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On the grapevine

An interview with Thailand's first qualified female wine maker, Nikki Lohitnavy, from GranMonte winery.

By Claire Connell

Friday 29 June 2012, 09:34AM

When did you become interested in wine making?

When I was about 12 yearsold, when my father started the GranMonte vineyard.
I loved helping with little tasks in the vineyard, and had a chance to try a few drops, like most kids growing up in vineyards do.

I did not know much about wine of course, but I could taste the difference between bottles with different looking labels.

When I found out the difference was because of the grape varieties, and the different places in the world those bottles are from, that just fascinated me.

Through my parents’ work, I had the chance to meet some winemakers, and their tales about their travels and working in exotic countries just grabbed me.

So I decided to move to Australia when I was 14, finished high school in Melbourne and went straight on to working for a vineyard in Adelaide.

Living my dream, I worked in Australia, France, South Africa and have been a consulting winemaker in Portugal for the past two years.

Of course, my full-time job is here at GranMonte where I can make the wines any way I want!

You are Thailand’s first qualified female winemaker, do you consider yourself a role model?

I certainly hope I am a role model for young Thais (I am also the only winemaker in Thailand with a bachelor’s degree in oenology, which I got from the University of Adelaide).

People in Australia were just in awe that Thailand makes wine, while I think Thais are proud to have a winemaker who is Thai and making internationally recognised wines from their own land.

How do you react to critical comments about Thai wine?

It is true that there are some pretty average Thai wines out there, including some that are mixed with other fruit juice.

Thai wine used to have a pretty bad image in the past, but in the last five years many local wineries have raised the standard of Thai wine, and we have won trophies and gold medals in wine competitions all around the world.

How hard is it to find suitable grapes to grow in Thailand?

There was a trial 30-40 years back to find suitable varieties.

Some were able to adapt to our soil and climate very well, for example, Syrah and Chenin Blanc, so most wineries started off growing these two varieties.

Since then it’s been a case of trial and error to find other varieties that can also do well.

What are the biggest challenges you have faced as a winemaker?

The tropical climate is the greatest challenge for us, while soil is not too much of a challenge as grapes can grow in many different soil conditions.

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We overcame the climate by choosing the right area of the country to grow grapes.
For example Khao Yai, where our vineyard is, is ideal because it is in the driest part of the country (northeast) and high in elevation, with the perfect cool and dry conditions during the ripening period.

However our techniques in vineyard management are very different compared to conventional vineyards.

We have to prune our vines twice a year, as there is no dormancy period, but we only harvest the grapes once a year at the end of winter (end Jan to mid March).

What types of wine does GranMonte produce?

Our main focus is on Syrah, Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon.

We also have explored new varieties and are now making wine from the grapes such as Viognier, Verdelho and Durif (Petit Sirah).

Our flagship wines are from the rare varieties of grapes, as I tend to make them into a more classic style with focus on structure of fruit and oak.

They are wines that I want consumers to keep for a long time.

Our Viognier is our flagship white, fruit forward, aromatic but balanced by ageing in barrels for six months; no one else in Thailand is producing Viognier.

Our flagship red is Asoke, which is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah that was aged 14 months in new French and American oak barrels.

What are your predictions for the future of Thailand’s wine industry?

Some of the wineries are growing and expanding their production. The growth is quite slow due to high taxation. It is a struggle but I believe that will not stop us.

Are there any unique qualities of Thai wine?

Thai wines definitely have more fruit driven qualities, as the amount of sun and heat that we get helps the vines build aromatic compounds.

If you think about the wonderful tropical fruits we have in our country, you’d understand why our grapes are so flavourful!

The tannins structure, especially in our full-bodied reds, is a lot more supple than most full-bodied reds you find around the world.

Our soil and climate also gives uniqueness to our wines, like more spices in the Syrah and more tropical fruit aromas in the whites.

Do you think wine could ever be made in Phuket?

I am not entirely familiar with the terrain in Phuket, but weather wise, I would imagine that there is much more rain there than the continental parts of the country.
I would say grape growing in Phuket could be more challenging.

As well as being Thailand’s first qualified female winemaker, Nikki is an oenologist at her parents’ GranMonte vineyard. Set on 100 rai in Khao Yai, northeast of Bangkok, GranMonte harvests about 80 tonnes of grapes (50-60,000 litres of wine) every year and is one of Thailand’s leading wineries.See granmonte.com

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