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JULY 10, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 1


Illustration for TIME by Amanda Haley.

Grape Escapes in the Vineyards of Thailand
By KAY JOHNSON

It's not easy being a wine lover in Asia. Import duties keep prices high, while poor shipping and storage turn bottles sour. If you're lucky enough to find a restaurant short of five stars with a decent red, chances are it will be served ice-cold. As for regionally produced wine—forget it. Experiments around the region have produced vintages in a narrow range between vinegar and Kool-Aid, often laced with dubious herbal additives best left unmentioned.

Until now.

Thailand may not be the first place, or even the last, that springs to mind when you say "wine country," but Chateau de Loei in the mountains of northeastern Isaan province is aiming to change that. For nine years, the small vineyard has been pressing out half a million bottles annually from Chenin Blanc and Syrah grapes imported from France. In the process, it has generated a small business in wine-tasting tours similar to those in California, France or Australia.

  TRAVEL WATCH
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A plateau of rolling golden hills, the countryside surrounding Chateau de Loei resembles a chunk of southern France, carved out and shipped to Asia. The parched yellow fields, dry heat and especially the hectares of vineyards would have you swearing you're on the Mediterranean coast—except for the small Thai spirit houses with incense burning at the edge of each vineyard. As it turns out, the soil and climate are similar, too. It was a fact not lost on Thai hotel and construction magnate Chaiyudh Karnasuta, 80, who figured there was no reason his country couldn't have a wine industry. "I am old. I am all right financially and my wife doesn't spend so much," he explains. "I believe in five to 10 years, wine production in Thailand will be at least 10 million bottles." To scoffers, he points to the popularity of Chilean wine, which was initially dismissed as doomed to fail.

Touring the Loei vineyards, named after the nearest town, requires a six-hour drive or bus ride from Bangkok, up a tortuously twisting mountain road past terraced rice fields virtually clinging to the cliffs. Organized trips, made up mostly of Thai tourists, leave from Bangkok each weekend. Visitors generally stay at nearby Rungyen Resort, not coincidentally owned by Chaiyudh's hotel group; Loei town has budget hotels and guesthouses. For those with a few days to spare, tranquil Isaan province—one of the least-visited regions of the country—offers other diversions. Near Loei itself is the 1,500-m Phu Kradung mountain, a good day's hike. Outside the northern town of Khorat are the 12th-century Khmer ruins of Phimai. Those stressed from Bangkok's bustle or tired of crowds can wander for days in Isaan, considered the cradle of Thai culture. The region is also home to fiery dishes that are favorites of Thai cuisine. It is these eye-watering delicacies, incidentally, that Chateau de Loei's wines aim to complement, with a light, mellow wine that does not overpower the flavor of the food. That's a tall order, as any lover of both wine and Thai food knows.

So what's Thai wine like? Our informal taste test, consisting of two wine-imbibing journalists and several plates of spicy food, came up with a mixed answer. The 1999 Chenin Blanc is a bit sharp: not bad, considering its origin, but nothing to write home about. The red Syrah, on the other hand, is surprisingly good. It is light and undeniably fruity, yet able-bodied and not at all sweet. Not a great wine, but a good one. And yes, it nicely complemented our red chicken curry, tom kha (spicy coconut and chicken soup) and goong chai nam pla (raw shrimp marinated in lemon juice and chili). After years of frustration, that's enough to give a wine lover in Asia hope. To find out more about wine tours in Thailand, contact the Tourism Authority of Thailand at www.tat.or.th.

Write to TIME at mail@web.timeasia.com

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