Thai vineyards

 

 

 

 

David Whitley finds a Thai company trying to make wine where it really has no right to – and discovers plenty of other gimmicks whilst there

 

 

 

 

The poor souls pruning the vines at the Hua Hin Hills Vineyard look totally overdressed for the sticky, sapping heat. They’re covered head-to-foot, sweating profusely into their long-sleeved shirts, and keeping the sun out with big hats that drape down over the neck.

 

 

 

It’s the big white gumboots that look strangest, however. As we bounce along in the back of the jeep, I ask the driver what they’re for.

 

 

 

“Erm, do you really want to know?” he replies.

 

 

 

“OK, it’s for the snakes. I’ve seen cobras – brown and black – here.”

 

 

 

I’d expected that making wine in Southern Thailand would be a task beset by numerous obstacles, but I hadn’t factored cobras in.

 

 

 

The Hua Hin Hills vineyard is a bold attempt to take winemaking into latitudes that grapes usually get tetchy about. 

 

A 45-minute drive inland from the coastal resort town of Hua Hin, it is where the Monsoon Valley wines found in Thai restaurants across the world are made. But the lush hillside setting, with vines stretching across the horizon between lumpy green peaks, has been turned into a hub of activity.

 

 

 

As we prepared to jump on the back of the jeep, a group of cyclists returned. They’d been huffing and puffing along the 560 acre property’s hillside tracks. With this heat and humidity, rather them than me…

 

 

 

The jeep jaunt takes us past vast rows of Colombard and Malaga Blanc vines, before pulling up outside the elephant stable. This – rightly – would seem like a ridiculous thing to have in a vineyard, but it’s a slice of heritage. Before the vines were planted, the site was a place where wild elephants were domesticated.

 

 

Only three elephants live here now, and the dutiful souls take visitors on utterly surreal rides through the vineyard. We end up on Honey, a 45-year-old female with a freckly nose and an unusually brown complexion.

 

 

For those who haven’t tried it, elephant riding isn’t exactly flying first class. The lumbering plods send the bamboo seat on top lolling back and forth. Those sat in it have to constantly adjust position to ensure their weight is equally balanced.

 

 

 

From on high, however, the views of the valley as it plunges towards the coast are magnificent. Even if the neatly-ordered blocks of vines offer a bizarre contrast to the tropical foliage encasing them. There are mango trees on the property, while the land just outside is prime pineapple farming territory.

 

 

Jack, the mahout, is originally from Isaan in the east of Thailand. He says has grown up around elephants, and shows an incredible nimbleness of touch with Honey.

 

 

 

To chivvy her along, he lightly brushes her ear with his foot. When he dismounts, he seems to slide down the side of her. As for getting back up, I’ve no idea how he manages it – he seems to slink up in one sinuous motion.

 

 

 

His main task, however, is to stop Honey ploughing into the vines to grab a quick snack or two. “She likes grapes,” he says. Tough luck, lady – you’ll have to settle for bananas and pineapples instead. We’re allowed to handfeed her after the ride, and she snaffles them gratefully with her trunk, nonchalantly lobbing them into her mouth.

 

 

 

Hungry humans can tuck into something a little more complex. The Sala restaurant has all the hallmarks of a destination dining restaurant in the Hunter or Barossa Valleys. The prime seats are on a large open-air balcony, soaking up the viney view. But there are a few Thai touches – noticeably the pagoda-style roof and a menu that nods to the local as well as the international. Mains include crab meat fried rice as well as grilled T-bones, but it’s the homemade grape cheesecake with Chantilly cream as dessert that it’s practically obligatory to save room for.

 

 

 

But for all the food and activity gimmickry, Hua Hin Hills is really about the wine. A series of displays along the wall at The Sala go into the techniques used to effectively trick grapes into growing at this latitude. Loamy soil and ocean breezes help, but irrigation and vine protection techniques designed specifically for the tropics - rather than copying traditional approaches - are key.

 

 

 

There’s also a map of where wines are grown around the world. The likes of Ethiopia, Ecuador and Nigeria may come as a surprise.

 

 

 

It’s only fitting that the final activity of the afternoon should be a taste test. A series of samples are lined up at the bar, complete with tasting notes and suggestions of dishes they make a good partner for.

 

 

 

An emphasis is put on wines that work well in hot climates and with Thai food. First down the hatch is a 2012 Colombard, billed as an alternative to sauvignon blanc that works well with a spicy papaya salad. It’s a bit clacky for my liking, but the white shiraz is surprisingly good, with a ballsy aftertaste that won’t let spicy dishes run all over it.

 

 

 

The real winner is the chenin blanc, a varietal that’s usually towards the bottom of my list. It has a sweetness that almost pushes it into dessert wine territory, but in the Thai climate it’s invigoratingly refreshing.

 

 

 

I shouldn’t be too shocked. If you’re going to plant a vineyard in Thailand and then let elephants wander round it, the normal rules don’t apply. And that applies to tropical tipples, too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

by David Whitley

 

 

Details: A shuttle bus to the Hua Hin Hills Vineyard (+66 81 904 0555, www.huahinhills.com) is available at 10.30am and 3pm every day from Hua Hin Hills Wine Cellar in the Market Village shopping  mall. Return journeys are at 2pm and 6pm. Return tickets cost 300 baht.

 

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