My interest in heroic viticulture has taken me across northern and southern Italy, but I didn’t expect it to catch up with me on a recent trip to Thailand. As I was researching weekend trips from Bangkok, I stumbled upon the GranMonte Estate, a family owned winery located just 2.5 hours northeast of Bangkok. And, intrigued by the prospect of grapes grown in a tropical climate, I made the trip to learn about Thai wine and explore this emerging winemaking region.
Located at the foothills of Khao Yai, a national park renowned for its biodiversity, GranMonte (whose name means “Big Mountain”) is set across 40 acres of land in Thailand’s Asoke Valley. Though the property’s Italian-inspired VinCotto restaurant and wine cottage may be reminiscent of the Tuscan countryside, the occasional sighting of elephants in the vineyard will remind you that you’re not in Europe anymore. You’re in the tropics.
Tropical viticulture may seem like a novel concept, but grapes have been growing in unexpected places since time immemorial. From islands and cliffsides to the arctic and the tropics, vitis vinifera is a resilient species that can adapt to extreme climates and with a careful hand, can be coaxed into expressing a terrain in an entirely new way.
“Our region isn’t only beaches and coconut trees,” says Nikki Lohitnavy, the first and only certified winemaker in Thailand, and lead enologist of GranMonte. Together with her family, she has helped spearhead production in a new terroir. “The Khao Yai National Park is mountainous, reaching 4,000ft at its peak, making it the driest part of the country. In the winter, a cold front arrives from China, creating a continental microclimate in this area, with night temperatures that can drop to 50°F.”
GranMonte was born out of Visooth Lohitnavy’s vision passion for wine, and it remains a family affair. Visooth is the CEO & Managing Director, his wife Sakuna is President, Nikki is the General Manager and Director of Oenology, and sister Mimi is the Director of PR and Marketing.
Nikki always had a penchant for gardening and helped her family plant their first grapes on the property back in 1999. She went on to study enology at the University of Adelaide in Australia and has been a visiting winemaker in France, South Africa, Brazil, Portugal, Mexico, and Venezuela, giving her a strong background in diverse styles, climates and production methods. She is considered one of the world’s foremost experts on tropical viticulture and was listed as one of Forbes’ 30 Under 30 Asia in 2016 for paving the way for a new industry in Thailand. Her guiding philosophy at GranMonte? “I want to be true to the origin of the wine,” she says.
“New world wines, old world wines, the labels are irrelevant — I go across the spectrum based on what’s best for each grape. Our crémant is more traditional and rustic, while our whites tend to have tropical fruit characteristics, like lychee and coconut,” she explains. “Visitors at GranMonte are often surprised that our wines aren’t jammy or high in alcohol, but resemble cooler climate wines that are fresh with a nice acidity.”
GranMonte produces 100,000 bottles across 23 labels and grows dozens of grape varietals. Chenin Blanc and Syrah are considered best grapes for tropical climates thanks to their adaptability, but the winery also grows from Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache and Tempranillo, to Viognier, Verdelho and Albariño, among others. Innovation and experimentation are guiding principles at GranMonte, which is a production-led, rather than a market-led, business given its recent emergence in Thailand. It produces sparkling wines in the classic method and is starting to make orange wines made in Georgian qvevris.
It also collaborates with luxury hotels like the Mandarin Oriental in Bangkok and Six Senses Yao Noi to produce white-label wines for guests to enjoy an unexpected taste of Thailand during their stay.
GranMonte’s wines have won more than 100 awards, including several gold medals at AWC Vienna for its Bussaba Natural Sweet Wine and Orient Reserve Syrah over the years. While most of its wine is consumed locally, 20% is exported elsewhere in Asia with growing markets in Singapore and Taiwan.
Grapes are grown at 1000-2000ft above sea level and are pruned twice a year. GranMonte uses a precision farming system called “Smart Vineyard” to monitor the microclimate and ensure quality control and higher grape yields in the unconventional region. Unlike grapes in traditional winegrowing areas, Thailand’s grapes ripen in winter, in preparation for the harvest that runs from February to March each year. “There’s no dormancy in the vines,” explains Nikki, “So we can plan when we want to harvest.” The harvest generally takes place at night when temperatures are cooler, which is good news for the grapes — and the grape pickers.
Though Thailand’s tropical climate presents some complications, “the weather is the least of our worries,” says Mimi, Nikki’s younger sister and the Director of Marketing for GranMonte. Alcohol taxes are notoriously high in Thailand and wine is taxed close to 300%. “This means that our wines are perceived as a luxury product, though we’re working really hard to promote wine education and spread the culture of wine as part of daily life.”
Advertising bans on alcohol are also stringent in the Buddhist country which suffers high road fatalities, meaning small local businesses like GranMonte face difficulties in marketing their product and reaching new audiences. Mimi believes that local agriculture and entrepreneurship should be encouraged, and is working with the Thai parliament to study the alcohol market in Thailand in order to support better conditions for organic agricultural businesses like GranMonte and its neighbors in Khao Yai.
These barriers to entry mean there’s little competition on the one hand, but no one to share the cost of investments, like bottling structures or an on-site laboratory. GranMonte’s state-of-the-art equipment has been imported from France, Germany and Italy, and the winery uses the highest quality French and American oak barrels to age its wines, along with temperature control stainless steel tanks for fermentation. There are no contract growers available, so all grapes are picked rigorously by hand. “We’ve worked hard to earn our reputation,” says Mimi. And hard work pays off. GranMonte has even earned itself a place in the prestigious Wine Museum in Bordeaux.
Pioneers will always face challenges, but the upside is they have free rein for creativity and innovation. “Thailand is a new market, so we like to explore,” says Nikki. “There are no limitations on what we can grow and make here.”
Visiting GranMonte Asoke Valley
Visitors can join vineyard and winery tours of the property, followed by guided wine tastings, or stay overnight at GranMonte’s wine cottage which has 7 suites nestled in the vineyard. The Italian-inspired VinCotto restaurant is open daily for lunch and dinner.