A weekend in wine country

ThaiDay, 06/07/06

A rolling tour of the tastes of Khao Yai.

Despite being home to just two wine-producing vineyards, the area known as the Khao Yai Valley has gained a reputation as Thailand’s wine country. Although essentially accurate, the label is somewhat pre-emptive as it implies a degree of development and refinement that simply hasn’t been reached yet. As of now, much of the food and wine-based tourism is still in its early stages, but the basics are there, and being less than two hours from Bangkok, has the potential to be a unique weekend getaway.

Young vines at PB Valley, the Khao Yai area's largest winery.

With this in mind, I head north one morning with the aim of spending a weekend discovering and tasting what Thailand’s fledgling wine country has to offer. After a mere hour and a half, I stopped by Dairy Home (044 361 841), a small dairy/restaurant just off the main highway. Dairy Home is located in Muak Lek district, the site of yet another European-style food import: dairy farming. It was in this same area that Thailand’s dairy industry was started nearly 40 years ago, and not surprisingly, the restaurant offers fresh organic milk products, as well as a decent a breakfast set with homemade bread, sausage and butter and good coffee.

After breakfast I continue along the hilly roads that cut across the Khao Yai Valley to GranMonte Vineyards, a family-owned estate and one of the two wine producing vineyards in the region. Located in a secluded corner that owners have christened Asoke Valley, the vineyard has been growing grapes for nearly eight years. At Montino, the vineyard’s “cellar”, my companion and I sample four red wines, all of the shiraz/syrah varietal, the dominant grape of the Khao Yai valley. GranMonte’s 2002 “Celebration” vintage was for me the most balanced of the lot, featuring both full body and a strong but pleasant aroma.

Some of the wines available at GranMonte Vinyards.

Impressed by the gorgeous setting, we decided to have lunch at VinCotto, the vineyard’s attractive restaurant. VinCotto’s menu was designed by one of the estate’s owners, and features a relatively short menu of dishes meant to be taken with GranMonte’s wines. I begin with the soft shell crab salad, a plate of iceberg lettuce topped with an immense soft shell crab and oddly enough, several onion rings. Unfortunately even the winery’s decent but overpriced 2003 chenin blanc wasn’t enough to help this dish. Somewhat better was my main course, spiced shoulder of lamb sautéed with garlic and served over fettuccini. My companion made a better choice and enjoyed her spicy squid-ink spaghetti.

In general the weekend revealed that most attempts at Western-style food in the Khao Yai valley are forgettable, and the prices less so. A much better choice is, not surprisingly, Thai food, and one of the most popular restaurants in the area is Narknava (02 253 2455) a decidedly basic restaurant serving Thai-Muslim dishes. The restaurant is known for its 100-baht chicken biryani, which judging by the number of customers, is worth the price. We enjoyed a dish of spiced rice coupled with a fried fish and a bowl of piquant chicken soup, both spicy and delicious. Being a Muslim restaurant there’s not a drop of wine—or any other alcohol—to be seen.

From there we wound our way to PB Valley, the area’s largest vineyard, and our base for the weekend. PB Valley, whose grapes are used to produce wines under the Khao Yai and Pirom labels, is also home to a resort consisting of a few mock-Tudor “villas” perched on a hillside overlooking the vineyard as well as much of the valley. The rooms were basic but comfortable, and part of the fun lied in their almost remote location deep in the vineyard, and the scenic drive it took to reach them.

Grapes at PB Valley.

For dinner we visited the resort’s restaurant, The Hornbill Grill. Although the menu features a few German-style dishes, we decided to go Thai, and ordered a few of the recommended dishes. As most of Khao Yai’s wines are relatively high in alcohol and body, this is not a problem, as the wines are made to tolerate the heat of Thai cooking. We ordered deep-fried tapean fish in spicy Thai sauce, a dish that more closely resembled the Isaan dish laab than a fried fish. We also enjoyed the fried boar with baby pepper and the spicy enoki mushroom salad with shrimp. These dishes were helped along by a bottle of Pirom tempranillo 2004, a red wine from grapes of Spanish origin that is probably the region’s finest bottle.

Waking up early the next morning, we left the car behind and explored the vineyard on foot. Strolling among the seemingly endless rows of grapes, it took the occasional banana tree or tropical bird to remind me I was still in Thailand. The vineyard, like much of the surrounding area, takes the form of a rolling valley edged by forested mountains and gray limestone cliffs, a setting made even more beautiful by the rugged symmetry of rows of grape vines.

PB Valley.

After breakfast I met with Prayut Piangbunta, a youthful native of Chiang Mai who is the Khao Yai Winery’s resident winemaker. Piangbunta also happens to be the country’s only Thai winemaker, and has agreed to show us his winery. We are taken from room to room while Piangbunta describes the wine making process and the functioning of the equipment. At one point we stop to taste the 2006 vintage, still being held in towering stainless steel tanks. Piangbunta gives me a glass of 100% colombard, which despite its cloudy appearance, is deliciously crisp and fruity, causing me look forward to its release in 2008. “I let the wine reflect the vintage,” explains Piangbunta of his winemaking philosophy. “I don’t add sugar or acid, I let the yeast make the wine.
Although at present, going behind the scenes at Khao Yai Winery is only possible by appointment, Piangbunta is working on plans to offer tours on a regular basis in the near future. For now, visitors will have to make due with the wine tastings that are given every weekend and the occasional tour.

With the end of our weekend drawing near, we reluctantly leave PB and stop for a light lunch at the Fabb Fashion Café. The restaurant is one of a growing number of Bangkok-based establishments opening branches in the area. I order an Italian sausage salad with balsamic vinegar, an odd combination that was oddly satisfying. Our waiter told us that the prices at Khao Yai are significantly cheaper than those of the restaurant’s Bangkok counterpart, which already seemed expensive given the rural setting.

The Italian sausage salad with balsamic vinegar at the Fabb Fashion Cafe.

Another import is the popular Bangkok-based chain, Cabbages and Condoms. Run under the auspices of the Population and Community Development Association (PDA), the leafy open-air restaurant features local ingredients such as mushrooms from a nearby mushroom farm and fresh herbs from the resort’s pesticide-free garden.

After a final drive through the hills, it was time to head back to Bangkok. Although the Khao Yai Valley wine district may not yet live up to its label, it is by all means a fun getaway and a beautiful destination, and possibly an early glimpse at what may in the future be a bona fide wine district.