Grape Minds

Metro, mars 2002-2

Last month saw the launch of the fîrst vintage from Thaïland newest vineyard, one set up with the help of French specialists and the Thai owner of a Bordeaux chateau. Harry Stiles and Manond Apanich pull the cork on Domaine Saint-Lo.

Thailand’s most famous contribution to the world of wine is Chateau Saint-Lo, in St Emilion, in the heart of Bordeaux.

It’s owned by Dr Pathom Vongsuravatana, born in Nakhon Ratchasima, who’s been creating grand cru wines since he bought the property in 1991. Now he’s imported that expertise and a team of French specialists into his homeland to launch the first vintage from sister property Domaine Saint-Lo.

The first seeds of Domaine Saint-Lo were sown when HM the King asked Pathom why he didn’t produce wine in this country, and the business took root when Pathom met Dr Virachai Techavichit, a former Prime Ministerial advisor, and found they shared the same dream. While Pathom was busy with his 16th century Saint Lo estate, Virachai had been looking into the prospects of wine cultivation in Thailand.

Pathom’s French team considered the climate and recommended an area without constant humidity-the main problem for wine growers here, along with its associated pests. Virachai had bought 300 acres below a rocky spur in the mountainous région of Khao Kor, and having tested the chemical nature of the soil, the experts gave the thumbs up. The undulating landscape was important for water drainage, preventing stagnation in the rainy season. The land, shaped like an eagle, is now home to the Peak Eagle Winery.

The specialists continue to use facilities at the Bordeaux University Oenology department to test the wines they now produce. « We’re growing mainly Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz, » says Raphaël Vongsuravatana, Pathom’s son and VP of the Saint-Lo group. « But also experimenting with Cinsaut, Grenache, Carignan and Mourvedre. » Apart from the Cabernet, these are all grapes associated with the Rhône Valley, so this is obviously the French région they’ve identified as reflecting most closely the conditions at Khao Kor.

The analytical team is based in Bordeaux, while onsite operations are entrusted to Corbières wine grower Jacques Bacou and the Chateau Saint-Lo cellar master Jean-François Vergne. Even the bottling is in the hands of Frenchmen.

But, while the expertise is traditional Gallic, the product is indisputably Thai. Peak Eagle believe globalisation is leading to « the same sort of wines throughout the world,  » and, while that is something of an exaggeration, their philosophy is to produce an original taste.

French grapes exported to fledgling industries throughout the New World are producing wines of a new character, sometimes finding very comfortable homes abroad – Shiraz in Australia and Sauvignon Blanc in NewZealand, for instance-while the classic Bordeaux grape Cabernet Sauvignon is making good, young drinking wines in Chile. The hope is to find the same perfect mixed marriage here.

« Our objective is to create what we call a ‘typicity’ for Thai wine-deepcolour, a real concentration and some spicy taste-reflecting the warm and sunny climate, » says Raphaël. « Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and any other varieties we may grow bring special aromas and flavours very different from those in other countries.  » In attempting to achieve these lofty ideals of concentrated flavour, Peak Eagle is committed to yields of only 15 hectolitres of wine per hectare, at best one third of the expected yield for these grapes in France. Wine improves as the vine ages, and the low yield will also help prolong the vines’ life expectancy, which is very low in the Thai climate.

Peak Eagle promise not to give us « a technical wine stuffed with artificial aromas,  » but one « deeply rooted in its locality and fiercely proud of its origin. »

« We would like Thai people not to confuse this with an industrial product, » says Raphaël. « Wine has nothing to do with beer, brandy or whisky. Wine is a craft and we are craftsmen. »

Once they’ve perfected a local viticulture, Peak Eagle intend to share their knowledge with other farmers – some neighbouring owners are already experimenting – and this year they’ll set up a Wine Academy, featuring seminars, weekend courses and exhibitions, and a « wine civilisation and cultural centre » in the midst of the KaoKor vineyards.

The current crop of wines should retail at around B350 a bottle, and Raphaël reveals they’re also planning a « Bordeaux blend » (Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot) under the label Château Grand Virache.


48 • METRO- MARCH 2002

Raphaël Vongsuravatana – Pathom Vongsuravatana – Thaïlande – Mentions légales – Martine Vongsuravatana – Château Saint Lô – Siam – Thaï Memory