Sunday, February 08, 2009

Thai a yellow ribbon

Just been reading a recent post on Colin Smith's blog, all about the Monsoon Valley wines from Thailand - anyone else tried them? For me, they fall into the 'er, interesting' bracket, as the following piece I did a few years ago for the now-defunct North West Enquirer will testify...


Anyway, I’m in this Bangladeshi restaurant in Blackburn where they’ve just had to take down a 15 ft high illuminated orange palm tree from Dubai after complaints from local residents. On one side of me is an Australian winemaker talking of how he’s just served a wine he made in 1979 from grapes of Portuguese origin to his Hungarian assistant. On the other side is a wine merchant telling me of his former life touring Communist era Eastern Europe as a trombonist with 1980s jazz ensemble Loose Tubes. And just when you thought it couldn’t get more cosmopolitan, opposite me is a Frenchman who lives in Clapham, has a vineyard in Beaujolais and now makes wine in Thailand.

No, that’s not a misprint, Thailand. It’s taken some people several years to get used to wine being made in the New World, now they’re going to have to get used to the idea of wines from what some refer to as the New Latitudes. Traditionally wine has been made in two bands running 30 to 50 degrees north and south of the equator, but today there those pushing these boundaries by growing grapes both closer to the poles – wines from Sweden and Poland already exist – and towards the equator in places like Vietnam, Ethiopia and Indonesia.

And Thailand. The Siam Winery, the brainchild of the man who invented Red Bull, isn’t alone in making wine in Thailand, but it is the only winery producing wine exclusively from home-grown as opposed to imported grapes. Some of the grapes for the Monsoon Valley range are cultivated in conventional vineyards, but others are grown in so-called floating vineyards, where the vines are on narrow islands – enough for just two rows of vines – surrounded by canals and accessible only by boat. They’re situated at a latitude 13 degrees north, close enough to the equator for the grapes not to know what season it is. In conventional vineyards, grapes are picked once a year in autumn – here there two harvests, one in summer, and one in winter. While some of the wines see the two pickings being blended, in others you can see from the words ‘summer harvest’ and ‘winter harvest’ on the labels that they are kept separate.

Closer examination of the labels reveals an additional peculiarity. The Thai calendar measures its vintages from the death of Buddha in 543 BC, so the vintages currently on sale range from 2546 to 2548. And if that’s not enough strangeness, there’s the matter of the grape varieties. Some of the wines are made using mainstream grapes such as Shiraz and Chenin Blanc, but there are also less familiar varieties such as Malaga Blanc and Pok Dum. While these probably aren’t authentically Thai in origin – emissaries from the court of Louis the XIV imported a selection of vines back in the 17th century – they’re certainly rare in the world of wine.

The task of transforming them into wine falls to that Clapham-based Frenchman, Laurent Metge-Toppin. ‘The wines I make here are quite different from those I produce in France. It’s so warm here that you really need to serve all wines chilled, even the reds. So I try to make wines that are very fruity and not too heavy. Yes, they’re not as complex as the great wines of France, but they’re better partners for spicy food.’

Which is why I found myself in Sylhet restaurant in Langho, sampling the tasty Bangla cuisine alongside five Monsoon Valley wines. The 2005 Colombard is refreshingly crisp, with a herbal grassy edge not unlike a Sauvignon Blanc. The melon-scented 2005 Malaga Blanc was less impressive on its own, but its soft, dolly-mixture-like character worked very well with a fragrant Lamb Kharai. Of the two 2004 reds, I preferred the smoky spice of the Shiraz to the rather rustic berry character of the Pok Dum, although as with the Malaga Blanc, the latter showed much better with food. But the star of the quintet was the 2005 Rosé, a fragrant, floral wine with grape and lychee flavours which performed well both by itself and with a variety of dishes.

As for that trombonist-turned-wine merchant, that’s Steve Day of John Stephenson & Sons in Nelson, the company now responsible for distributing the wines in the North West. You’ll find the Monsoon Valley range at their retail outlet the Wine Mill (0845 450 6365) for between £4.99 and £5.99, as well as in many Oriental restaurants, and not just Thai ones. Thirty years ago, Australian wine was something of a rarity, and look where it is now. Will we be saying the same about Thai wine in 2036? Or should that be 2579?


And the Aussie winemaker was Chris Pfeiffer from Rutherglen, ex-fortified winemaker for Lindemans. Spent a great week there a few years ago as the guest International Judge at the Rutherglen Wine Show, and became known as Skateboarding Simon. I also remember some bottles from the 1970s that Chris pulled out, including a Touriga Nacional 'port', which ended up as part of a blend for a Lindemans cask wine - thankfully Chris had rescued a few bottles for personal consumption, and it was quite stunning. Strangely enough, my Melbourne-based sister Stella has come into contact with both Chris and his daughter Jen (now in charge of winemaking) in recent years. A super family (Robyn and Melissa make up the rest of the clan) - hope they haven't been too affected by the bush fires currently running through several parts of northern Victoria.

No comments: