You might marvel at the thought of wines to rival French vintages being grown here in Thailand, but it’s already happening. In fact, as BRENDAN SAPHIRO discovers, a Thai vineyard has already produced a medal-winning wine and looks set up to put viniculture in the kingdom firmly on the map.

Raphael Vongsuravatana grew up in Bordeaux in a blend of European and Thai cultures. He has always felt that he belonged to both. The son of Dr Pathom and Martine Vongsuravatana of Chateau St Lo in St Emilion, he has charge of the family’s impressive vineyard in Thailand, Domaine St Lo, whose first vintage was released last year to general applause. “Actually, it was our third vintage but the first which we felt was ready to be launched,” says Raphael. “We entered it in a competition for new wines in Luxembourg and won a Silver Medal in the New World category.”

Raphael’s father arrived in France in 1954 as a 20-year-old student. Martine, who was 18 at the time and met Pathom at a university library, is on record as saying he was the most handsome and exotic man she had ever seen. And to the young Thai, her blue eyes, fair hair and French charm were equally fascinating. The couple were married after he has taken his PhD in economics and settled in Bordeaux.

Martine and Pathom Vongsuravatana with baby Raphael

The son of a Korat businessman with a government rice-liquor concession, Pathom invested his knowledge and expertise in exporting French brandy to Asia. There was a growing demand from an emerging middle-class increasingly aware of the good things of life, Western-style. Completely at ease in both Europe and Southeast Asia, he became a leading broker of cognac and Armagnac, exporting to Japan, Hong-Kong and, of course, Thailand. During the years of growth, he assembled the biggest collection in France of historic documents on Franco-Thai relations dating from the time of King Louis XIV and King Narai. This became an abiding interest for Raphael growing up in Bordeaux and he later made it the foundation for his own PhD dissertation, eventually publishing two books and several learned papers on the subject.

As a Thai-French family they had a dream: To own a vineyard of distinction in Bordeaux, with Thai roots in French soil. They had to wait until 1990 for their opportunity, by which time Pathom had acquired an encyclopaedic knowledge of the vineyards of Bordeaux. Château St Lo, a former cru classe vineyard which had lost its rating following the death of its owners, was up for sale. Pathom seized the chance to make the purchase, with the dream of reviving its fortunes. After three years of hard work improving the vineyards, winery and buildings, the rights to the title cru classe was once again approved by the Institute National des Apellations d’Origine (INAO).

Three generations of the Vongsuravatana at Chateau St-Lo (Pathom, Raphael and Martin Vongsuravatana)

“Château St Lo sells very well in France,” says Raphael, “and we’ve been successful in exporting much of our production. But in 1995 my father’s health took a turn for the worst. This was significant because he still had another ambition to fulfil: To develop a vineyard in Thailand and make wine good enough to be a Thai export. This has now became my project and in a way it has taken me from my French roots to my Thai roots.”

Good wine is already being made here and standards are getting better all the time. In this climate of improvement Pathom Vongsuravatana planned to introduce the growing methods he had learned in France and put to such good effect with Chateau St Lo. The search for a suitable vineyard location had already begun. Raphael visited some 50 sites and carried out soil and temperature tests supported by the oenological laboratories of Bordeaux and Montpellier Universities.

The family found their ideal site almost by coincidence. Another distinguished Thai with a record of public service, Virachai Techavichit, had a similar aim to the Vongsuravatana family, and had bought 750 rai of land as a potential vineyard on a weill-drained hillside in Petchabun. It was sheltered by a high, eagle-shaped rock formation, so he had called it Peak Eagle. Together, Virachai and Pathom formed Peak Eagle Vignobles Reunis Winery Company with the slogan: Thai wine, French signature.

“We wanted to make a wine that had a specific Thai identity,” Raphael explains. “Nothing too picturesque and not a “technical” wine, but a natural expression of the land.”  They adhered to the strict regulations demanded in St µEmilion. “Yields are tightly controlled there,” says Raphael. “But here we’ve reduced them to less than half to get the concentration we want.” But that can’t be cheap, a point Raphael dismisses by saying, “If you’re counting the cost all the time, you’re missing the point.”

The point being that this is a local wine made by local wine lovers who also love the land and its people. Indeed, for the two families sustainable development is not an empty slogan because local farmers can be taught viticultural metods to extend their range of produce to include quality grapes. 3In St Emilion, just like other producers, we’re doing our best to sell our wines,” says Raphael. “There is jo conflict between us. We’re all growers, all farmers in a sense. We tend to believe in the saying ‘In unity there is strength’. I hope it will be the same in Thailand for many years to come.”