines are fruity, slightly sweet, light in body, and low in tannins. “We encourage those characteristics,” Laurent explains, “partly because it makes for distinct wines – and not simply another French wine made outside France – and partly because those qualities make the wine ideal for spicy food.”   

 

All wineries have adopted this narrative of making wines compatible with spicy foods, and they are not exaggerating. Unlike Western-type traditional wines, which taste bitter and acidic with pungent dishes, Thai wines are given a lift in flavour and texture by spicy food. For example, Siam Winery’s Shiraz is less peppery than Shiraz produced elsewhere, and the chilli in Thai food gives the wine an extraneous peppery vitality. The same applies for all the others, and some slot neatly in a particular spectrum of Thai food tastes, such as the Chenin Blanc by Chateau De Loei that is particularly suited for sweet, fruity, and pungent desserts. “Thai wine for Thai food” has now become an oft-repeated marketing motto. Kim elaborates: “It’s a good approach for branding. It’s a new product that consumers need to associate with Thailand and spicy food – and that is why the bulk of the current sales are in Thai restaurants outside Thailand. Later, the product will achieve an independent reputation.”   

 

Thai wine is certainly more popular in Thai restaurants. At the Oriental Hotel, for example, more Thai wine is consumed at Sala Rim Naam, the Thai restaurant, than Le Normandie, the plush French restaurant. “I do recommend Thai wine to my customers,” says Tiwa Yenwattna, sommelier of Le Normandie. “In particular, Chateau De Loei produces two versions of the same wine – extra-dry and regular dry – and the extra-dry versions go well with French food, while the regular ones work best with spicy dishes. The Shiraz, on the other hand, has a relatively light body, so it’s best with dense meats such as venison, lamb, and game dishes. One certainly has to be adventurous to match Thai wine with game meats, but my customers are pleasantly surprised to find that the wines are better than they had imagined.”  

 

At the Blue Elephant, an upscale Bangkok restaurant, Thai wines are aggressively pushed, and about thirty bottles are consumed weekly. Something of an institution renowned for its creative royal-style Thai cooking, the Blue Elephant has grown into an international brand with half a dozen restaurants scattered around the world. “We are the leaders in the co-evolution of Thai food and wine,” says Tham Prawattree, personal assistant to the vice president. “Our chefs are constantly adjusting dishes to match Thai wine. At present we’re also developing our own exclusive Thai wine under the Blue Elephant brand.”  

 

Tham says that more Thai wines are consumed in their London operation, however, because diners would be more curious about the concept of Thai-wine-with-Thai-food. Most winemakers agree, and Kim points out that if the 10,000 Thai restaurants around the world take one case (12 bottles) every week, it would amount to 6 million bottles yearly – a six-fold increase on the current production levels. Luring Thai drinkers at home is much harder however: the cultural predilection against wine is exacerbated by the extraordinary 200 percent tax foisted on wine, higher than the tax for whiskey and beer, the mainstays of Thai consumers. This makes Thai wine in supermarkets relatively expensive, and it riles Kim – “If we could have a tax incentive and sell bottles for 200 baht in supermarkets we would fly off the shelf.”  

 

On the technical side, meanwhile, there is still a way to go before the taste refinements and the year-on-year quality reaches equilibrium. Oenologists are still grappling with the problem thrown up by two harvests annually – a condition arising from highly-productive tropical ecology – as the juice in the grapes is diluted by two annual yields. To boost the plants’ vitality and yields, Siam Winery have been inducing dormancy after the first winter harvest; the leaves are manually torn off the plants and a chemical applied to the buds to enforce dormancy for a few weeks at least. “We’re still trying to figure out what to do with the second inferior harvest,” Laurent says. “One option is to do a fruit juice; another is to make a different wine from each harvest. Although with the Malaga Blanc we have been mixing juice from the two harvests into one production and it seems to work well.”   

 

Yet the most intense experimentation is devoted to the Pokdum grape, the indigenous variety. Wines from Pokdum have an earthy taste that could be dull and flat, and the winemakers have been countering these characteristics by blending Pokdum with other grapes. Siam Winery’s Pokdum Wine, for example, is eight-five percent Pokdum, ten percent Shiraz, and five percent Black Muscat. “One of the reasons for this mix is market inspired,” Laurent explains. “The presence of Shiraz adds recognition while the Pokdum adds uniqueness.”  

 

And the search for other grapes that could be cultivated in Thailand with good results hasn’t come to an end yet either. At the Royal agricultural research station in Hua Hin twenty new grape varieties are currently being tested, so the Pokdum might find other bedfellows in years to come. A way to go indeed, but the momentum is unstoppable now, and when Laurent speaks about Thai wine in Europe no one is sniggering and chuckling anymore. 

 

© Victor Paul Borg. This article was originally published in Sawasdee, the inflight magazine of Thai Airways International.

 

Victor Borg showing pictures to farmers.

CULTURAL INSIGHT

 Victor has lived in 6 countries in 3 continents; he understands Asian cultures intimately. 

more info....

 

WORLD WRITING

 Victor's creative nonfiction is varied: essays & memoirs, geography & travel, tourism & environment, columns & features 

more info....

 

TRAVEL EXPERIENCE

 Victor has explored dozens of countries; he knows China, Southeast Asia, & the Mediterranean very well.

more info....

 

FOODIE ZONE EAST

 Victor has written extensively about food; he has studious and practical knowledge of Chinese, Indian, Filipino, Thai & Mediterranean cuisines.

more info....