Think Thailand and floating markets, sun-drenched beaches, elaborate temples and spicy food might come to mind. In a land far, far away from the famous wine regions of the world, you would never expect to find vineyards and grapes. But now you can, thanks to the success of one winery, New Latitude, whose characterful vintages are increasingly finding their way on to wine lists in Europe and the US. Not only are they challenging conventional concepts of Thai tradition, but also the basic rules of winemaking itself.
Accepted wisdom has it that the only areas of the world suitable for viniculture lie between 30 and 50 degrees latitude on either side of the equator. Now such notions are having to be re-considered to take into account Siam Winery, at just 13 degrees north.
It was actually in 1685 when the first grape vines arrived on Thai soil, along with some fine bottles of French claret. They were a gift for King Narai, courtesy of Louis XIV of France. The Thai nobility had never drunk anything like wine before, and rapidly developed a taste for it. For years the drink remained a privilege reserved exclusively for the upper classes but, due to increasing demand, two varieties of grape were brought over in 1957 to be tested for their suitability in the Thai climate. Thus, a new industry was born.
Out of the five wineries that are now found in Thailand, there is one that stands out from the rest, and that is the Siam Winery, situated 100km south-west of Bangkok, in the Chao Praya Delta. Siam Winery has been producing wine since 1999, and it is now Thailand's largest exporter of the product.
Siam Winery differs from its country counterparts in using "floating vineyards". Located in the Samut Sakhorn Province, these are not floating in a literal sense, as vines still need their roots to remain in the ground. However, each vineyard is interlaced canals, which produces the impression of a series of islands, each shaded by a canopy of the vines, with large bunches of grapes dangling above the water's surface. Thailand is famous for its floating markets, which is probably why someone coined the phrase "floating vineyards".
Successfully growing vines in such a hot and humid climate is a feat in itself, but this is not the whole story behind the success of the Siam Winery. And the man who perhaps deserves the lion's share of the credit for creating commercially viable wines in such unlikely circumstances is Frenchman Laurent Metge-Toppin, Siam's director of business development and a man with both a sommelier's degree from the US and an encyclopedic knowledge of French wine-making techniques.
"When I took the job, I did wonder at first if maybe people were a little dreamy about this project," admits Metge-Toppin, "but, after seeing the state-of-the-art facilities, and the quality of the fruit, I was sure it would work."
Metge-Toppin was given the challenging task of producing a suitable blend; one which would complement Thailand's famously spicy food and could stand up on its own in the international wine market.
Metge-Toppin jokingly calls the red he has helped to create, Côtés de la Rivière Kwai. He is the first to admit that, "Everything is different when you are growing wine in Thailand, so you need to adapt. And, after you have adapted your growing techniques, there are the problems of storage - as well as people's perceptions."
As one wine critic said, "I still find it hard to believe that New Latitude wines will ever be seriously good - but then that's what we said about New World wines not so long ago."
If you are looking for a perfect claret or Bordeaux you aren't going to find it here: such wines simply don't stand a chance against the power of the Thai chilli. However, what you will find is a wine that will accompany even the fiercest dish. "Thailand has amazing food," says Metge-Toppin, "and now you can enjoy it with a glass of wine that will make the whole meal so much more enjoyable."
His Monsoon Valley range of wines includes a white which is made from a local Malaga Blanc grape variety. With its exotic aromas of lemongrass and watermelon, it is the perfect complement for green curries. The red is velvety and medium-bodied, and is made from a blend of Pokdom, Shiraz and Black Muscat varieties. It would be best suited accompanying a Duck curry or perhaps a peppery seafood dish. And, when the local Malaga Blanc, Pokdom and Black Muscat grapes are macerated and fermented together, they produce a refreshing rosé.
The export market accounts for 75 per cent of Siam Winery's sales, which are predicted to be in excess of 350,000 bottles this year (compared to 80,000 in 2004). Countries buying these wines now include Germany, France, Great Britain, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, Switzerland, Japan, New Zealand and the US and, with an estimated 6,000 Thai restaurants worldwide, orders are surely only likely to increase.
As Metge-Toppin proudly points out: "Selling our wine to every Thai restaurant in the world would amount to over six million cases each year. Even Jacobs Creek would be jealous." This demand could be easily met: unlike the West, which has just one harvest each year, Thailand has two and, because of the climate, can grow grapes continuously for eight months at a time.
So Monsoon Valley may not be the next Saint Emillion but, then again, it doesn't want to be. This wine is for the spicy palette and intends to stay that way. If you are eating Thai food, it makes sense to accompany it with a wine that has been specially crafted to suit the food - and these ones taste pretty good.
For further information, tel: 020 7434 5640, or visit www.monsoonvalleywine.com