Dunne on Wine

Defying old attitudes about which latitude is suitable for fine wine

Winemaker Nikki Visootha Lohitnavy walks in her family’s GranMonte Vineyard and Winery in Thailand.
Winemaker Nikki Visootha Lohitnavy walks in her family’s GranMonte Vineyard and Winery in Thailand. Special to The Bee

Grapes that yield the most revered wines almost invariably grow within two bands that girdle the globe, between the 40th and 50th parallels in the Northern Hemisphere, and between the 30th and 40th in the Southern Hemisphere, more or less, where temperature, rainfall, sunlight and other climatic factors favor such classic Vitis vinifera varieties of grape as cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir and riesling.

Nikki Visootha Lohitnavy understands this history, but she isn’t buying into it. She is a determined member of a small community of winemakers who believe quality wines can issue from settings seen historically as too inhospitable for traditional varieties of wine grape.

She, her sister Mimi Suvisooth Lohitnavy and their parents Visooth and Sakuna Lohitnavy are proclaiming that fine wines can be made from time-honored grape varieties in one of the more unlikely locales for either, Thailand. Viognier, petite sirah, cabernet sauvignon, chenin blanc, verdelho, grenache and syrah stretch in orderly rows across the gently sloping Asoke Valley, nudging up against Khao Yai National Park, about 100 miles northeast of Bangkok.

Welcome to GranMonte Vineyard and Winery, which after the bustle and congestion of Bangkok comes as a bucolic and calming retreat despite its own industry. The estate consists of a 10,000-case winery, seven-room inn, tasting room, worker housing and restaurant, all scattered about a 36-acre vineyard that looks pretty much like any trellised vineyard on or about the 40th parallel in Europe or the United States.

In this instance, however, it is close by the 14th parallel – hot, humid, subject to fierce rains and all sorts of pests, including elephants. “No fence will keep an elephant out of the vineyard,” Nikki says. One who ambled freely amid their vines “pushed over a few rows of viognier and ate some bananas” but left untouched the grapes, not yet sweet enough to please its palate.

A few decades ago the wine bug bit Visooth Lohitnavy, then the managing director of Rentokil Thailand, a pest-control business in Bangkok. To scratch that itch, he bought a former corn-and-cashew plantation next to Khao Yai National Park in 1999 and began to introduce wine grapes to the site.

“It was just a hobby at the beginning,” Nikki says.

“It was a retirement project, but now it’s a full-time job,” Mimi adds.

Thailand’s late King Bhumibol Adulyadej had encouraged the development of experimental vineyards in the northern reaches of the nation to lure farmers away from the cultivation of opium poppies. Chenin blanc and syrah were among the varieties to show the most potential in Thailand’s tropical climate, so that’s what Visooth initially planted.

After earning an enology and viticulture degree in 2008 at the University of Adelaide, Nikki returned to Thailand, where the next year her father opened a winery alongside the vineyard. Nikki thus became the first credentialed female winemaker in Thailand, and nearly a decade later she still is believed to be the only woman enologist in the country. Mimi completed liberal arts studies at Wheaton College in Massachusetts in 2011 and subsequently joined the winery as director of marketing and public relations.

While Thailand’s climate generally isn’t congenial for growing wine grapes, the Lohitnavys settled in an enclave that is fairly effective at shielding their vineyard from the country’s weather-related extremes. The small Asoke Valley is slightly above 1,000 feet in elevation, so while it is warm during the day, it cools off at night, providing a diurnal swing that helps grapes preserve their lively and welcome acidity.

Thailand has only around a half-dozen wineries making wines with Vitis vinifera grapes, two of them close by Khao Yai National Park – PB Valley Khaoyai Winery to the west, Village Farm and Winery to the east.

The growing season peaks during Thailand’s winter – December through February – when torrential rains aren’t as likely but still could damage fruit. When we visited GranMonte in December, grapes were developing splendidly, and as the harvest wrapped up last month, Nikki called the vintage “absolutely wonderful,” unharmed by either severe weather or disease. They brought in 60 tons of grapes.

In addition to location, she credits modern grape-growing tools and techniques to help offset the hazards of farming in such a novel setting – insecticides, herbicides, canopy management, an irrigation system, netting to protect fruit from birds.

Nikki and Mimi are both serious, focused and disciplined. Their wines aren’t novelty wines but are intended to be the parallel of any fine wine in the world, and releases have won high honors on the international competition circuit.

Despite GranMonte’s warm setting, Nikki’s stylistic goals are to emulate lower-alcohol, finer-boned wines from much cooler climates. She uses traditional labor-intensive techniques to make a sparkling wine in the French cremant style – fruity, refreshing, gently effervescent. Her 2015 verdelho is bracing and stony, the 2015 syrah rose fruity and steely, the 2011 “Orient” a full-bodied yet exceptionally vital syrah, and the 2014 petite sirah, which they market under its other name, durif, is floral and husky, with sweet plummy fruit and brisk acidity.

She ferments viognier in oak barrels just enough to round out the body without upstaging the variety’s telltale notes of honeysuckle, passion fruit, apricot and peach.

GranMonte’s wine prices are wide ranging, from around $17 for the pink syrah to about $50 for the “Orient” syrah. They are sold mostly at the winery and in Bangkok and the Thai playgrounds of Pattaya and Phuket.

As a measure of the family’s confidence in Vitis vinifera grapes, they’ve developed a new 10-acre vineyard to the east of their estate. What’s more, Nikki Lohitnavy’s belief in the future of traditional wine grapes in unfamiliar terrains has prompted her to hit the road to advise, confer with and learn from winemakers in other “new latitude” settings like northern Australia, Mexico and Brazil.

But why go to all this effort? Why not just settle somewhere between the 40th and 50th parallels in the Northern Hemisphere, where grape-growing and winemaking traditions already are established? “This is more exciting and more interesting,” Nikki says. “Your work means more when you are someplace new.”

Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at dmichaeldunne@gmail.com.