Icon NOW: Nikki Lohitnavy Busts Tropical Wine Myths

Thai wine icon Nikki Lohitnavy talks about her passion for tropical viticulture and adapting to the COVID-19 crisis.
Rachel Kwok

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Icon NOW: Nikki Lohitnavy Busts Tropical Wine Myths

What’s in an icon? As part of Thailand NOW’s mission to share authentic insights into all things Thai, we’re spotlighting iconic individuals who have not only excelled in their respective areas, but influenced the complex tapestry of Thailand as it exists today and, in doing so, inspire us to be a part of the fabric of Thai society.

In this interview series, Icon NOW dives into the moments that have shaped our icons’ lives, speculates on the future of their industry in Thailand, and shares advice for anyone who might aspire to follow in their footsteps.

Nikki gets her hands dirty demonstrating how to get full-flavour red wines.

Nikki Lohitnavy’s plunger punches down effortlessly into the small fermentation tank of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, breaking the cap of red grape skins that float to the top as the result of the carbon dioxide generated by the yeast.

“You need to get dirty when you’re making wine. Otherwise, the wine is not good,” Nikki chuckles as she gently mixes the cap back into the liquid. As the juice and skins are fermented together in red wine, the skins tend to rise to the surface forming a cap on top of the tank. This punch down process is the hard-and-fast rule to a full-flavoured red as it loads up the juice with colour and flavour from the skins.

“You shouldn’t wear a light-coloured shirt, but it’s too late for me now,” as she begins to pump over the skins and solids to help extract that bright ruby colour. 

While she cautions for stubborn wine stains in easy chatter, Nikki’s immaculate motions in these moments betray her immense passion for winemaking.

Nikki inspecting the vineyards at the GranMonte Estate.

 The Oenologist and Winemaker of GranMonte Estate, Nikki Lohitnavy, explains that wine is not a traditional industry in Thailand for it does not fall within the wine belt; in other words, roughly between 30 and 50 degrees north or south of the equator. However, GranMonte has shattered the old belief that one could only grow grapes within the wine belt.

Her father, Visooth Lohitnavy, saw the potential in a 12-hectare plot of land nestled in the foothills of Khaoyai in the Northeast of Thailand in 1999. Once a cornfield and cashew nut plantation, the nearby limestone and granite mountains yield similar calcium-rich soil conditions in Europe and Australia.

“My dad likes doing challenging things,” Nikki laughs, as she speaks of how her father combines his fearless spirit and keen taste in wine to realize this brilliant and crazy idea to grow grapes in the tropics.

Nikki Lohitnavy posing in the vineyard with her father, Visooth Lohitnavy, and mother, Sakuna Lohitnavy, who serve as GranMonte CEO & MD and President, respectively.

 In 2005, Nikki leapt to Australia to pursue a bachelor’s degree in Oenology and graduated with Honours in Viticulture at the University of Adelaide. In becoming the first Thai, overseas-trained oenologist, Nikki was eager to get her hands dirty from day one.

“I started adapting things in the vineyard since the first year of university,” says Nikki as she recounts the beginning of GranMonte. With her newfound knowledge year after year, Nikki led the family vineyard and estate to embrace innovative techniques and expand into one of the leading wineries in Thailand.

Although the Huay Sai Royal Research Project did some groundwork for Thai winemakers and discovered that the varieties of Syrah and Chenin Blanc thrive in the local climate, GranMonte continues to experiment with countless rootstocks and clones. Today, GranMonte’s research and development team cultivates up to 40 varieties including Durif, Grenache, and Viognier, and produces about 100,000 bottles of wine a year.

Winemaking is fascinating in the sense that there are no right answers. Fine wine is not only made with quality grapes, but also many decisions in planning, plotting, and fermenting. Moreover, each year is different. The fruit can be good this year, and then not in the next.

Huai Sai Royal Research Project works to inclusively develop sustainable agriculture in the region. Source: https://huaysaicenter.org

 To beat the unpredictability that comes with global warming, Nikki has invested heavily in advanced climate technologies and monitoring tools to ensure the quality of her crops. With that said, the return of this meticulous care in winemaking requires tremendous patience.

“The popular grape variety of Cabernet Sauvignon is very difficult to grow, especially in Thailand. It takes such a long time for the vines to grow. The first harvest took six years. Normally, it takes about three years. And very low yield, too,” says Nikki as she recalls the sweat and tears behind the making of GranMonte’s icon wine, Asoke 2014.

“It’s definitely not what they expect.”

Aged for 14 months in new French and American oak barrels, the Asoke 2014 is a full-bodied, fruit-driven Cabernet Sauvignon with a small percentage of Syrah. “Asoke is a wine that would surprise,” as most connoisseurs expect big, jammy wines from the warm, tropical climate of Thailand. 

Contrary to popular belief, the cold winter snaps in the Khaoyai region bring the temperature down to 10 to 11 degrees at night. This comes through in all the wines at GranMonte, and most prominently in Asoke through the layers of red berries, bell peppers, and spices on the palate. “It’s definitely not what they expect.”

A row of award-winning GranMonte vintages.

 Helmed by Nikki, GranMonte has gained international recognition by winning over a hundred medals in wine competitions and festivals such as AWC Vienna, FBAT Wine Challenge, and Decanter Asia. The COVID-19 crisis has not stopped GranMonte from submitting their wines overseas for tasting in ongoing contests in France, Austria, and Hong Kong.

“We give importance to these competitions because it’s our way of letting people know that our wines are of international standards. We’re not just saying that ourselves, [the quality of our wines] are proven by the judges. They blind taste it and prove that our wines are at this level,” explains Nikki.

When asked about the future of viticulture in Thailand, Nikki describes that the industry has grown over the past six to seven years as the perception of Thai wine begins to change in the local market and on a global scale. With the establishment of the Thai Wine Association, new wineries began to emerge and challenge one another to improve grape-growing and winemaking techniques, as well as on the marketing front.

The VinCotto restaurant, where people can enjoy GranMonte vintages paired with Western and Thai cuisine.

 However, the deadly curveball of COVID-19 has ultimately prompted GranMonte to explore new tactics to cope with the losses caused by the lockdown procedures and travel restrictions. While GranMonte retains close ties with its hospitality and F&B partners, the winery has decided to focus its energy on promoting Khaoyai as a domestic destination with the Tourism Authority of Thailand and nearby local businesses.

“We want to build upon the hospitality side of the business, to offer a meaningful experience for everyone,” says Nikki, revealing her plans to grow wine tourism in Thailand. For instance, GranMonte Wine Cottage now offers attractive packages for individuals, couples, and families to make new discoveries in Khaoyai. Not only can guests wake up to a beautiful sunrise over lush green vineyards, but they can also learn the secrets behind grape-picking during harvest and easy tips for matching food and wine at the family restaurant VinCotto.

Throughout her career in viticulture of 15 years, Nikki has enriched GranMonte and the Thai wine industry with her know-how and dedication in the care of the vine. While her mother’s infectious enthusiasm brought the winery to curate a namesake rosé, Nikki resonates with the family vineyard’s Elements Syrah. Much like the traits of this rustic yet complicated wine, Nikki is a humble and charming winemaker with a stubborn goal to make the most delicious, stimulating Thai wine.

The GranMonte vineyard framed by the verdant Khao Yai mountains in Nakhon Ratchasima.

 On that note, Nikki invites everyone to visit GranMonte to try new wines made of new exciting varieties from Marsanne to Petite Verdot. In boosting sustainability and longevity of the wine business, GranMonte has also kick-started a line of zero-waste projects: fruit for wine, grape seeds for oil, and now grape skins for grappa, a liquor originating in Italy. With these green efforts in place, Thai viticulture is destined for graceful aging.

Rachel Kwok

As a copywriter, editor, and translator, Rachel prides herself on delivering clear, concise copy for a range of audiences, with work spanning the hospitality, lifestyle, and medical industries. After earning degrees in English literature and Japanese language and culture from the University of British Columbia, she has gone on to serve as managing editor for acclaimed wine critic James Suckling and LifestyleAsia.com.

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