Grape Escapes. Provence in Isan.

© Dan White. No repro without permission.

As our battered 1970s vintage powder blue, Toyota Corrolla sedan negotiates the sharp corners on a narrow road leading us up to a plateau, warm dry sunshine and a clear, gentle, Provencale light bring us within reach of the vineyards. This is country that could have been committed to canvas by Cezanne or Van Gough. Low, rock strewn hills line the horizon. Parched, yellowing fields testify to the passing of a long hot summer.

But there are things here that would have baffled the post-impressionists. Spirit Houses by the side of the road adorned with Buddhist offerings of flowers, rice and burning incense. Orange clad monks in pick up trucks making their way home to glittering temples where families prostrate themselves before golden statues. Small markets in clean village streets where, rather than seeing old men nursing glasses of pastis and bakers windows full of fresh baguette, one is greeted by the sight of dark skinned Asian farmers tucking into bowls of spicy soup, their Honda dreams parked up in lines by the side of the road.

This place may look like the South of France, but this is Loei – a sleepy plateau in the north -eastern part of Thailand near the border with Laos. Its physical resemblance to Provence makes it no coincidence that this is the centre of Asia’s nascent wine industry.

Thailand is not a place that one would think of first when contemplating a glass of red, but ‘Chateau Loei’ is aiming to put Thailand on the wine Connoisseur’s map. For twelve years the vineyards here have been producing over half a million bottles annually from Chenin Blanc and Syrah grapes. The vines were specially imported from France and transplanted into the dry earth of Isaan with expert care by French consultants.

Construction magnate, Chaiyudh Karnasuta, is a life long Francophile. It was not lost on him that the soil and climate here almost exactly resembles that of the South of France where where some of the world’s finest wines are produced. Chaiyudh took a gamble and at the same time satisfied an artistic longing. “I am old and I am very rich. This is an old man’s gamble.” He explains, “I believe in five to 10 years, wine production in Thailand will be at least 10 million bottles.”

To those who belittle his dream he simply points out the popularity of Chilean wine, which was initially dismissed as doomed to fail. “You see….. Rome was not built in one day and wines and vineyards take decades to settle down.”

For Chaiyudh this is a labour of love.

A tour of the vineyards themselves at harvest time reveals scenes that chime with a vision of a Provencale, pastoral calm. The vines are gently stripped by intent looking vineyard workers. Huge baskets of cut grapes are then carried between sturdy looking women, their heads shaded by straw sun hats. They are then loaded on to waiting pick-ups. At Chateau Leoi itself the grapes are processed in the modern manner whilst matured wine is bottled and labeled.

Not only are the vineyards expanding. So is the pass time of wine tasting. Urban Thais are developing a taste for combining a weekend getaway to the dry Mediterranean climate of Loei with a wine tasting trip to the vineyards. Tour buses pass through on a regular basis disgorging well heeled tourists from the cities keen to see if the wine from the vineyards of their own nation matches up to the wines produced in France or Australia.

Most would readily agree that, while pleasant, the produce of Chateau Loei still has some way to go. The consensus seems to be that the Chenin Blanc is a bit sharp, but not bad, considering its origin.

The red Syrah, on the other hand has real potential. It is light and undeniably fruity, yet able-bodied and not at all sweet. Not a great wine, but an acceptable one. As one visitor points out, “The Thai red goes well with our red chicken curry and tom kha gai,” a spicy coconut and chicken soup, “and the white complements the goong chai nam pla,” raw shrimp marinated in lemon juice and chili.

Chateau Loei is not yet going to have the Parisians ditching the Bordeaux or the Spanish pouring the Rioja down the waste disposal, but it represents a solid start in the business of producing wine. Whatever else, a trip to the vineyards of Loei is a rewarding experience for those who have a taste for the landscapes of Cezanne and the slow pace of life in rural Thailand.

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