A Toast to Southeast Asia's Wine Underdogs
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because good wine goes with more than just steak and fish.
By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu
At first glance, it was like any run-of-the-mill vineyard — manicured rows of grapevines winding through the countryside and the faint scent of fruit wafting in the air. But here in the rural heartland of Thailand, things are done differently.
The Tha Chin River trickles through tropical soil, cutting wide canals filled with long-tailed boats across the 10,000-acre plot. Sun-drenched grapes hang high on bamboo stilts as straw-hatted farmers tend to plump, green beauties. Under the scorching Asian sun, my local guide assures me, “It’s not a mirage,” and reaches up to grab a midafternoon snack at the world’s only “floating” vineyard in Thailand.
When it comes to Asia’s emerging wine industry, China sits at the helm. But despite China’s head start, little-known vineyards across Southeast Asia are vying for spots in the nearly $300 billion global wine industry — and placing their own spin on it. They now form a small but scrappy (for the region’s size) slice of that pie at $2 billion, and Thailand’s own wine market is expected to grow a brisk 6.9 percent annually for the next four years, according to market researchers at Canadean, well outpacing forecast gross domestic product growth for the developing country. And Southeast Asia could soon be a niche market for unusual — read: boutique — finds. Fuse Southeast Asia’s centuries-old farming traditions with European expertise, and you’ll find new wine-growing methods and certainly tastes. Get ready to expand your wine-snobbery vocabulary.
Oh, and for imbibers, it’s a brand-new experience: Southeast Asia’s young vines and rare grapes churn out bold red and sparkling white wines that are “energetic, fiery and more acidic,” according to Archie Gracie, the winery and supply chain director of Siam Winery. These tastes, he says, better pair with the region’s spicy, seaside cuisines and suit the Southeast Asian palate — think dishes like spicy papaya salad in Bangkok or coconut-milk squid in Bali.
For now, most wineries in the region export about two-thirds of their wines to Australia, Europe and the U.S. According to Gracie, wine culture on this side of the globe used to be limited to swimsuit-clad tourists. But this is rising Asia where, despite widespread poverty, ultrahigh-net-worth individuals and emerging middle-class consumers are willing to drop money on the finer things — spending 11 percent more each year on luxury goods, compared with 6 percent global growth, according to a 2014 report by Bain & Co.
The boom is all part of the New Latitude, a label dubbed more than a decade ago to describe wines that are made from grapes grown outside of the conventional grape-cultivating latitudes: It’s not all France and Napa anymore. Thanks to steady improvements in refrigeration and irrigation methods in the past several decades, vineyards are now popping up beyond the tried and true window between the 28th and 50th parallels. Indeed, Southeast Asia is compounding some of those creative methods; in Indonesia, vines are draped over a canopy to keep them safe from grazing cattle, and the irrigation systems built in Thailand’s floating vineyards contain monsoon flooding — both methods another hot, wet climate could copy one day.
Yet growing wine in Southeast Asia is a bit like making roses bloom out of concrete, explains Francois Raynal, a winemaker at the Red Mountain Estate, Myanmar’s only vineyard. The sweltering climate, monsoon rains and even meandering elephants all threaten the season’s harvest and lower yields to about one-fifth of what California, France and Spain typically produce. Raynal doesn’t believe his wines will ever “be on the same level of competition [as] Napa or Bordeaux.” And then there’s the price. A bottle of Chardonnay that would clock in at $10 in California could easily cost $30 if grown in Southeast Asia, an otherwise inexpensive region, explains Siam Winery winemaker Suppached Sasomsin. Wine is “like ice cream,” says Sasomsim: Sellers need cooling equipment, refrigerated trucks and temperature-controlled tanks to keep their tipples from melting in the thick heat. One last hurdle: The Buddhist and Muslim presence in the region means alcohol can be frowned upon — indeed, Thailand taxes wine a whopping 400 percent.
But wine lovers love their drink, and the ambitious growers aren’t going anywhere, says Wai Xin, a wine expert at Vinitaly International. And lest you be fooled into believing that the legacy players have the market dominated, well, recall that at one point California wines were considered uncouth cousins to the elite French ones — until the more virginal terroir gave the old-schoolers a run for their money.