The story is well-known, but in case you are new to these parts, I’ll tell it again. It won’t take long so sit up and listen, especially those people shuffling about aimlessly at the back. Traditionally, grapes for wine-making have been grown between the 30th and 50th parallels in both the northern and southern hemispheres but Thailand has pioneered wine production in a narrow band between the 14th and 18th parallels. Years of research, testing and development have opened up new frontiers in Thai wine-making resulting in the so-called “New Latitude Wines”. Not long ago it was thought impossible, but now award-winning wines are being made from grapes grown at the exotic tropical latitude of 14.3 degrees north of the Equator. Although there are only a handful of wineries in Thailand (seven, to be exact), some of them are winning prestigious awards at international wine competitions.
Prayut Piangbunta (Chief Winemaker and Director of Khao Yai)
The Chenin Blanc (Shen-ihn BLAHN) grape originally hails from France’s Loire Valley but seems to do exceptionally well in Thailand. It’s the speciality of the PB Khao Yai Winery which is near the Khao Yai National Park. That’s the huge mountainous area just south of Nakhon Ratchasima at the south-western boundary of the Khorat Plateau. It covers an area of almost two hundred square miles with its endless hills, evergreen forests and grasslands. It’s the home to over three hundred species of birds and over sixty species of mammals, including the Asian black bear, the gaur, the gibbon and the pig-tailed macaque, to name but four of them. And in case you’re wondering, a gaur is a big cow-like thing with horns at the front, and a pig-tailed macaque is a monkey with a tail like a pig, rather than a monkey with a pig-tail, if you get my meaning. (I think your mind is beginning to wander – Ed.)
Ah yes, PB Khao Yai Winery. It lies in an 800-acre plantation and with two fully-accredited Thai winemakers and state-of-the-art technology, it has the capacity to produce 600,000 bottles a year. The letters PB incidentally, are the initials of Dr. Piya Bhirombhakdi, who founded the company in 1989. The winery makes three Chenin Blancs, the entry-level Sawasdee (Bt. 670), the PB Valley Khao Yai Reserve, and the top-of-the-range Pirom PB Valley Khao Yai Reserve. They’re all made by Prayut Piangbunta, Thailand’s first native-born winemaker who is also the Chief Winemaker and Director of Khao Yai.
PB Valley Khao Yai Reserve Chenin Blanc 2012 (white), Thailand (Bt. 790 @ various outlets)
This is a very pale gold colour with a fascinating floral bouquet of green apples, peaches and hints of citrus. It takes a while for the aroma to fully develop, so do give it time. The wine has a pleasingly soft and smooth mouth-feel with a good dash of zesty acidity. Slosh it around in your mouth and you’ll discover a medium-bodied, well-balanced and attractive wine with soft fruit on the palate as well as dash of green apples, pineapple and dried herbs. There’s a hint of vanilla there too, which results from the wine being partly aged in French oak for twelve months.
At 13.5% alcohol content, the wine is medium-bodied with a pleasing citrus finish and a touch of attractive acidity. To my mind, it has a kind of Thai feel about it and it would make a splendid apéritif because the zingy acidity would perk up the taste buds. For the same reason you could serve this with fish (smoked salmon comes to mind) but it would partner fish or chicken in a mild creamy sauce. It would work well with many mild Thai and Chinese dishes too, but serve it really well-chilled. The makers recommend 11-14°C but a degree or two lower won’t do it any harm, for in this land of sunshine, it’ll warm up all too quickly. And by the way, this wine won a Silver Medal at the UK’s prestigious Decanter World Wine Awards of 2014, a brilliant achievement for the winery.
Pirom PB Valley Khao Yai Reserve Chenin Blanc 2013 (white), Thailand (Various outlets, Bt. 1,870)
Khao Yai Winery’s top Chenin Blanc is produced from the best fruit of the vintage, ensuring the highest possible quality. It’s the most delicate colour; the lightest gold that you can imagine. There’s a kaleidoscope of floral aromas: passion fruit, pears, gooseberries, ripe bananas, dried herbs and a dash of spice. You might also pick up a faint hint of pear drops.
It’s a medium-bodied very dry wine with exotic fruit and citrus tastes and framed in a fine balance of acidity. There’s a lovely fruity, slightly peppery finish too. The wine has a real touch of authority as well as a pleasingly smooth texture and to my mind it must be Khao Yai’s best Chenin Blanc vintage yet. If you enjoy dry, firm whites then do give it a try. The makers suggest that you could serve it with seafood but even at 13.5% alcohol, I’ve enjoyed it on its own as an apéritif. You may need to do a bit of searching for these wines because they seem to sell quickly. However, I’m told that you can often find them at Makro, Villa, Big C and Foodland and sometimes at Eataly (Jomtien) and Aroy Italy (Sukhumvit). The more I taste Khao Yai wines, the more I am convinced that through their aroma, taste and texture, Khun Prayut has captured something essentially Thai.
If you’re feeling like a break from the city, you can actually visit the PB Khao Yai Winery because it’s only a couple of hours drive up the expressway from Bangkok or a bit longer from Pattaya. You can check the opening times, travel directions and GPS coordinates on their website using the QR code below. Tours of the winery are available and it also has an excellent restaurant. Of course, there’s the added incentive that if you venture into Khao Yai National Park you might even see an Asian black bear, a gaur, a gibbon or a pig-tailed macaque. Just don’t get too close to the bear.