Think Thailand and drinking, and it’s likely you’ll conjure toasting to the sunset with one of the country’s internationally famous beer brands, Chang or Singha. Or perhaps dancing on the beach with a brightly colored pail of cheap whiskey and soda with a handful of straws chucked in. Or maybe sipping an overpriced cocktail at a rooftop bar a la The Hangover II. But wine?
Yes, Thailand grows grapes. I can’t quite recall when I became obsessed with the idea of taking a grand trip around Thailand’s burgeoning wine country, covered as a quirky oddity in the occasional wine or travel publications. But like most trip ideas, once it took hold, I couldn’t quite let it go until I was packing my bag.
It was a tricky trip to plan mostly due to the fact that I had no idea where to start. Even compiling a list of Thailand’s working wineries that accept visitors was tough; figuring out how to get to them, where to stay and when to go was a one way ticket to spreadsheet city. Like other trips I’ve taken that aren’t detailed in guidebooks or elsewhere on the world wide interwebs, I’ll have a comprehensive guide coming up for those who might want to follow in our tipsy footsteps. For now, I’ll just try to convince you you should.
While there are actually a handful of wineries scattered throughout various corners of Thailand (again, stay tuned for more info in my upcoming guide), I decided to focus our trip on the Khao Yai region, where four different vineyards add up to the greatest concentration of wineries in the Kingdom.
Khao Yai is about ninety miles and two hours northeast of Bangkok, and is also home to the stunning Khao Yai National Park that I visited a few months prior — in part as a recon trip for this journey. The rural countryside and cooler temperatures are a literal breath of fresh air for anyone traveling from the capital.
It was also quite the contrast coming from our little island home of Koh Tao. For the last few years I have made it a priority to get my friends off the island and on a little annual getaway somewhere, a tradition that has earned me a fictional travel agency called Wanderland Travels. As in, “I can’t wait to see where Wanderland Travels brings us next!,” while I daydream from the next bar stool.
In the past we’ve hunkered down in villas on Koh Samui and on Koh Phangan, and coming up this year I’m planning to round everyone up for a big festival in Pattaya. But this trip? This will be hard to top.
When I plan a Wanderland Travels excursion, there are a few ground rules. The have to be in Thailand, since we all have different visas with different restrictions and it’s too hard to coordinate a mass exodus. They have to be short and sweet, since much of my crew have businesses to run back on the island. And they have to involve booze (okay, that last one is an unspoken rule, but I think we can all agree it’s pretty foundational.)
This trip hit all the marks. After months of coordinating and dreaming and sending each other wine-drinking memes, I thought I was going to faint of excitement when departure day finally arrived.
We had quite the wine appreciation team assembled. Nine of us had traveled together from Koh Tao, with vino-lover Heather flying in from Bali to meet us, and over-pourer Ian’s parents joining us all the way from Canada.
My first instinct was to put us all on a night boat, hop an early flight on the mainland and get picked up by a driver at the airport and be at the wineries before lunch. However, once someone suggested tacking on a wild night on Khao San Road, it would have been rude not to. And so we we left Koh Tao on a cheap ferry and bus combo, took up every bed in a ten person hostel dorm at the chic and highly recommended Nitan Hostel (we booked through Airbnb so we could use my $35 discount code) and spent Friday night in true Khao San fashion — drinking whiskey, singing along to Thai pop songs in an underground nightclub, and engaging in some street side-retail therapy.
The next morning, the driver I’d arranged arrived to whisk us off to wine country.
Our first stop was GranMonte, a pioneer in the Thai wine industry. The Granmonte vineyard, once a cornfield and cashew plantation, was bought by the Lohitnavy family in 1999 with the hopes of producing wine.
It is a true family operation. Visooth Lohitnavy, founder of the Thai Wine Association and CEO of GranMonte, has passed the torch to his daughter Nikki Lohitnavy, the in-house oenologist — and the first and only female Thai winemaker. I was incredibly excited to visit a winery helmed by a woman, and was touched when she took time out of her busy harvest season to greet us during our visit.
We kicked things off with a group tour in an open-air tram of the vineyard’s 40 or so acres, primarily filled by Chenin Blanc and Syryah grapes but also Viognier, Cabinet Sauvingon, Muscat, Semilion, Durif and Granache.
Our sweet young guide was lovely, and valiantly did her best to give a bilingual tour for both our group and some Thai families that were onboard. However, as one point, she became exasperated trying to explain why their sparkling wine product could not be called champagne, and after stammering a bit finally trailed off with a shrug and sighed, “…because France.”
Everyone, including the guide, erupted in giddy laughter and “because France” has become one of our signature sayings ever since.
Next up? A spin though the Asoke Valley Winery facilities, which opened in 2009 and produce over 120,000 bottles of wine per year. Here we learned about Nikki’s studies in Australia, admired the fancy equipment imported from Europe, and got to take a peek at the production of wine produced against all odds in the tropics.
And we got a little silly.
Finally, we made our way to the tasting room to get our hands on the award-winning wines we’d been hearing so much about. Our favorite award, one of many proudly on display around the room? “Best Pairing with Kung Pao Chicken.” I think we all can agree it would be an honor.
After a short video, we got down to sipping. My favorites were the Sakuna Syrah Rosé, the Spring Chenin Blanc and the Busaba dessert wine.
After the tasting, it was time to break at Vincotto Restaurant for lunch in the lush Thai countryside. Vincotto once again keeps things in the family, run by Nikki’s mom and Visooth’s wife, Sakuna.
I’d agonized over the menus and ambiance of this restaurant and the one at the next vineyard we’d be visiting, but after our meal, I couldn’t have been more thrilled with our choice. Because we were a group, Vincotto had several menus we were able to choose from. We settled on a three course set menu, mixing and matching with our favorite wines from the tasting.
I chose pumpkin and mustard seed soup for my starter, braised lamb in red wine for my entreé, and grape pie for dessert — and not to brag, but I think I won the meal.
Once we were good and tipsy on lunch wine, it was tie to unleash ourselves in the onsite gift shop. Here we purchased not just wine (I got two bottles) but also high-end grape juice and handmade fruit jams, salad dressings, and pasta sauces. It was an expat’s dream come true!
Want to visit GranMonte yourself? Good choice! Granmonte’s vineyard and winery tour has received the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s award for Agrotourism three years in a row — we could see why. While we didn’t absorb tons of technical information due to the language barrier, the tour was efficiently organized, the vineyards and winery were immaculate, and the tasting was well-run. It was the perfect introductory stop of our weekend.
The tour is approximately one and a half hours and costs 300 baht per adult, 220 baht per person under twenty (with grape juice instead of a wine tasting), and free for children under five. During high season, tours are offered every day, but throughout the rest of the year they are offered only on weekends — check the website for details.
GranMonte holds various festivals and events throughout the year, so it might be worth scheduling a visit around one and hunkering down at the onsite guesthouse. For more information on visiting the wineries of Khao Yai, including where to stay, how to hire a driver and more, stay tuned for my upcoming guide to the region.
As for us? We had places to go, people to see, and wine to guzzle. Stay tuned for our next stop on the wine squad tour!
After all… wine not? Did you know Thailand had a wine industry?