THAILAND (Khao Yai) - Strolling through the vineyards of the GranMonte wine estate, which is situated in the lush green Asoke valley, Nikki Lohitnavy, female enologist, explains why she thinks women are naturally better winemakers than men. "Women have a better taste perception than men," Lohitnavy says with a smile. "And women tend to pay more attention to small details, which men sometimes overlook."
The 22-year-old Nikki Lohitnavy, whose family owns the GranMonte wine estate, has received her bachelor degree in enology in Australia. Now, she has returned to the Asoke valley, 155 kilometers north of Bangkok. Here, in her vineyard in the Khao Yai National Park, she wants to prove her skills as young enologist. "In Thailand, it is hard for girls and women to obtain equal jobs. Enology is also predominately dominated by men, but I am sure that I will manage to do the job," says a confident Nikki.
Her family-owned GranMonte is technically well equipped. You can definitely compare the winery to modern cellars in European estates. Large stainless steel tanks, a laboratory, French oak barrels are all available to Nikki Lohitnavy. "My career as enologist starts under difficult conditions", says Nikki Lohitnavy and explains: "We also sense the worldwide economic crisis. But that´s just one problem. Our domestic market here in Thailand is not sensitive to our wines. Furthermore, there is a luxury tax on wine, and any kind of alcohol advertisement is banned. Our fellow country men like foreign wines very much."
Her father, Visooth Lohitnavy, GranMonte´s CEO of GranMonte and president of the Thai Wine Association, agrees with her. "Our fellow countrymen rather drink whiskey or beer than wine. And if they drink wine, most of it is imported. They think that wines from Thailand can´t be good."
As president, Lohitnavy has already enforced new quality standards to promote Thai wines in 2004. "We don´t have a wine culture in Thailand like in Europe. Only the more educated people and those with good disposable income drink wine." And his daughter Nikki adds: "The younger generation is not biased in regard to our wines, but the older generation thinks that only French wine could be good."
Internationally however, there is a serious interest in "New Latitude wines", a term coined by marketing strategists to push the prominence of wines from Thailand, India and Brazil. "In the past, wines from Thailand hardly had a chance on the world market," says Kim Wachtveilt, business development director at Thailand´s biggest wine producer, Siam, which exports 300,000 bottles per year to 19 countries. "Consumers in Europe and America hardly believe that you can produce wines in tropical countries like Thailand. But if we inform the wine world about the climate cycles and how these affect the plants and the grapes, and ultimately, the quality of the wines, then we have a chance on the international wine market."
Thailand´s vineyards are exposed to a constant tropical weather. The prevailing climate would easily allow for two harvests a year, but it would be too much for the vines if they had no time to rest. Furthermore, a continuous production would result in a lower wine quality. In order to avoid that, winemakers impose a period of "hibernation" on the vines by trimming the foliage and the shoots.
Furthermore, the trimming is timed so that the vintage can take place in the driest time of the year. "If the grapes would ripe in the wet season, we would get all sorts of problems with fungal diseases," explains Denis Gastin, a connoisseur of Asian wines. "Thai winemakers have the hang of it. They know how to treat the vines in order to obtain good qualities in this climate zone."
Gastin is convinced that wines from Thailand will open up a market. "The GranMonte´s 2006 Syrah has just won an award at the Syrah du Monde tasting in France. Winning the medal wasn´t that important to us, but we were rather pleased about the fact that the quality of our wines met international expectations. We were also able to raise the curiosity of wine lovers in relation to Thai wines," explains Nikki Lohitnavy.
Apart from their traditional cuisine, Thailand, India and china are increasingly supporting their own wine as well. The Thai Siam Winery, founded in 1982 with the aid of the French winemaker Laurent Metge-Toppin (Ecole Nationale Superieure d´Agronomic de Montpellier), supplies 400 Thai restaurants in Great Britain. It took Australia and Chile 20 years until their wines have been accepted worldwide. "We have to pursue this way as well," says Visooth Lohitnavy and his daughter Nikki adds: "I am confident that our wines will keep up with French and Australian wines at blind tastings. I don´t think tasters would be able to pick out the glass including the Thai wine."
We can now be excited how Thai wines will compete on an international level. One thing is for sure: The fortune of Thai wines lies in the hands of young female enologists. Apart from Nikki Lohitnavy at the GranMonte Winery, another young enologist is responsible for winemaking at the Siam Winery: Ms. Kathrin Puff has deepened her knowledge of winemaking in New Zealand, and at the Siam Winery, she has primarily been responsible for premium wines since 2008. Her wines also received a gold medal at the AWC Vienna (International Wine Challenge) in 2008.(aw.yoopress / translator e.meissner)