With a story that dates back to the 1600s, this is how much wine we are drinking in the Kingdom, and why.
by Christophe Mercier,
Wine instructor at Le Cordon Bleu Dusit Culinary School
Even if high percentage spirits still represent approximately three quarters of the alcohol consumption in Thailand, wine is becoming increasingly popular, especially in Bangkok and despite a discouraging tax system.
In the Kingdom, anecdotal evidence of grape-growing dates back to the Ayutthaya period. In his travel log, diplomat Simon de La Loubère makes note of vine-growing in the Palace of King Narai in the late 1600s. Table grape growing took off in the 1950s under the impulse of Kasetsart University and in the 1980s with the Royal Project; but winemaking really got under way in the 1990s in Loei province, with Dr. Chaijudh Karnasuta and his “Château de Loei.”
Today, Thailand’s wine production is still limited, but a handful of wineries are producing excellent wines. Most of these wineries are located just a couple of hours’ drive from Bangkok: GranMonte, PB Valley, and Village Farm in Nakhon Ratchasima; Silverlake and Alcidini near Pattaya; and the Floating Vineyard of Samut Sakhon have been able to attract numerous visitors, which is contributing to enriching the wine culture in the Kingdom.
According to the Thai Customs Department, the imported wine market represents approximately THB 1.5 billion CIF (cost, insurance, and freight included). The big four players are France, Australia, Chile and Italy. The majority of these wines are primarily sold in hotels and restaurants and, secondarily, in hypermarkets, luxury grocery stores, and duty-free shops.
There are more than 50 companies that import wines and deal with the complex tax calculation system that amounts to nearly 400 percent. That is to say that a bottle of wine that arrives in Thailand at THB 100 would cost approximately THB 500 to the importer after the addition of import duty tax, the excise tax, the municipal tax, and the health tax. The importer will make a small margin when distributing to restaurateurs, who in turn will apply their mark-up percentages before serving to their diners, who will pay VAT, and a service charge on the top of that.
Despite a prohibitive tax burden, with over 25 million tourists last year, hoteliers and restaurateurs have expanded their wine lists to please a growing clientele of wine enthusiasts. In recent years, we have seen many wine-themed eating and drinking places mushrooming in Bangkok. These establishments are popular with local expats and Thai diners. Young Bangkokians who were fortunate enough to travel abroad for their studies, for business, or simply for leisure, have been exposed to the wine cultures of Europe, America and Australia, and they are intrigued … Like in many other countries, quality wine appreciation in Thailand is regularly perceived as healthier and sexier than heavy liquor drinking.
It seems that for some Bangkokians, wine appreciation has now become a significant indicator of social status. It shows a certain “art de vivre” to be able to make an informed decision when choosing a bottle of wine on a menu. Being able to sensibly pair a wine with a meal, and to comment on a wine regarding its visual aspect, its aromatic qualities and its feeling on the tongue, provides people with a sense of intelligence and authority. Appreciating wine involves the use of all senses as well as the ability to put sensations or emotions into words, which is also a definition of “poetry.”
Due to the many importers in Thailand, new quality wines are making their way into the Kingdom, and importers, hoteliers, and restaurateurs are organizing frequent educational tastings and seminars. As a result, Thai wine professionals and consumers are sharpening their palate and are gaining a better understanding of wine, which enriches pleasurable and healthy life experiences.