Above: Winemakers Joolpeera Saitrakul, left, and Prayut
Piangbunta in the barrel room at PB Valley Khao Yai Winery
In the hills of Khao Yai, a clutch of vineyards is emerging as the hub of the fledgling Thai wine scene
By Ben Keene
Photographs by Austin Bush
The two big frog statues didnâ€™t exactly scream wine country. Neither did the hornbill sculpture hanging from the gift shopâ€™s rafters. And considering it was the end of February, the sound- track of jazzy Christmas tunes only added to my bewilderment. Yet a glance back at a sign confirmed that Iâ€™d come to the right place: PB Valley Khao Yai Winery, my first stop on a weekend tour of central Thailandâ€™s â€śnew latitudeâ€ť vineyards.
A three-hour drive northeast of Bangkok, the cool foothills of the Khao Yai region can seem a world away from the humid Chao Phraya delta. Beyond the main highway, the route to PB Valley led past dairy farms, limestone cliffs, and vaguely Italianate palazzos with names like Palio, Belle Villa, and Villa Paradis. With the air-conditioning on full blast and rows of grapevines coming into view, it almost felt like I had stumbled into an obscure corner of Tuscany.
A bumpy driveway led up to PB Valleyâ€™s restaurant and gift shop, where I was greeted by the two frogs and a stout, gregarious German by the name of Heribert Gaksch, who manages the wineryâ€™s hospitality operations. He was clearly very fond of his job.
â€śWe have no beach, but we are the same distance from Bangkok as Pattaya,â€ť he told me, referring to the popular holiday destination on the Gulf of Thailand. â€śKhao Yai has always been a little bit of a stepchild. My goal is to bring more people here.â€ť
By all appearances, PB Valley and the three other vineyards in the area are succeed-ing in doing just that. Less than a decade after forming the Thai Wine Association (which also includes a vineyard in Pattaya and another in the seaside town of Hua Hin), these small producers are now luring curious travelers not just with winery tours, but with good food and on-site accommodation, too.
â€śThis is the best room in the house,â€ť Gaksch crowed as he led me into the cellar, a cavernous space that smelled of oak and fruit. Cool and damp, it was certainly an improvement over the midday temperatures outside. But it didnâ€™t hold a candle to the vineyardâ€™s Great Hornbill Nest, a British colonial inspired guest suite with views across a sea of vines to the low peaks of the Sankambeng Mountains. â€śWine, food, and scenery,â€ť PB Valleyâ€™s assistant winemaker, Joolpeera Saitrakul, told me later. â€śThese are the three reasons to visit Khao Yai.â€ť
All three were in evidence at the vineyardâ€™s recently expanded restaurant, a country-style affair fronted with a bank of windows that look out onto a pastoral landscape. My waitress filled my glass with a smooth, if slightly watery 2008 Syrah, before delivering a variety of Thai and European dishes to the table. Fresh and full of berry flavors, the violet-hued wine paired well with a savory appetizer of minced pork wrapped in grape leaves. Fat slices of bratwurst and weisswurst arrived next, followed by soft-shell crab in yellow curry and a glass of PBâ€™s fragrant Sawasdee Chenin Blanc, with mellow notes of banana and mango.
I ate well the next day too, at VinCotto, the restaurant at GranMonte Estate, just up the road from PB Valley. As Nikki Lohitnavy, Thailandâ€™s first female enologist, debated with her silver-haired father Visooth about which wine to present first, I nibbled on mild cheese and a flavorful shrimp salad. Sharing the table with the Lohitnavy family and me were two young winemakers from Portugal and Australia, school friends of Nikkiâ€™s who were here to help bring in the harvest. The lively conversation was dominated by talk of rain, rootstock, and grape yields. By the time dessert arrived, we had tried most of GranMonteâ€™s wines, including an award-winning Sakuna Syrah RosĂ©, named for Nikkiâ€™s mother and just as sweet.
Before retiring for the night, Visooth invited me to join him on a walk through the vineyard early the next morning. The rest of us moved out to the restaurantâ€™s terrace with the last of the wine. Nikki chatted about her viticultural education in Australia, the 12- to 14-hour days she regularly worked, and the fact that wine had yet to conquer every palate in Thailand. â€śNot all visitors who come here drink wine,â€ť she said. â€śThey come to experience Khao Yaiâ€”to see grapes growing. Itâ€™s a great opportunity to educate.â€ť
Like PB Valley, GranMonte operates a pleasant guesthouse, from which I roused myself all too early to meet Visooth at dawn. I had probably gone about 10 meters by the time I looked up to notice the vineyard itself. Blanketing row upon row of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chenin Blanc, and Voignier grapes, a gentle mist was lifting over the Asoke Valley, and from behind a dusky hill to the east, the sun began to glow. It was mesmerizing.
Leading me through his grape trellises, Visooth recounted how, while a student in Germany in the 1960s, he discovered the joys of wine on outings to the Rhine Valley. He eventually purchased this 16-hectare property from a friend who had been using the land to grow cashews, and in 1999 planted his first vines. In 2008, the same year Nikki graduated with a degree in enology from the University of Adelaide, he built a small but well-equipped winery filled with stainless-steel fermenting tanks. GranMonte now produces 70,000 bottles a year. â€śWe started cautiously,â€ť Visooth told me, â€śbut this year we will be adding on a late-harvest wine and a sparkling wine. After that, maybe port.â€ť
With a shop, a restaurant, and a seven-room guesthouse, the Lohitnavys donâ€™t intend to expand again for several years. But others are actively looking for ways to attract more people.
Blanketing row upon row of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chenin Blanc, and Voignier grapes, a gentle
mist was lifting over the Asoke Valley, and from behind a dusky hill to the east, the sun began to glow. It was mesmerizing
â€śIâ€™m trying to change this place,â€ť said PB Valley director Prayut Piangbunta, who studied wine making in Germany. â€śMaybe a track for riding bicycles, or a garden that blooms in every season?â€ť Nearby, Village Farm & Winery has joined PB Valley and GranMonte to promote a wine trail, and newcomer Supot Krijpipudh is currently building a guesthouse of his own at Alcidini, a small hillside estate producing Syrah and rosĂ©.
My last morning in Khao Yai, I rose early again and set off across the Korat Plateau. The road skirted the edge of Khao Yai National Park, taking me north toward the village of Pai Ngam, past pink-blossomed jacaranda trees and mango orchards. Along the way I stopped for coffee at A Cup of Love, which bills itself as â€śResort style Switzerland,â€ť even though a bright red British telephone box stands next to the parking lot.
By contrast, my final stop had more of a Gallic flavor. Perched on a ridge at the end of a narrow, winding road, Village Farm evokes the French countryside with its rustic architecture, cobblestone walkways, and fantastically named winery, ChĂ˘teau des Brumesâ€”the â€śCastle in the Mist.â€ť The 32-hectare estate also employs a French winemaker, Jacques Bacou, who has been blending Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah here for 10 years.
For such a young vineyard, the wines are surprisingly well balanced. Or perhaps thatâ€™s no surprise at all, any more than the vinotherapy on offer at Village Farmâ€™s timber spa. After three days in Thai wine country, I had come to expect just about anything.
- Alcidini 176 Moo 22, Wang Chong, A. Pan.; 66-81/489-6662; alcidini.com.
- GranMonte Estate 52 Moo 9 Phayayen, Pak Chong; 66-84/904-1944; granmonte .com. Nightly stays from US$138, double.
- PB Valley Khao Yai Winery 102 Moo 5, Phayayen, Pak Chong; 66-36/226-415; khaoyaiwinery.com. Nightly stays from US$59, double.
- Village Farm & Winery 103 Moo 7, Ban Pai Ngam, Thai Samakkee, Wang Nam Keow; 66-44/228-4078; village farm.co.th Nightly stays from US$72, double.