Between latitude 14 and 18, well beyond the 30 degree threshold, a group of pioneer winemakers have started to produce what has been termed New Latitude Wines.
Although some regions have been more successful than others are producing first class wines, Asia has been taking the lead on this matter and Thailand may just be the right place to take a renewed look at Old World vines grown in warmer climates.
PB Valley was the first winery in the mountainous Khao Yai district, about 2h from Bangkok. There are today several others that followed those visionary entrepreneurs.
In those early days at the end of the 80s, winemaking was not laid out. The winemakers had to find out what varieties of vines would work in the Thai soil and weather. The first harvest did not happen until a decade later when those young Tempranillo, Syrah and Chenin Blanc vines started to produce the first Thai wine grapes. Khao Yai Winery’s founder’s appreciation for the finer things in life made him believe he was onto something great.
On our visit, we have the pleasure of chatting with the winemaker, one of only two certified Thai winemakers, the other one also employed by PB Valley Winery. His foresight into the wine industry in his local country was, as he put it, a bit of a coincidence. Prayut went to Germany to study beer brewing but was approached by PB Valley’s founder to take over the management of the property shortly after. He could not pass such opportunity.
The winery is set in the mountains on the edge of Khao Yai National Park and it does feel cooler and remarkably more peaceful than Bangkok. Away from the main highway and reached through a series of turns and paths in pure agricultural land, cows herding in the background, we arrive at a slice of unexpected heaven.
Guests are welcome to book one of the winery’s organized tours around the property onboard a funky train. Aside from having the chance to see all the varieties of grapes that grown on site the tour also takes in some of the fruit trees and orchards that flank the vines. PB Valley’s owner is a successful businessman in the agricultural business known for growing some of Thailand’s main crops.
The restaurant and shop are located on top of a small hill with views over the gardens, the refreshing green grass and the vineyards. Enjoying our cool grape juice on the wooden tables we immediately get transported anywhere but Thailand. For our entire time at the winery I can’t help but having to pinch myself to be reminded that I am not in Spain or France but in the tropical land of the smiles. The earth is powdery dust, despite the occasional rains, as we are still in the dry season and the sky threatens more rain. Heribert, the Head of Marketing and Business Development, is pleased that the harvest is almost done. There are a few lines of grapes still to be picked, hanging ripe from the vines, but they have been kept for the weekend’s Harvest Festival just a few days after our visit.
He tells us that the orchards also grow delicious grapes and we get a chance to walk under the canopy of leafy vines and sweet grapes on our tour of the vineyard. He must make sure that he does not forget to bring box for his wife and son or he will be in trouble.
Prayut walks with us through the winery. Being the end of the harvest season we get treated to some of the early wines of the year. Having grown up in a winery this is one of the special tastings not available to visitors. We try both whites and reds at different stages of development. Some of them are just coming out of the steel tanks where they have been macerating with the skin and seeds. Others are in the middle of the fermentation process and the “oldest” is perhaps a week or two into separation.
The red has the crisp yeasty flavor of a fermenting juice. It is a familiar flavor, the bitterness of the seeds and skin mixing with the sweetness of the fruit. It takes a trained connoisseur to distinguish the flavors and understand if this is the cloudy base of a winner but we are assured that this is going to be a great vintage. The rains have held off and the grapes have been harvested at just the right time. Winemaking is a talent that is very dependent on elements the oenologists can’t control. Rain, pests, temperatures, changes in climate between day and night all have massive impact on the final product. In the end, a good vintage is determined by the season and the weather more than it is by the winemaker.
Sneakily wandering around the guts of a working winery I feel like the child who used to climb up the stairs of the large steel containers back home. The installation and machinery are remarkably similar to that we have back home. Suddenly, I am flooded with the images of the red grapes with their skin and juice exploding on my hands when I was a teenager. Prayut and the team have it all very organized and clean considering the manual and rudimentary process that is used to extract the red fermented wine from the steel tanks and into the press.
PB Valley is clean and tidy, all sections from the welcome hall to the cellar are perfectly organized, so much so that at times it is easy to forget the team is busy with this year’s produce.
After an enriching discussion about the team’s trials and tribulations with Old World vine varieties we cruise back through the orchards and vineyards. The trees are in full bloom, from the bright yellow colors of the flowers to the green of the vines and gardens.
Back at the Great Hornbill grill, the bird which is on PB Valley’s logo, we enjoy a fabulous lunch made of a mix and match of their best specialties paired with their wines.
We sample one of the bistro’s specialties, a small open-wrap made with leaves and a flavorful blend of pork with spices. Sweet and savory and topped with grapes, peanuts and chili. The refreshingly soft and light Chenin Blanc goes so well with it I could keep on wrapping the small parcels. The mushroom stir-fry is a fantastically smokey and meaty partner to the Chenin Blanc. Grapes are also used to top one of the crunchiest pizzas I’ve had cooked over their wood-fire oven lit up every weekend. They go particularly well with the bacon and cheese balancing off their saltiness. The beef curry is cooked until soft and the flaky pieces separate with just the spoon.
Desserts are not to be missed as the chef makes his own ice cream on site. Aside from the appropriate grape ice cream there is the dark grey charcoal ice cream, a novelty and a different take on a vanilla flavor with a sandy interesting taste.
We have a line of all the main wines, from white to red and a great glass of rose which I always find a great companion to hot weather.
The food is delicious and the wines are a great partner to this setting, the company and the views. We are relaxed, happily savoring the chef’s specialties and the light wines.
Thai wines are known to be relatively sweet, light and refreshing and perfectly complement the local cuisine and weather. I could not agree more, for after such a feast and great wines all I can think of is that New Latitude Wines could well be taking winemaking to a whole new level.