Adapting to climate change: How Thailand’s tropical wines are teaching the old world new tricks
BANGKOK: The air that sweeps gently through the rows of vines in the GranMonte estate is cool. In the middle of winter here, on the flank of Khao Yai National Park, the temperature drops and grapes can flourish.
The vineyard, northeast of Bangkok, is rimmed by mountains, giving this elevated valley shelter from damaging weather. It is a combination of good fortune and good planning that has helped winemaker and oenologist Nikki Lohitnavy transform this once cashew plantation into one of the region’s most sophisticated wine operations.
“We have a cool, dry winter and this part of Thailand has cold air that comes through from China and Vietnam. It’s a nice location to be growing grapes,” she said.
It is not just the location that has lifted GranMonte to be one of Thailand’s most prominent vineyards, producing about 100,000 bottles of wine a year. Given the challenging climate, Nikki has tapped on advanced climate technologies and monitoring to get the best out of her plantations.
The vineyard is her playground, where experimentation and analysis is a necessity to produce quality grapes far from their original habitats. Science and data is deeply engrained from crop to cork and this form of precision agriculture means even the vagaries of nature can be contended with.
“Tropical viticulture is so new that I don’t think there’s any textbook on it. We found six new varieties that work here. We’re still experimenting with different rootstocks and clones,” she said.
Aside from their stock varieties like Syrah and Chenin Blanc, she has found success with other grapes, including Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Durif, Viognier and Verdelho.
“When we understand the science behind it, we can adapt.”
As the planet warms, it is the type of approach that could define winemaking around the world in coming decades.
Climate change is making viticulture and winemaking increasingly problematic in places where grapes have been grown for generations, especially in Europe. Some areas are being affected more than others as regions become warmer, rain patterns shift and seasons become less predictable.
For grapes, a most sensitive fruit, the impacts are being felt on the vine and in the bottle.
But viticulture and winemaking have never been simple in Thailand, a region where the mercury regularly soars and long dry spells can be punctuated by monsoonal rain.
“This location is new latitude wine. It’s believed not to be suitable for making wine. But GranMonte has proved that it’s possible,” said Dr Teerakiat Kerdcharoen, an associate professor of physics at Mahidol University and a co-founder of Smart Farm Thailand.
USING DATA TO MANAGE THE VINEYARD
Thailand is highly vulnerable to climate change. Already Nikki has seen the disturbances to the normal patterns that she, and millions of others involved in domestic agriculture, rely upon.
“It can be unpredictable in some years. Rain normally stops around mid-October but we had four different storms this October, which was unexpected. That made our work in the vineyard difficult,” she said.
“What we’ve seen over the years is that the temperature is increasing and we’ve been harvesting at night instead of during the day for over six years now. We see more drought; 2015 was the worst year. We see more of that pattern of less rain that finishes later as well.”
A decade ago, the business invested in a sophisticated smart farming system, allowing Nikki to monitor and record various metrics like UV, rainfall, humidity, evaporation and water requirements for vines at different stages of growth. The system continues to be upgraded and developed.
“We have sensors for the soil at different depths that can tell us when we have enough water or not. We also have leaf wetness sensors to work on disease prevention models right now,” she said.
“We use it to plan our irrigation and this disease prediction is pretty new. We are the first to do it in Thailand and we think it will be useful for tropical viticulture in the future.”
Teerakiat, who coordinated with GranMonte to develop and install the smart farming system, says climate data is an underutilised tool in viticulture and agriculture more generally. He said most farms and vineyards in Thailand will only use technology to automate their processes or investigate problems.
“We try to understand the climate. We try to understand the area where we grow. So we have to use data to manage the vineyard,” he said, explaining that even within GranMonte’s 16ha of vines, local temperatures can vary, making some parts of the estate more or less suitable for certain types of grapes.
“Normally, people when they have a field plant all of the crops the same. They water them the same amount. They put fertiliser the same. But if you have the sensors and data you can tell that different parts of the field behave differently and you can adjust the resources.
“I worry a lot because things are changing faster. In the next five years, the change in one year may be more than in 10 years in the past. It’s very shocking.”
Thailand does not have a long history of winemaking, but it is developing a growing reputation, despite just a small number of vineyards in operation. Its relative success is turning the heads of producers in other parts of the world.
Viticulturist and tropical winemaking expert Hans-Peter Hoehnen said as conditions get more difficult to predict and respond to in traditional growing areas, lessons could be learnt from tropical operations.
The German consults annually with another of Thailand’s large winemaking operations, Siam Winery. He also assists producers in his home country, and has noticed a growing convergence between the issues being faced. The types of challenges posed annually in the tropics are starting to appear in Europe, he said.
“In Europe, we have to change. We can learn from the tropics. We will continue to grow grapes in these areas but under different circumstances,” he said.
He said that aspects of winemaking, such as levels of acidity, that have typically been taken for granted in France and Germany now need to be better understood and analysed, just like they are in Thailand.
“We have to look more at the tropics to learn what they do with their grape processing. We really have to think about acid balance, seed ripening, skin ripening, ripeness of the tannins. We have to focus more on PH and acidity,” he said.
“It was always easy in the past. That is over. If you do it the old way, you will end up with a wine that is very alcoholic and not very aromatic, because all the flavour burns out. Healthy grapes are no longer enough. You need to focus on other parameters.”
As more extreme weather events impact grape growing in Europe, Hoehnen says “normal work practices” in Thailand vineyards will need to be considered. That includes picking grapes earlier than usual and cooling down grapes in the winery before they are processed.
He also believes that the research being done in Thailand, especially around tolerant cultivars, water stress and canopy management will prove to be useful resources for others in the future.
“Now comes the learning curve, because the weather has changed. I always say, climate change ... winemaking change,” he said. “All of this is new knowledge. You can’t read it in a book.”
Nikki says there has been interest from overseas producers, interested in GranMonte’s formula for growing sensitive grape varieties, including their experience in bottling sparkling wine.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, GranMonte would take on foreign interns to assist with their tropical wine knowledge, and Nikki is a regular in global and regional conferences. The growing list of awarded medals on the estate’s bottles bears testament to how that understanding is reaping results.
“Most of the time, people just think that we are crazy,” she said. “But this is our home, growing grapes and making wine is something we are passionate about so that is why we like to do it and see it work.”