Samui Wining & Dining
Tropical Pick

Grapes may not be as exotic as other fruit found here, but cultivation in Thailand is on the increase.

Tropical PickWhen thinking of exotic Thai fruit, grapes (a-ngun) don’t usually feature high on that list. But this fruit of the vine was first transplanted from Europe about a century ago, and has thrived for the past two decades after new varieties suitable to the tropical climate were developed. Both green and red varieties are available, with the main season being December to April.

Before 1960, table grapes were imported from the United States and Australia, at a high cost. At that time more than one hundred varieties were also introduced for testing from the United States and other countries, to see which would grow best here. In 1956, Professor Pavin Punsri and his colleagues at Kasetsart University in Bangkok, tried to study and solve the problems of grape cultivation in this tropical climate, and they turned Thailand’s grape industry into a success

Vines traditionally are slow growers and produce fruit once a year in a Mediterranean climate. However, Thailand has a tropical climate, which seems to stimulate the growth of grapes immensely, and so the first crop can be expected only 14 to 16 months after planting. Another advantage is the fact that the harvest can be timed at will because Thailand doesn’t experience a winter as such. The buds can be forced to sprout at any time of the year by pruning, and consequently, two to three crops can be harvested from an individual vine in a year. In practice, however, the growers prune their vines twice a year and get two crops, one in the rainy season (May to October) and the other crop in the dry season (November to April). The latter crop is superior due to higher sugar content and better appearance.

In the central plains area, grapes are grown under the ditch and dyke system. However, in this intensive cultivation system, the disadvantage is that the vines have a short life span of only seven to ten years. In general, the crop is inferior in quality during the rainy season and vineyard management is also quite intensive.

At present, there are about 2,717 hectares of vines in Thailand, producing 31,677 tonnes per year. The main areas of grape production are located in the central plains at Ratchaburi, Samut Sakhon and Nakhon Pathom, which mainly produce table grapes. However, some companies use these table grapes for wine making. And in the north-eastern region, farmers grow both table and wine grapes.

In the northern region, the growers produce table grapes in Chiang Mai and Nan provinces and wine grapes in Phichit. In these northern parts of Thailand, grape varieties were introduced into the highlands under the auspices of the very successful ‘Royal Project’ in 1981. The project has introduced several crops, including coffee, fruit and vegetables, and aims to improve the living conditions of hill tribes, with grapes and other crops being a substitute for opium poppy cultivation.

It might sound surprising that wine is produced in Thailand, with very different climatic conditions than are generally considered good for winemaking. But a few winemakers have tackled the challenges and are impressing the wine world with what they’ve managed to achieve.

Khao Yai, the vast national park to the north of Bangkok, provides the site for three major vineyard areas; PB Winery, Gran Monte and Village Farm Quai des Brumes. The Siam Winery is south of the capital in Samut Sakhon, while Chateau de Loei and Shala One are based in the north-eastern provinces of Loei and Phichit, respectively. And way up in the beautiful mountain and jungle country near the Golden Triangle, Thailand's most northerly vineyard can be found beside the shores of a lake - Mae Chan Winery

One of the most successful producers has broken with tradition and is doing things the Thai way at the ‘Floating Vineyards’ of Samut Sakorn. Owner, Chalerm Yoovidhya of Red Bull fame, modelled his wines after the traditional Western wines, yet some of his practices are very different. To start with, two of the grapes used extensively by the winery – Malaga Blanc, a white, and Pokdum, a red – are ‘local’ grapes rarely seen elsewhere. Malaga Blanc is a popular Thai table grape but has seldom been used to make wine in other countries. Pokdum, on the other hand, is a local mutation of the European Golden Queen and Muscat Bailey grapes, and is encountered only in Thailand.

But what’s really intrigued the rest of the wine world is the way many of the grapes are grown. The region around Samut Sakorn is a fertile delta formed by the Chao Phraya and other rivers emptying into the Gulf of Thailand, and is crisscrossed by large canals built during the reign of King Rama IV. Farms in the area have traditionally been irrigated by siphoning water from these canals and letting it flow through smaller canals that pass through the numerous orchards and vineyards. Water percolates from the smaller canals to the crops, eliminating the need for any other form of irrigation, and these plots under cultivation are, in effect, small islands surrounded by water from the canals. The canals around the vineyards make it difficult to transport the harvest by traditional means, and as a result, grapes are transported by small boats from the point of harvest to trucks waiting at roadside collection points.

“The perception that the quality of Thai wine is good is being established,” says Kim Wachtveitl, vice-president of the Thai Wine Association. “More than 90 per cent of five-star hotels in Thailand stock Thai wine, and we are now starting to move into other hotels.” The Association was formed in 2004; a decade after the first professional wine was made in Thailand. Back then, in the early ’90s, Dr Chaijudh Karnasuta, a Thai wine enthusiast, established Chateau De Loei Winery in the north-eastern mountains. Another six professional wineries have since followed suit, and the industry now counts one million bottles annually and 1,200 employees – and the wineries all grow the same half-dozen grape varieties, including the Pokdum, the indigenous grape.

Generally speaking, the wines are fruity, slightly sweet, light in body and low in tannins, making them ideal for spicy food. So by all means, indulge in tropical fruits while visiting Thailand, but don’t write off the humble grape – be it as a refreshing fruit or a glass of wine, give the local version a try.


Rosanne Turner


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