Tag Archives: thailand

It’s locals that are key to travels

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This is my entry in the Monthly Wine Writing Challenge 12. For more info go to the challenge’s blog!

Being challenged to get out of my writing hiatus by no lesser than Anatoli and Jeff, encouraged by Linda, and having felt the drag of not writing for a while, I checked out this month’s wine writing challenge’s theme: The Armchair Sommelier won the last challenge, and picked the topic “local”.

While I have mixed feelings relating to the word “local”, and tried to write a diatribe fueled by these, I decided to spare you my anti-hipster and local does not equate good rant, and instead use this theme to sing an ode to locals, the people that make my travels awesome. After all, I like to be positive and upbeat.

One of the reasons I love traveling so much is the opportunity to meet people from all walks of life, travelers and locals alike. I am keen on meeting people who have been living in a city for all their lives, or have intimate knowledge of the region (whether they are from there or just happen to live there or have spent a lot of time there). Our travels mostly revolve around where we can visit friends and tap into their local knowledge. Because it is locals that truly understand what is local and what should be part of our experience. Locals have a keen interest in you getting to know a region through their eyes, so that you can see why they love where they live.

This summer, we stayed in Tuscany for a week, in a small hamlet on a hill, about 10 miles from Siena. The next village was a couple of miles away, and it had an insanely typical tiny Italian grocery store which was our main source for fresh veggies, cheese, and meats. The store owner and I hit it off in Italian (I speak some), and one morning as I was there, a Belgian older man asked for a restaurant in English. The owner asked me to translate his directions to the Belgian and I did. As the man left, I told the owner that this was a great coincidence, because i had meant to ask him where we could eat well. He looked at me, horrified, and exclaimed: “No, no, no! Don’t go where I told him to go!! Let me think, there are no good restaurants here, but there is one, a couple of villages down the road.” He told me because he realized that I cared, and because we had a relationship with each other. It is always worth building up a relationship.

Sunset over Siena

Sunset over Siena

Last year, when we were in Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand, we stayed at a small guesthouse in the university part of town run by a young couple. The first morning when we came down the stairs, our host Tee asked whether we wanted western or Thai breakfast. When we said Thai (of course), he walked us to a tiny place in a side street, run by three women. The breakfast consisted of chopped chicken breast over rice cooked in chicken stock, and you added your own blend of ginger, chilis and soy sauce over it. It was divine. The ladies spoke no English, and when it was time to pay, we realized it was under a dollar. We went back every day, and our excitement about the place was only matched by the ladies’ excitement that we kept coming back. We communicated with hand and feet, as we say in German, and it was awesome. While I have no photo of the stall, I do have a photo of these local mushrooms, that our host’s mom had collected. They were delicious.

Local food in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Local food in Chiang Mai, Thailand

This summer, we also went to Le Marche, a region in Eastern Italy around Ancona, and visited Tenuta San Marcello, a young biodynamic estate, at the owner’s invitation. We had met Pascale and Massimo at VinItaly in New York this spring, and they invited us. When we arrived, we were floored by their hospitality (more on that in a separate post). However, one of the most amazing things was that Massimo wanted us to use one of our two days with them to visit other wineries in the region. He set up a whole itinerary for us, we visited an olive oil maker (a retired RAI journalist who gave us a two and a half hour tour) and several winemakers. It was a stunning show of what locals can do for you, and how their love of their region can make you fall in love as well. We fell in love so hard that we changed our plans and returned for another three days with my mother in law after our stay in Tuscany.

With Massimo at Tenuta San Marcello, Le Marche

With Massimo at Tenuta San Marcello, Le Marche

Staying at Majeka House in Stellenbosch, we had a long conversation with the reception staff. After Nina had convinced them that she is outright crazy when it comes to adventures, they told her that the world’s highest commercial bungee jump was six or seven hours away on the Garden Route. We changed our itinerary to make a detour there, and while I was so scared I had zero body control anymore, the result was this awesome photo, and the knowledge that I don’t ever have to do a bungee jump again. Needless to say, Nina jumped twice.

Jumping down 709 feet at Bloukrans Bridge, South Africa

Jumping down 709 feet at Bloukrans Bridge, South Africa

During our second visit to Le Marche, Jonathan Zeiger of ZGR Imports (I wrote about his awesome business here), arranged for us to visit another winery. Jonathan is considered a local by many of the people we met, including the owner of Vignamato, Maurizio, the estate we visited with Jonathan’s help. The owner had received Jonathan’s email Saturday morning, after hosting his birthday party on Friday night for over 100 people. We spent a good three hours with him that same Saturday evening, had tons of fun, and when I asked him “dove si mangia bene” (where does one eat well? – remember that sentence when in Italy!), he thought for a while, made a phone call, and then sent us to the most enchanted little husband and wife restaurant in an old Palazzo: Osteria sotto le Mura. At first, we missed the place, because there were no signs, but another local, a cute rotund septuagenarian walked us to the restaurant once I asked.

With Maurizio of Vignamato, Le Marche

With Maurizio of Vignamato, Le Marche

While we visited my host family in Burgundy (my host brother and I have known each other for 25 years this year!), they went on a mission to make me try true local foods. Everyone knows boeuf bourguignon (Beef Burgundy) and mustards, and some might be familiar with Dijon’s spice bread pain d’epices, but there is so much more! I tried jambon persillé for the first time, which is chunks of ham in a gelée of parsley, like a terrine. It was wonderful, and the genius idea of throwing it in scrambled eggs was Nina’s. Speaking of eggs, I also had my first oefs en meurette, poached eggs covered in a red wine sauce that is similar to a bouef bourguignon sauce, just without the beef. It was eye opening in its deliciousness. I had spent significant time in Burgundy before, but these were still firsts for me. Locals have an immense trove of treasures to share, and it never gets old.

After trying about 25 different liqueurs with my host brother at the Cassisium, Burgundy

After trying about 25 different liqueurs with my host brother at the Cassisium, Burgundy

I could go and on (like our friend in Milan making sure I have the most extensive restaurant list for Rome, where he had lived for a couple of years or the random Boer at a rural gas station who sent us to the most amazing guesthouse that was on no internet list), but my main message is this: When you travel, go find locals and talk to them, in bars, in restaurants, in shops. You don’t need to pay a fortune to get a “guided” tour by someone. I have never contemplated this as an option, because these tours don’t allow you to do whatever you please, and go wherever the wind or local advice takes you. Even if you find yourself in a bind, there are usually tours offered directly in a town or region and this cuts out the middleman. Locals are the true heroes of my travels, and I am thrilled to meet more on my next trip. So, thank you, locals, for making my travels awesome.

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GranMonte Asoke Valley Winery – The Tasting Notes

The vineyards of GranMonte Winery

The vineyards of GranMonte Winery

Alright, as promised in my Meeting the Vintners article on GranMonte Asoke Valley Winery last week, I want to share some impressions on the wines I tried. We had the chance to try these wines with dinner, and some without, and that definitely shaped some of the impressions. All in all, I think the line up was pretty impressive. The wines expressed a ton of flavor, making them very appealing.

Let me start with a couple of whites:

The 2012 Sole Chenin blanc Viognier, which contains 93% Chenin blanc and 7% Viognier grapes, was fermented in stainless steel and French oak barrels and spent four months on the lees. It has 13% ABV, 5.4 gr of acidity/liter and 3.8 gr of residual sugar/liter, which under German wine laws puts this in solidly dry territory. The wine poured in a clear, light yellow and had an incredibly fresh nose with banana and citrus aromas. On the palate, it showed good fruit in the beginning, mostly citrus, then it became quite creamy on mid-palate to be followed by bitter orange rinds which were surprising but not unpleasant. The acidity kept the wine refreshing, which made it a great companion in the tropical heat.

The 2012 Verdelho poured in a stronger yellow color, and showed a nose full of tropical fruit: a bucket full of papaya and passion fruit. Absolutely loved it. On the palate, it was almost medium-bodied, silky and creamy, with good acidity and nicely lingering finish with some lemon pepper aromas. I enjoyed this wine for its great drinkability. I wasn’t quite sure how to pair this with food, but with a wine like this I don’t actually feel like it needs pairing. Again, very enjoyable white wine.

The 2013 Verdelho, which had just been bottled, in contrast was of very light color, almost as clear as water. The nose had mostly gooseberry aromas (which I underlined four times in my notes), papaya, some chewing gum, and just jumped at me in its fruitiness (yes, even after the previous two wines!). Again, this wine was more on the medium-bodied side, passion fruit the dominating aromas. The mid-palate seemed a bit wobbly, but that might be due to its recent filling, and the finish came through strong with a nice peppery touch. Strong showing.

I really wasn’t expecting the whites to be this fruity and light given the climate. That was a very nice surprise.

In the winery shop.

In the winery shop.

We then moved on to the reds, and we were in for some treats.

We started with the, again recently filled, 2012 Heritage Syrah. Made from only Syrah grapes, this wine ferments in stainless steel and then spends 12 months in French oak. 13% ABV, and a healthy acidity of 5.67 gr/l. It poured in a medium ruby red, and the nose showed cassis, sour cherries, some branches and slightly earth aromas which were complemented by violets. I really enjoyed the fruitiness of this wine on the palate, with raspberries and some jam. It was earthy, had great tannins, and combined subtlety with a good backbone. The finish was just beautifully long, it lasted and lasted and lasted (I wrote down 25 seconds +). The coolest thing about this wine was how it stood up to steaks paired with super spicy oils. We just couldn’t believe how this wine worked with such heat. Incredible.

We then tried the 2009 Orient Syrah, one step up from the Heritage Syrah. The grapes come from their three oldest and lowest yielding blocks in the vineyard, were fermented in stainless steel, and then moved to 83% French, and 17% American oak barrels for 12 months. The wine had 14% ABV and 5.1 gr/l acidity. The color was decidedly darker than the Heritage Syrah. The nose was very restrained, seemed much more old world in style than the previous wine. There was some leather, some prunes. On the palate, this full bodied wine showed great balance, was just the right amount of dark fruits with earthy aromas ( I really enjoyed how earthy this one was), tannins to hold it up. It also showed a long finish and was a pleasure to drink. Not as exciting as the Heritage, but definitely well made.

Probably Nina’s favorite of the night was next: The 2009 Asoke Cabernet Sauvignon Syrah, GranMonte’s flagship wine. Made with 60% Cabernet Sauvignon and 40% Syrah grapes, the must ferments in stainless steel before spending 14 months in 83% French and 17% American oak barrels. The final product has 14% ABV and 5.8 gr/l of acidity. It was pitch dark in the glass, almost black. Wow. The nose was decidedly Cabernet Sauvignon, branchy, a bit green peppers, with red berries and vanilla aromas. Very expressive nose, intense. On the palate, all I got initially was cassis, cassis, cassis, so strong. The wine had great tannins, showed some tobacco, heft and a good mouthfeel. The balance was there, the finish was good. Everything came together in this wine. As I said, Nina really really liked this wine. For me, it was too powerful, I think. I am not a fan of these big reds. Again, this was a great wine, it was just not meant for me. I am more at home with the earthier, less expressive wines.

The final wine was, how could it be otherwise with me, the just filled 2013 Bussaba Chenin blanch Semillon, a white made in the late harvest style. It contains 60% Chenin blanc, 35% Semillon, and 5% Canadian Muscat grapes. The color was very light, almost watery (not what I expected in a late harvest style white). The nose showed intense aromas of honeydew, mango, and mint. On the palate, it was most of all refreshing, again showing this great acidity that Nikki is capable of expressing in her whites, that never make this boring or feel too sweet. It retains a lightness and seems to have the right ingredients to also age well.

All in all, as you can probably tell, I was quite impressed. The wines showed finesse and craft, and most of all, were pretty tasty. I was told by the owners that some of their wines are now available in San Francisco, and when I did a quick Google search, I found the Thai restaurant Koh Samui & The Monkey at least offered some GranMonte wines in mid 2013. Might be worth checking out!

Wine and company make people happy

Wine and company make people happy

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Meeting the Vintners: GranMonte Asoke Valley, Khao Yai, Thailand

The vineyards of GranMonte Winery

The vineyards of GranMonte Winery

Disclosure: We visited GranMonte at the invitation of the owners who provided us with food, wine, lodging, and an awesome time. 

It’s been half a year now since Nina and I visited GranMonte Asoke Valley Winery in Thailand’s Khao Yai region. I published an article on Palate Press about our experience there (you can find that article here), but I wanted to expand a bit, because the word limit on Palate Press cut into my usual wordiness when it comes to winemakers…

As I indicated in the Palate Press article, I was initially skeptical of winery operations in Thailand and could not quite believe that a tropical climate was very suitable for the attempt. But my fellow blogger Rainer The Man from Mosel River, who at the time was living in Bangkok, convinced me to get in touch with the owners Visooth and Sakuna Lohitnavy, and see for myself. So, after our eight week whirlwind through Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia, and fresh from Railay Beach, we embarked on the two and a half hour bus ride to Khao Yai. Khao Yai is a natural reserve in Eastern Thailand. The landscape is gorgeously hilly and lushly green. When we arrived at the drop off city Muak Lek, a driver from GranMonte was waiting for us and took us to the winery, which is nestled between hills and sits on property that Visooth’s father owned in Asoke Valley and which was previously used for corn and cashew production. I wasn’t prepared for how excited I would get by seeing vineyards after several months…it’s little joys that make the journey worthwhile, I guess…:)

More vineyards

More vineyards

Let me give you some background on the winery: GranMonte was founded in 1999 by Visooth Lohitnavy and his wife Sakuna. It started on approximately 12 acres, and now has reached a size of about 36 acres. The family opened a state of the art wine making facility in 2009 which has a maximum capacity of 120,000 bottles, although currently it produces around 90,000 bottles a year. GranMonte currently makes wines from Cabernet Sauvignon, Chenin blanc, Syrah, Viognier, Semillon, Verdelho, and Durif grapes.

The winemaker is Nikki Lohitnavy, Sakuna and Visooth’s daughter, who grew up on the property and decided at a young age that she wanted to get into wine making. She studied at winemaking at the University of Adelaide, Australia, and is Thailand’s only female oenologist to date. For her young age, she has a ton of experience including harvesting and making wine in France, Brazil, and Portugal. She is full of energy and passion, entertaining and adventurous. We were glad to spend a considerable amount of time with her. It never ceases to amaze me how much passion these young winemakers bring to their job, and in that she reminded me a lot of some of the young winemakers I was fortunate to meet along the Mosel and in Rheinhessen. But Nikki seems even more impressive to me, because she was not born into a wine culture like most of the winemakers I know. So she does not have that background that many can rely on, and still is doing an outstanding job.

Hanging out with Nikki

Hanging out with Nikki

It is her and her father’s enthusiasm that is visible in the whole winery endeavor: They use top notch modern equipment like five weather monitoring stations that not just measure the weather but also the soil’s humidity, which has led to a marked reduced in their need (or perceived need) for watering. The vineyards are impeccably maintained. Being a young winery in a new wine region, they experiment with a ton of things, like harvesting grapes twice a year (turns out that’s not such a good idea since the vines just get very tired), or growing Riesling (also not a good idea, because the warm weather is not good for the cool climate grape). I really enjoyed seeing this adventurism at work, and it was great how open the family shared with us…

Touring the estate with owner Visooth

Touring the estate with owner Visooth

It’s impossible not to notice how much detail goes into everything: The staff at the winery’s tasting room is courteous and knowledgeable, the wait staff at the winery’s exquisite restaurant Vin Cotto just as attentive and hospitable. Every dish we tried was very well executed (I had an outstanding coq au vin, just to name one dish!).

What struck us the most during our dinner with our hosts was how food compatible the wines were. An example that stood out was the 2012 Heritage Syrah, one of their top line wines. We drank this wine with steaks that came with spicy oils: a more medium spicy Thai dip, and an insanely spicy tip with Brazilian chili peppers. My mouth BURNED! And yet, the Heritage Syrah was cutting through it like it was nothing. That was a stunning experience.

The wines we were able to try were good to very good, and impressed us quite a bit. There is a lot of craft and skill going into them, and I can only see them get better as Nikki keeps experimenting and learning. I will write up some of my tasting notes in an extra post.

The state of the art cellar

The state of the art cellar

All in all, we had a great experience at GranMonte. It is a perfect place to kick back and relax, enjoy some great Thai wine, and very good Western food. I assume it is not on many people’s bucket list, but the natural beauty of Khao Yai National Park can definitely be an attraction off the beaten path. Thailand, it turns out, is not just for beaches, but has joined the growing universe of wine production. And quite impressively so. I hope you can make a trip there and see, but more importantly, taste for yourself what they have to offer.

You can reach GranMonte, which is around 160 kilometers north east of Bangkok, via a taxi, bus, or mini-bus. I recommend getting in touch with the winery first, they can present you with good options on how to get there. We took the mini-bus and it was comfortable and cheap.  GranMonte also has a gorgeous guesthouse overlooking the vineyards. You can find GranMonte’s contact information here.

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