Thailand's wine industry gets a woman's touch
On top of a damaging recession, Thailand's wine consumption is stymied by high luxury taxes, a ban on advertising alcohol and stiff competition from the country's cheaper and more traditional tipples of whisky and beer.
Khao Yai -- Strolling by row upon row of grape vines nestled in the lush green Asoke valley, the first Thai female oenologist explains why she thinks women are naturally better winemakers than men.
"First of all women have better taste perception than men," Nikki Lohitnavy says, with a smile. "And paying attention to small details, I think sometimes guys don't do that."
She walks on through her family's GranMonte vineyard, which sits by the mountainous Khao Yai National Park 155 kilometres (96 miles) north of Bangkok, to the winery that she set up in December.
The ten-year-old estate used to take its grapes to a neighbouring vineyard which had the equipment to make wine, until Nikki took on the job herself after four years studying oenology -- the science of winemaking -- in Australia.
The 22-year-old graduate now wants to "prove I can do the job as well as a guy can," as she takes charge of the new enterprise and its all-male employees.
"In Thai society, girls in any kind of job are still seen as inferior to men," she told AFP. "Other countries have passed that already, but in Thailand it is still like this."
After explaining the science behind the winery's huge stainless steel tanks, tiny test tubes and French oak barrels, Nikki suggested gender issues are not the only hurdles she faces as a winemaker targeting Thailand's domestic market.
While her family's business is expanding, with a vineyard guesthouse opening for "agro-tourists" and the launch of its first rose wine, she said sales of the 60,000 or so bottles produced by GranMonte each year are "definitely down."
On top of a damaging recession, Thailand's wine consumption is stymied by high luxury taxes, a ban on advertising alcohol and stiff competition from the country's cheaper and more traditional tipples of whisky and beer, she said.
"If people are drinking wines already they are still not choosing Thai wine over imported wines... they think Thai wines can't be that good," Nikki added. "But I definitely think we can change that."
It is a sentiment echoed by her father, Visooth Lohitnavy, GranMonte's CEO and president of the Thai Wine Association, a group set up in 2004 to enforce quality standards and promote Thai wine a decade after it was first launched.
"Wine is not our culture but the more educated people with good disposable income drink wine -- it's quite a social drink," he said.
"The younger generation love to learn but the older generation still think only French wine is good."
Internationally however, there is serious interest in "New Latitude wines" -- the term coined to describe wine from Thailand, Brazil, India and other countries beyond the areas commonly thought suitable for harvesting grapes.
"In the past people thought it wasn't possible," said Kim Wachtveitl, business development director at Southeast Asia's biggest producer, Siam Winery, which exports up to 75 percent of its 300,000 bottles per year to 19 countries.
"If you just transfer knowledge from old world or new world to tropical countries like Thailand of course it won't work," he said.
"But if you learn about the climate cycle, monsoon seasons and how this affects how the plant grows and the vine bears fruit, then it's possible."
The constant hot weather allows for two harvests a year, but with no time for the vines to rest, this continuous production results in a lower quality of fruit for winemaking from classic wine grape varieties.
So most Thai vineyards now defy the natural cycle by imposing a period of "forced hibernation," by trimming foliage on the vines during one of the harvest periods.
Although time-consuming, this process has its benefits.
"It means you can time the vintage for the driest time of year," explained Denis Gastin, an Australia-based writer specialising in Asian wine.
"If the grapes are ripe in the wet season you get all sorts of problems with fungal diseases on the vine."
Gastin reckoned the system is "working very well," saying the quality of Thai wines such as GranMonte's 2006 Syrah (a medal-winner at France's Syrah du Monde awards last year) were "extraordinary in the conditions they face."
"The industry is getting awards and medals and so on. It's reassuring that they can meet international expectations and raise the curiosity of consumers and particularly in the context of Thai cuisine," he said.
Thailand, like India and Japan, has benefited from promoting its wine alongside its more established national dishes. Siam Winery for example supplies 400 of the 1,000 Thai restaurants in the UK, its biggest market.
"Our wines are fine with international cuisine but at the stage we're at now we have to develop it in context," said Kim.
"It took Chile 20 years, Australia 25 years to get into the mainstream. But that doesn't mean we're not ready to make a statement."
Back in Khao Yai, ambitious Nikki is similarly confident, laying down a blind-tasting challenge with Australian and French wines:
"I don't think people would be able to pick out which the Thai glass was," she said.