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Chasing elephants through Thai vineyards


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Associate Professor Glenn Banks

Vineyards are not a place you normally associate with elephants, but images of them striding through rows of grapes moved a Massey researcher to investigate Thailand’s emerging wine industry.

Associate Professor Glenn Banks says by New Zealand standards the Thai industry is tiny – a total of around 300ha compared to our current 34,000ha – but encapsulates several trends in the increasingly global world of wine.

The Development Studies lecturer built on a long-standing friendship with a Thai researcher at Mahidol University and spent time visiting the country’s nine wineries as part of the Massey University Research Fund (MURF) funded project.

“I set out to investigate the ‘elephants in vineyards’ phenomena, and build up the first complete picture of the Thai wine industry. While grapes do have a long history in Thailand – Louis XIV sent wine and grape cuttings out from France with an envoy in the 1600s – the modern industry only dates from the early 1990s.”

The wineries spread from coastal sites on the Gulf of Thailand close to Bangkok, through to the hill country in the far north, and among the rolling limestone hills of the Khao Yai area, about two hours northeast of the capital.

Dr Banks says climate is the main constraint to tropical viticulture. “Irregular rainfall in this tropical, monsoonal climate is a real challenge: some vineyards experience 70 per cent of their annual rainfall in two months of the year, and another lost almost 90 per cent of its harvest last year to a period of unseasonal rain. Humidity and diseases – such as powdery mildew – are other consequences of the tropical climate.”

Being hot year round, vines in Thailand don’t experience a dormancy period. They are usually pruned twice in the year: once soon after the February-March harvest, and a hard prune again in September-October to set up the vines for the cooler flowering and fruiting period.

Dr Banks says the main grapes grown are Shiraz and Chenin Blanc, a fairly innocuous white not widely grown here. “The selection is more by default than design, as these two varieties have shown the ability to cope with the conditions where most other varieties haven’t. The relative recent nature of the industry means they are still experimenting – Tempranillo, a Spanish variety is doing well in trials.

“The obvious question is whether the effort is worth it: is the wine any good? As with any wine industry, it does vary. There are some fairly ordinary, even ‘unusual’, wines produced by some places, but also some excellent wines that have started to make a mark internationally.”

Granmonte, one of the Khao Yai wineries, and Siam winery, Thailand’s largest and producers of the Monsoon Valley brand wines, have won gold medals at international wine shows. Siam currently exports around two-thirds of its product to the United Kingdom, where the bulk is distributed through Thai restaurants.

There is also potential for wine tourism. “The last vineyard visited as part of the research, Siam’s Hua Hin Hills vineyard two hours south-west of Bangkok, is designed for tourists, with an architecturally stunning cellar door and restaurant, gorgeous views over the surrounding countryside, and three elephants for tourists to ride up and down the vines.

“The elephants are apparently little use for much else in the vineyard, but their presence itself can transform the view of rows of vines from the pleasantly familiar to the wonderfully exotic. These striking images were part of the reason I wanted to do this research.”

Dr Banks says despite its small size, the Thai wine industry is symptomatic of broader patterns of change in the global wine industry. “As globalisation increases so does the spread of interest in wine, especially with the growing middle-classes in the developing world.

“There has been a shift away from wine production and consumption in the so-called ‘old world’ (France, Italy, Spain) towards both the ‘new world’ regions (such as New Zealand), and emerging or developing regions. China, for example, now produces more wine than Australia, Argentina or South Africa, and consumes more than Spain or the United Kingdom.”

According to the Asian Development Bank, Thailand’s middle class, like the rest of South East Asia, is growing rapidly – another 17.6 million Thais (out of around 70 million) joined the middle classes between 1990 and 2008.

“Wine, with its associated image of western sophistication, is starting to turn some – although only a few in reality – Thai middle class from beer and whisky drinkers into more ‘sophisticated’ wine drinkers. Upmarket wine bars are springing up around Bangkok to cater for this shift, and the local interest has created a market for local wines and wine products, such as wine tourism,” Dr Banks says.

While the industry is heavily reliant on international technology and expertise, the development finance is domestic – unlike many other industries across Southeast Asia, and unlike the wine industry in other developing contexts such as China or India.

Dr Banks explains that wealthy Thai individuals or family businesses own all Thailand’s vineyards, and all have entered the industry after having being exposed to wine overseas in California, Australia or Europe.

“Apart from the common factor of wealth, they are a diverse group of owners: a former Deputy Prime Minister; the inventor and founder of ‘Red Bull’; owner of one of Thailand’s largest construction firms; a gem trader ‘tycoon’; and founder of one of Thailand’s major breweries. There are only two operations where the owners, self-made engineers in both cases, really are ‘hands-on’ in terms of the wine production itself.”

“Most of this investment is ‘for the love of wine’ rather than financial returns – the costs of production mean that none of the wineries make any money for their owners.”  

 

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