Southeast Asian wineries are a novelty for most visitors to the tropical region. The chance to see vineyards skirted by coconut palms is a singular experience – especially when an elephant and his mahout amble between the vines.
For most travellers, Southeast Asian wineries aren’t even on their agenda. But who can resist visiting a winery where elephants amble between rows of grapes, as they do in Thailand’s resort town of Hua Hin, or a vineyard set amidst banana trees and sugar palms, as one does in Cambodia’s Battambang.
As the Southeast Asian wine harvest season is approaching with wine harvest festivals in Thailand in early March – the Monsoon Valley Harvest Festival takes place from 1-17 March, 2018 – we thought we’d share our recommendations for the best Southeast Asian wineries for tasting local wines while savouring exotic views.
Southeast Asian Wineries to Taste Local Wine and Savour Views
For most food and wine enthusiasts, Southeast Asian wineries are a novelty to be experienced for the fact that you can say you’ve sampled Thai wines, say, while watching an elephant striding between the vines or sipping a glass of red as you watch the sun go down near Inle Lake in Myanmar.
But what about the wine itself? Are Southeast Asian wineries producing decent drops worth making a detour from the beach? Should serious wine lovers set aside time for Southeast Asian tasting rooms and cellar doors?
The wine has definitely improved in recent years but Southeast Asian wineries still can’t compete with Indian producers such as Sula Vineyards in Nashik, Maharashtra, which is being called India’s Napa Valley, or Chinese wineries, which have been making wine since 1892. China was the seventh largest wine producer in 2017.
Located in the tropics, which has two seasons – one wet and one dry – Southeast Asian wineries struggle to produce the wine they do with six months of monsoonal rain, and irregular rainfall at that with much of the rain falling in two months, and shorter ‘summer’ periods of sunshine compared Europe. Year-round heat and humidity means there’s no period of dormancy as there is in countries that have four seasons.
But despite the challenging grape growing conditions, Southeast Asia’s wineries are on the whole producing much better wines than they were, especially the wineries in Thailand. Here are our picks of the Southeast Asian wineries worth visiting for the fun of it, the elephants, and the views.
The Best Southeast Asian Wineries to Taste Local Wine and Savour Views
Thailand’s wineries have come a long way since our inaugural tasting of Thai wine on our first trip to Thailand fifteen years ago. Back then, we would order a bottle with dinner because we wanted to drink local wine. It didn’t make sense to us to order cool climate French or Italian wines to sip with spicy curries in the sweltering heat on a tropical Thai island. Little did we know at the time but grape growing in Thailand has a long history thanks to the French. King Louis XIV sent cuttings and wine to the kingdom with an emissary in the 17th century although the modern wine industry only dates to the 1990s. Not Old World wine, nor New World wine, the Thais coined the term New Latitude to describe their wines.
GranMonte Asoke Vineyard – Khao Yai, Thailand
The first bottle of Thai wine we ever tried in 2004 was from the GranMonte Vineyard, easily one of best Southeast Asian wineries, established in 1999 on 30 acres of a former corn and cashew plantation. Although we didn’t get to visit the beautiful GranMonte Asoke Vineyard in the foothills of Khao Yai National Park, approximately 160 kms from Bangkok, until 2012. It was the last day of a 10-day Belmond ‘Epic Thailand’ train trip when we got to do a tour, enjoy a long lunch and do a short tasting – a delicious way to cap off an extraordinary journey. Owner Visooth Lohitnavy led a fascinating winery and vineyard tour while his lovely wife Sakuna offered guided wine tastings at their cellar door. Their wine-maker daughter, Nikki, who studied viticulture in Adelaide, was in Australia at the time. What makes the Asoke Valley special is its location in a valley, 350m above sea level, that has a microclimate that’s ideal for grape-growing in an otherwise wet tropical region. The family grows varieties of Chenin Blanc, Viognier, Semillon, Verdelho, Durif, Grenache, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon. The best time to visit is in the dry season from October to May although the most interesting time is harvest in March when there’s more activity. The vineyard holds a harvest festival in February and wine festival in October. Make sure to book lunch at the winery restaurant, VinCotto, which offers a 5-course menu with wine pairings. Dishes are based on family recipes.
Where to Stay near GranMonte Asoke Vineyard
The GranMonte Guesthouse is located on the winery estate and offers views of the vineyards and mountains from the floor-to-ceiling glass windows and balconies of the Deluxe rooms. Breakfast and other meals are served at VinCotto restaurant and guests can borrow bicycles for rides around the estate. If you can’t get in to the Guesthouse, try the sleek, contemporary Escape Khao Yai Hotel, just 2 kms from the winery.
Monsoon Valley Vineyard – Hua Hin, Thailand
The Monsoon Valley Vineyard, above, is easily the best of the Southeast Asian wineries. Owned by Thailand’s largest wine producer, Siam Wineries, it was founded in 2001 by wine-lover Chalerm Yoovidhya, who was passionate about growing a Thai wine culture. Along with GranMonte, they’ve won gold awards for their wines at international shows. They have three vineyards: the Tab Kwang Vineyard, Chiang Mai Vineyard, and their gorgeous Monsoon Valley vineyard, above – formerly known as Hua Hin Hills Vineyard – which is open to the public, located 2-3 hours south of Bangkok (depending on traffic) and a forty-minute drive inland from the royal resort town of Hua Hin. The winery’s German winemaker Kathrin Puff, who we interviewed for a story on ‘green Hua Hin’, credits the sea breezes that waft in from the coast with keeping the insects off her vines and her grapes healthy. You can do a tour of the 125-acre winery by foot, bicycle or jeep to see Colombard, Chenin Blanc, Sangiovese, Shiraz, and Muscat vines up close, watch women at work grafting vines, and visit the greenhouses where experimental vines and organic produce is grown for the restaurant in soil rich from burnt rice husks and elephant manure. There’s a lovely restaurant, tasting room and cellar door, where you can sample the range of New Latitude Monsoon Valley wines, matched with Mediterranean style tapas created from local produce grown on their farm, as you watch an elephant saunter through the vineyard. It’s a wonderful way to spend an afternoon. During the Monsoon Valley Harvest Festival from 1-17 March, 2018, you can participate in harvest activities, do some grape-picking, stomp grapes, learn how to make wine, and even blend your own. On weekends there are evening food fairs and live music.
Where to Stay near Monsoon Valley vineyard
Most visitors stay in Hua Hin on the coast. We prefer two eco-friendly boutique resorts in Pranburi, just south of Hua Hin, and Cha’am, just north. Slap-bang on the beach, Aleenta offers local wines from Siam Wineries and farm to table dining, including dishes with a zero carbon footprint made from organic produce grown on Aleenta’s farms or bought from local suppliers and markets within 30 kilometres of the resort. Similarly, award-winning Yaiya (‘grandmother’ in Thai) is a low-rise, low-key, waterfront eco-resort with wooden villas set amidst tropical gardens backed by a breezy block of spacious studios.
Myanmar’s wineries – all two of them – are located in the mountains of the Shan States near Inle Lake. The lake is best known for their fishermen who row their boats standing up on one leg, using their other leg to manoeuvre the oar or conical shaped fishing net. After getting a taste of local life on a lake cruise, you can take a drive up the mountain to taste Myanmar wines. Wine Spectator said of Myanmar’s nascent wine industry: “There is perhaps no better place than Myanmar to explore the limits of viticulture. The climate is a study in extremes. A rainy season from late May until October brings constant moisture to much of the country; the rest of the year can be bone-dry and scorching hot. Conditions for growing grapes are challenging. Conditions for growing mildew, the No. 1 enemy of most winemakers here, are ideal.”
Aythaya Vineyard – Inle Lake, Myanmar
The oldest of Myanmar’s wineries, pioneering Aythaya Vineyard, ‘Myanmar’s 1st Vineyard Estate’, was established in 1999. It sits at an altitude of 1,200m (3,940ft) on the mountain slopes near Taunggyi in southern Shan State, a 30-minute drive from Nyang Shwe on the northern shore of Myanmar’s beautiful Inle Lake. Its founder was German expat Bert Morsbach who had a dream of being the first to produce Western-style wines in Myanmar. Morsbach believed his chances of success were excellent with “150 days of sunshine, a warm climate and ideal soil conditions”. With the support of friends, he imported 15,000 vines from France and began serious research. Of almost 100 classic grape varieties, six cultivars survived the challenges of the tropics. Visitors can do a wine tour to learn about those challenges, the wine making process and local wine culture, before tasting four wines from their local label. (They also import grapes from South Africa). Expect to sample the Aythaya Red, a cuvée made from Shiraz (Syrah), Dornfelder from Germany and Tempranillo grapes from Spain’s Rioja Valley; the Aythaya Rosé, made from a fruity Italian Moscato grape; and the Aythaya White from a noble Sauvignon Blanc from Bordeaux and Loire Valley. There’s also a Late Harvest from Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc and Semillon and Dessert Wine from Red Muscat grapes. If you do a wine tasting only, the cost is 2000 Kyats per person, but if you do the tasting with lunch or dinner, you’ll pay just 1000 Kyats per person. If you’re staying overnight, book a table for dinner in the Sunset Wine Garden.
Where to Stay near Aythaya Vineyard
Settle into one of the spacious bungalows at Aythaya Vineyard’s own Monte diVino Lodge, which have panoramic vineyard and mountain views from the floor-to-ceiling windows and balconies. Breakfast and an afternoon wine tasting are included and there’s a restaurant offering local and ‘international’ cuisine. Staff can organise guided tours, cruises, walks, and treks.
Red Mountain Estate Vineyards and Winery – Inle Lake, Myanmar
Aythaya Wines’ only local competitor is Red Mountain Estate, which was established in 2002, just a short drive away – although many of its visitors (mostly foreign tourists) arrive on bicycles rented from their guesthouses and hotels. Established by U Nay Win Tun, head of a gemstone company and one of Myanmar’s richest men, Red Mountain Estate is helmed by French winemaker François Raynal. Red Mountain Estate began producing wine in 2007 and now releases some 16,500 cases a year of wine made from Shiraz, Chenin Blanc, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Tempranillo, Muscat, and Roussanne vines, imported from France. Request a wine tasting and a waiter will deposit four glasses of wine at your table, including a Sauvignon Blanc, a Shiraz-based Rosé, a blend of Tempranillo and Shiraz, and a Late Harvest produced from Sauvignon Blanc and Muscat Petit Grain. While there were no tours offered to us when we visited (although apparently they do exist) and there were no guided tastings (ditto), the sweeping views over the vineyards to the lake are stunning. If you can snag a table outside on the terrace, this is the spot to savour the sunset.
Where to Stay near Red Mountain Estate
There’s no accommodation at Red Mountain Estate. We stayed at the lovely Sanctum Inle Resort, located 8 kms from Red Mountain Estate Vineyards. Set on the shore of Inle lake, the property has sprawling gardens, a swimming pool, and complimentary bikes for guests to borrow, although you’re better off having the hotel organise a car and driver who can take you to both wineries and wait for you.
While Cambodia‘s elites in the capital Phnom Penh and a rising middle class have a newfound penchant for wine and are opening wine bars in the capital and Siem Reap, traditionally Cambodians have long drank rice wine (in fact, rice ‘spirit’ distilled from rice) and palm wine made from fermented juice from the Palmyra sugar palm tree. Still, it was a passion for wine that led a Cambodian family to open Cambodia’s only winery just outside of Battambang, while individual wine producer in Pursat province is making wine from wild grapes, which he sells at his farm shop in the capital.
Banan Winery – Battambang, Cambodia
Fringed by lofty coconut palms and surrounded by banana plantations, Banan Winery or Prasat Phnom Banan Winery, named after nearby Banan temple, lies 12kms from the city of Battambang on the banks of the Sangkar River. Established in 1999, when Leng Chan Tol and husband Chan Thai Chhoung planted their first grapes, the first wine was bottled in 2004. They’d been growing fruit until Tol’s husband had the idea to plant grapes and produce wine. “Our neighbours and friends thought we were crazy!” she told us. Few Cambodians were consuming wine at the time and there were few tourists to Battambang. Tol’s husband taught himself how to make wine from reading books he translated from French to Khmer, and by reaching out to experts for advice. They now grow Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon from vines brought from France, on 8 hectares of land, producing 10,000 bottles a year of Red Wine, a Shiraz-Cabernet Sauvignon blend. On another 15-hectare farm Tol plans to grow Chenin Blanc and in the future develop a wine resort with tasting rooms and restaurant. Her quietly spoken son wants to produce Rosé, which he believes is better suited to the climate and cuisine. You can sample the Red Wine, along with a smooth, golden-coloured Phnom Banon Brandy and zingy ginger juice and grape juice they also make, at their al fresco tasting space at the vineyard. A tasting glass of the red costs $1; the bottle sells for US$15. How does it taste? Light, a little tart, with a short finish. “Cambodians love our wine, they drive up from Phnom Penh every weekend,” Tol assured me. “But it’s not to foreign taste.”
Where to Stay near Banan Winery
The closest Battambang accommodation to Banan Winery is Battambang Resort, which offers modern villas and a swimming pool set amidst rice fields not far from Banan Road where the vineyard is located Owner Pari offers tours of the surrounding area by bike and fishing boat. Charming Maisons Wat Kor in nearby Wat Kor Village has spacious rooms in traditional style wooden houses and a swimming pool in tropical gardens, while in Battambang town we love colonial style Bambu Hotel for its lofty rooms with patterned tiles in the main building and wooden villas overlooking the swimming pool. All hotels can organise a tuk tuk and driver to take you to the winery.