Wine is classified as a luxury in Thailand. As such, wine is subjected to heavy taxes. This makes Thailand one of the most expensive countries in the world to enjoy wine. But that doesn't deter the wine business here as more and more consumers are now following the global trend in treating wine as a more sophisticated option to hard alcohol.
Bangkok is now home to many trendy wine bars as young Thais are changing from whisky to wine.
"The Thai wine market is the best since 1996 at this point," said Ron Batori, president of Bangkok Beer and Beverages, a wine connoisseur and an acknowledged expert who knows wine and the wine business well. "It is growing dramatically as young Thais are changing from whisky to wine and we have many new wine bars where Thais are the majority customers now. The 25 to 40 year-old demographic is the major driver of this growth."
Ron Batori, an acknowledged wine expert and president of Bangkok Beer and Beverages.
This fact is supported by the 2010-2011 dining trend which sees the proliferation of stylish social bistro, gastro bar, izakaya (Japanese gastro pub) and champagne bar serving a wide variety of wines by the glass with innovative snacks and gourmet meals. Adding more flavour to this exciting trend is the mushrooming of well-appointed wine bars, annexing to many successful restaurants, serving as a magnet to attract the well-educated, young crowds.
Among the newer, trendier and successful wining and dining places are Wine I Love You at Crystal Design Center, Wine Connection at K Village on Sukhumvit 26, Rain Hill Community Mall on Sukhumvit 47, The Bar and The Restaurant on Sukhumvit 24, All Six to Twelve in Lang Suan, Hyde & Seek in Soi Ruamrudee, Clouds at Seen Space on Thong Lor 13, Opus on Pan Road, 2046: The Izakaya Nouveau on Sukhumvit 47, Issaya Siamese Club on Chuea Phluang Road, and Zuma at St Regis Hotel.
In leading Bangkok hotels, the wine-by-the-glass strategy is so successful that it has become a ''must have'' promotion in almost every outlet that serves wines. Among them are Bar@494 at Grand Hyatt Erawan, RedSky Bar at Centara Grand at CentralWorld, Aqua at Four Seasons, The St Regis Bar, Bamboo Bar at the Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok, The Living Room at the Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit, Tapas Y Vino at the Millennium Sukhumvit, Moonbar at Banyan Tree, MyBar at the Dusit Thani, RR&B Bar at the Landmark, WP wine pub at the Pullman Bangkok King Power, Scarlette (formerly V9) at Pullman Bangkok Hotel G (formerly Sofitel Bangkok Silom), and Speakeasy at Hotel Muse Lang Suan.
Thais have a preference for deeply-coloured, aromatic and full-bodied wines, especially those made from Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz grapes.
''At the Bar@494, we have an increasing number of young executives dropping by in the evening to enjoy our more than 40 wines by the glass with prices starting from 99 baht,'' said Philippe Frey, the hotel's executive assistant manager in charge of food and beverage. ''It's definitely the trend that young Thais are now changing from drinking whisky to wine.''
Early next month, the JW Marriott Bangkok is opening a new ''Manhattan Bar... By New York Steakhouse'' on the same floor as the steakhouse, aimed to be another trendy drinking venue.
''The Manhattan Bar will complement the steakhouse in an ideal way,'' said Peter Caprez, the hotel's general manger. ''Guests will be able to enjoy an array of wines by the glass as well as an extensive whisky selection, including old-time favourites like all the well-known martinis, in a classic and relaxing setting, quite similar to the one known from the New York Steakhouse.''
The increasing winemaker dinners in hotels and stand-alone fine-dining restaurants _ both in Bangkok and major resort towns like Pattaya, Hua Hin, Samui, Phuket and Chiang Mai _ is also another important factor actively spearheading the growth of local wine business even further.
Trendsetters like the Normandie at the Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok, D'Sens at Dusit Thani, New York Steakhouse at JW Marriott, Madison at Four Seasons, The Reflexions at the Plaza Athenee Bangkok, and Rossini's at the Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit still continue their own tradition of pairing fine wines with first-class cuisine, attracting a new wave of discerning diners.
These wine dinners highlight one key point that sets wine apart from other alcoholic beverages: It belongs with food. It is an essential part of the dining experience because it adds extra complexity and a layer of flavour profile to fine dining. Wine sparks conversations. It is fun to share and it allows individuals to customise their culinary adventure.
Penfolds has been producing remarkable wines for over 165 years and indisputably led the development of Australian fine wine in the modern era.
''Thailand is a red wine drinking country,'' said Ron Batori. ''Thais have a preference for deeply-coloured, aromatic and full-bodied wines, especially those made from Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz grapes _ making Australian red their favourite choice. In Thailand, the leading, very popular and well-recognised brands from Australia are Penfolds, [yellow tail], Jacobs Creek, Hardys and Lindemans.
''Thais are more familiar with the taste of the elegance, complexity, powerful and long lasting of Cabernet Sauvignon, and the velvety richness of Shiraz _ more than Pinot Noir and Merlot.'' added Batori.
''Pinot Noir is a much lighter and elegant wine and not easily understood by most people. It does not have the deep colour but the aromatics can be stupendous and the silkiness of the wine is unequalled. Thais have not yet discovered Pinot Noir. Merlot is not much sought after even though some of the greatest wines in Bordeaux are made from this grape. It is softer and fruitier than Cabernet Sauvignon and a long way from the bolder Shiraz,'' he said.
''In general Australian wines are full of flavour and very rich on the palate. That, combined with the majority of the popular wines falling between 500 and 700 baht, had contributed to their success,'' said Batori. ''It is estimated by the international wine and spirits report that about two million plus bottles of Penfolds are enjoyed in Thailand _ largely from duty free sources. By far, Penfolds is certainly the No.1 Australian wine brand in Thailand.''
On the subject of high alcohol content in wines, Batori said, ''High alcohol is a very controversial topic. Winemakers are all trying to keep alcohol levels down under 14%. However, it is not easy in Australia where you have blazing sun during the harvest most years, which contribute to high sugars that need to be converted into alcohol.
''But in general, the global trend is away from the high alcohol wines. In South Africa, they are making some amazing wines that are, in style, somewhere between Australia and France.''
Peter Gago, Penfolds chief winemaker.
Great wine DOWN UNDER
Last month, Penfolds, one of the biggest wine producers in Australia now under the management of the Treasury Wine Estates, held its annual grand tasting of Penfolds 2012 collection and an exclusive tutored masterclass tasting of 32 Penfolds wines _ five decades of Bin 389 to celebrate its 50th birthday (1966, 1976, 1986, 1996, 2006); four decades of Grange (1977, 1987, 1997, 2007), and the first-ever tasting of a new Penfolds Luxury Bin wine. The two major tasting events held in Sydney were hosted by the brand's chief winemaker Peter Gago and Penfolds' ambassador Jamie Sach.
Australia is also home to some of the oldest grape vines in the world.
"Bin wines represent the heart of the Penfolds range in terms of quality, philosophy, accessibility and choice," said chief winemaker Gago. "They are perfect exponents of the 'house style' of multi-regional blends. These wines were numbered, rather than given individual names, after the particular bin or rack, in the cellar where the wines are stored."
The Penfolds Bin range began with the first experimental bottling of 1951 _ Bin 1 Grange Hermitage by winemaker Max Schubert. In 1950, Schubert went to Europe to perfect his knowledge of sherries. On the way back, he stopped in Bordeaux and discovered the great, long-ageing wines of Margaux, St Emilion and Pauillac.
Schubert decided to show what Australia could do and in 1951, he made his first Grange Hermitage, as it was then called. Instead of Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon, he used the only quality grape widely available in Australia _ Shiraz. The result was a wine nobody wanted. However, Schubert continued his research in secret. By 1962, Penfolds decided to present the 1955 to the Sydney Show. The wine won a gold medal because it had aged beautifully.
Grange is Schubert's great achievement and today a cornerstone of the Australian secondary (auction) market with a reputation and track record that rivals some of the great classified growths of Bordeaux and Burgundy. The 1955 vintage was listed by the Wine Spectator as one of the greatest wines of the 20th century. It is also the only wine to be heritage-listed by the South Australian National Trust.
Bin 389 is the classic South Australian red created by Schubert in 1960, and often referred to as ''Poor Man's Grange'' or ''Baby Grange'' because components of the wine are matured in the same barrels that held the previous vintage of Grange.
During the masterclass tasting of five decades of Bin 389 (1966, 1976, 1986, 1996, 2006), the Baby Grange performed outstandingly. At 50 years old, the wine is still fresh and alive with no signs of fading _ a proof that the very best can easily stand the test of time. The berries, Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz, smartly travel with times and the older the wine tasted the delicious and full of life it projected. Cabernet Sauvignon provides the structure and palate length and Shiraz grapes the intensity, opulence and flesh.
Predominantly a Barossa Valley wine at one point, Bin 389 is now a multi-district South Australian blend with fruit from the Barossa Valley, Coonawarra, Padthaway, McLaren Vale, Langhorne Creek and Clare Valley, and more recently, Penfolds new vineyards in Robe and Bordertown.
Jamie Sach, Penfolds ambassador in front of Penfolds Magill Estate.
''This is the wine that helped to build Penfolds' reputation with red wine drinkers around the world,'' said Gago. ''The blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz makes Bin 389 a classic Australian-styled wine with a clear Penfolds identity. Well stored, the best can easily cellar for over 30 years.''
In the context of the world wine market, Bin 389 is a super-second Australian wine with a track record of fulfilling its ageing potential. Since its first release, recognised vintages are: 1961, 1966, 1971, 1976, 1986, 1990, 1991, 1994, 1996, 1998, 2002, 2004, 2006 and 2008.
''Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz 2009 is the 50th consecutive release _ one for the collectors and wine aficionados,'' said Gago. ''A Penfolds nose with all the trimmings contented oak backstage, a lively palate, intense, generous and vibrant fruits with volume! Structurally, everything in place and in tune.''
Apart from Bin 389, other favourite reds among Thai wine-lovers are Bin 707, Bin 407 and Bin 2.
''Actually more Bin 2 is favoured than any of the others because of an attractive price point. But 407 and 389 are preferred choices among upper market drinkers,'' said Ron Batori. ''Koonunga Hill is very popular, too. And of course, the Grange, which is the most expensive and iconic wine.''
Launched with the 1990 vintage in 1993, Bin 407 was developed in response to the increasing availability of high-quality Cabernet Sauvignon fruit. Bin 407 highlights multi-vineyard blending practices along with mixture of French and American oak.
''Bin 407 Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 is the 20th release and will not disappoint,'' said Gago. ''The wine shines on its own but it's also a perfectly companion for fine dining entrees like slow roasted garlic and rosemary-infused lamb shoulder.''
Bin 2 utilises a Shiraz to soften the southern French dark tannic Mourvedre grape. The Bin was first made in 1962 and aged for 12 months in young American oak. Bin 2 Shiraz-Mourvedre 2009 offers initial bright fruit scents and flavours that transition into more complex flavours of fine tannins.
Penfolds Koonunga Hill is a high-quality red. The brick red purple Cabernet Merlot 2009 carries a splendid blend of spicy blackcurrant aromas, ripe cherries and chocolate flavours. This is a reliable red wine that pairs well with rich pasta dishes and savoury meaty favourites.
''Today Penfolds is big, growing grapes all over Australia, continuously testing new grounds, or new marriages of grapes,'' said the chief winemaker, who spends the first half of the year labouring from winery to vineyards, to ensure that Penfolds viticultural practices remain world-class, and also to understand the nuances of its many and varied vineyards.
Penfolds wines are available at most modern trade outlets as well as in hotels and restaurants. Contact Bangkok Beer and Beverages on 02-661-9446.
The historic Penfolds Magill Estate is the original home of Penfolds wines and of Australia’s most prized wine, the famous Grange.
PENFOLDS PRIMED FOR GLOBAL PRESENCE
One of the world's most recognised wine brands, Penfolds was established in 1845, when Dr Christopher Rawson Penfold, a medical practitioner from England, and his wife, Mary, purchased the Magill Estate, a 200-hectare land near Adelaide to plant vine-cuttings from southern France. Dr Penfold also built a house on this plot he named ''Grange Cottage'', after his wife's former home in England.
By all accounts it was Mary Penfold who was responsible for the management and early winemaking responsibilities of the fledgling wine estate. Initially the wines, made from Grenache, were prescribed as tonic wines for anaemic patients.
By 1870 the Grange vineyard comprised over 24 hectares with several different grape varieties including Grenache, Verdelho and Mataro (Mourvedre). The estate was producing both sweet and dry red wine and white table wines, with a growing market in the eastern Australian colonies of Victoria and New South Wales.
Penfolds and Co _ the newly formed partnership of Mary Penfold and her son-in-law Thomas Hyland and her cellar manager Joseph Gillard _ now claimed to be producing more than one-third of South Australia's wine. Mary Penfold passed away in 1896 after a remarkable contribution to Australia's wine industry.
A Hyland grandchild, Herbert Leslie Penfold Hyland took over the business in 1905, overseeing substantial expansion of Penfolds. His brother Frank, based in Sydney, oversaw consideration of expansion of the business in New South Wales.
In 1943, Penfolds expanded and acquired the highly regarded Auldana vineyard and winery and in 1945, Kalimna vineyard in the Barossa Valley. By the late 1940s, Penfolds had acquired or planted vineyards in McLaren Vale, Griffith, the Hunter Valley and Minchinbury.
The wine market was also changing rapidly during this time, as soldiers returned from the war and new immigrants settled in Australia. With this new multiculturalism came a new orientation towards dry table wine.
At the same time, experimentation and research underpinned the winemaking regime at Penfolds. Ray Beckwith, a Penfolds research chemist, introduced the use of pH meters to control bacterial spoilage. Indeed, the entire 1950s embraced major advances in winemaking techniques from yeast technology to fermentation practices, particularly barrel fermentation in American oak, and oak maturation.
In 1950 Max Schubert, a winemaker at Penfolds, experimented with a long-lived red wine that he called Grange the following year. In the mid-1950s John Davoren, a highly skilled and innovative senior Penfolds winemaker, came up with the elegantly-styled St Henri Claret.
By the early 1960s, Max Schubert saw the creation of a dynasty of wines that may differ in character from year to year, but would all bear an unmistakable resemblance to each other. The backbone of Penfolds' emerging red wine portfolio _ Bin 389, Bin 707, Bin 28 and Bin 128 were all introduced during this time.
In 1976 the baton of Penfolds chief winemaker passed from Schubert to Don Ditter, who continued to contribute to and refine the house style. The remarkable reintroduction of Penfolds Bin 707 in 1976 illustrated Penfolds' commitment to a premium Cabernet Sauvignon and within only a few years would come to be recognised as one of Australia's leading wines.
The 1990s was a period of intense winemaking trials. The White Grange project saw the release of Penfolds Yattarna Chardonnay. Red wine trials resulted in the release of Penfolds' first Barossa Shiraz, RWT (Red Winemaking Trial).
In 2002 veteran oenologist Peter Gago became chief winemaker and since that time Penfolds has reached into every major wine market in the world. Stand-out releases have included two special Bin wines from the 2004 vintage, Block 42 and Bin 60A.
The year 2010 saw the introduction of Penfolds' first Bin Pinot Noir. Taking its number from maturation cellar 23 at the Magill Estate, Bin 23 Pinot Noir is a bold addition to the range.
Today, Penfolds is under the management of Treasury Wine Estates, an Australian-based global winemaking and distribution business with a leading international portfolio of New World wines.
About the author
- Writer: Prapai Kraisornkovit
Position: Deputy Features Editor