Best buys in a shrinking market

As the baht slides against the US dollar, Californian winemakers are feeling the pinch in Thailand. ?We cannot say that Californian wine represents good value for money anymore,? says Uthorn Budhijalananda from The Wine Cellar. ?For good value you cannot compare them to Australian and Chilean wines right now. But compared to many French wines, they are still quite reasonably priced and good.?

Californian wines have been available on the market in Thailand for around twenty years. Uthorn judges that they?ve been second in popularity to French wines for the past six to eight years, but that wines from Australia, Chile and South Africa are now quickly catching up. ?Twenty years ago Thai people ? and Asians generally – preferred to drink whiskey and cognac,? says Uthorn. ?If they were going to start drinking wine, they wanted it to have a similar sort of character. It couldn?t be too smooth and easy, but needed to have lots of body and strong tannins.? Californian Cabernet Sauvignon fitted the bill well.

According to Vanichwathana?s assistant managing director Vichai Kanchanasevee, at the outset it was ?supermarket? brands such as Paul Mason and Gallo that introduced the Californian style to Thais. ?The premium and super premium range started around 1985 or 1986 when tourism started to boom in Thailand.?

Coupled with the growth in international hotels with professional food and beverage staff, Californian wines grew in popularity. ?The best years for California wine were from 1994 to 1997 when they had a 32 to 33 per cent market share and almost half of the volumes were medium to premium price products.?

Thanks to the sliding baht, California wines have a market share of only around seven to eight per cent, with most of the volume going to brands Paul Mason and Gallo. According to Jeff Cook, Robert Mondavi?s director of sales Asia Pacific, Californian winemakers successfully produce most varietals: ?Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc from Napa; Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from the Santa Maria area.?

Thais seeking a prestige wine should head for winemakers such as Robert Mondavi and Dominus. From Mondavi wines in particular, Mr Cook recommends the Napa Pinot Noirs, Cabernet Sauvignon Reserves and Byron Pinot Noir (prices vary based on vintage, but the latter is usually sold in upscale restaurants only, for approximately Bt3800). ?They drink on the same table as the top Grand Cru Bordeaux and top Domaines in Burgundy, but without the huge price.?

Dominus is the particular red wine produced from the Napanook vineyard in the Napa Valley, made from Cabernet Sauvignon with small amounts of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. Vanichwathana?s prices range from Bt5890 to 6790 depending on vintage.

For Mondavi, at the economical end Vanichwathana stocks the Mondavi Woodbridge range, including their Cabernet Sauvignon (Bt825), Zinfandel (Bt720), Merlot (Bt670) and Sauvignon Blanc (Bt850). Other Mondavi wines include the Coastal Cabernet Sauvignon (Bt1100), the Napa Cabernet Sauvignon (Bt1670) and the Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon (Bt2780).

While Thais snap up those sturdy Cabernet Sauvignons, the most widely planted grape in California is in fact zinfandel, which has unknown origins (the current theory is that it?s a grape called plavac mali from Croatia) but was first harvested there in the 1850s. The Wine Cellar?s Uthorn describes the red wine the grape produces as being ?quite a smooth, easy drinking wine? ? he recommends the 1993 Robert Mondavi Zinfandel (Bt1,650), and says that Thais haven?t become familiar enough with this wine.

But if you?d still like to stick to what locals love best, Uthorn also suggests Mondavi and Dominus. For drinking now or cellaring he particularly recommends the Mondavi 1995 Cabernet Sauvignon (Bt1,800), the Mondavi 1992 or 1994 Cabernet Reserve (Bt4,250 and 6,950 respectively) or the Dominus 1994 (Bt6,300).

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