In the province of Issan, where many scholars say the roots of Thai culture strike deepest, one of the symbols of European culture is being nurtured. Mr. Chaiyudh Karnasuta, 83, owns and operates Chateau de Loei as Thailand’s first commercial winery, in operation since 1991. You might think the tropics a daft place to grow wine, and you’d generally be right. But Issan is in the northern highlands, where the weather is cooler and drier than the southern lowlands, approximating a Mediterranean climate most of the year. And Mr. Karnasuta has had much exposure to the cultures of the Med, being the retired director of the massive construction firm, Italian-Thai Development Group.
Early vintages received mixed reviews. Then winemasters Michel Rippes of France, and presently Australian Peter Burford, were hired on. Now Chateau de Loei is producing a light but respectable Syrah and a fruity, off-dry Chenin Blanc. Both retail for $8 – 9, and are held in high enough esteem to have received mention in that touchstone of oenology, The Wine Spectator. And while not yet in international medals competition, they receive high marks from visitors as excellent bargains in their price range.
Chateau de Loei is the only producing winery in Thailand. But the Boon-Rawd brewing company, maker of Singha beer, has acquired a license and is expected to soon address the growing domestic market. Thailand imports about four million bottles annually. Thai yuppies are increasingly seen parking their BMWs outside the trendy wine bars sprouting all over Bangkok. When in Issan, travelers now make it a point to visit Chateau de Loei for a day of lectures, for a weekend of serenity, which includes Chateau de Loei and a day of lectures, tastings and a look at what seems to be a brand new, fully operational wine growing concern carved out of the south of France and shipped to Thailand. Only the little Thai spirit houses at the ends of the vineyards whisper otherwise.