Wednesday, March 18, 2015

GranMonte Wine: The Aussie Connection

When Adelaide University student Nikki Lohitnavy returned to her native Thailand after graduation, she received a surprise gift from her parents - her own winery! The first (and only) Thai national to receive a Bachelor degree in Oenology (with Honours in Viticulture) in Australia, Nikki is now head winemaker at the family-run vineyard GranMonte, located in the beautiful Asoke Valley in the foothills of Khao Yai National Park.

"When I returned from Australia, I found all these steel tanks waiting outside. I then had to set up the wine-making facility from scratch. There are some things they just don't teach you at university!" she jokes.

Nikki Lohitnavy, Thailand's first female winemaker 

Fast forward six years, and Nikki is arguably Thailand's most respected winemaker, consulting for international vineyards as well as leading Thailand's charge to produce world-standard wines. She is also the only female winemaker in the country, and a great inspiration for other ambitious young women.

Nikki has inherited her passion for wine from her father Visooth, who first purchased the 16-hectare former cornfield in 1999. At the time, there were several small vineyards in the Khao Yai area, a Royal Project established decades earlier having already recognised the area's potential as a wine-growing region.

The GranMonte vines, just after harvest 

Of course, producing grapes in the tropics requires adaptation of traditional growing methods; but through experimentation, consultation and the use of a microclimate monitoring system, Visooth soon learnt what varieties would flourish during tropical storms, monsoons and searing summer heat.

Things really took off, however, after Nikki returned to Thailand with internships at Browns Brothers and Wolf Blass wineries under her belt. The vineyard now has the capacity to produce 120,000 bottles a year, which it should meet within two or three years.
GranMonte vineyard 

And trust me, GranMonte makes a fine drop, from its rich, award-winning Syrah, to its light and fruity rose made from Syrah grapes, named after Nikki's mother, Sakura. The wines have won over 100 awards in the past four years, and are the most decorated wines of Thailand.

Some of the many awards that GranMonte has won

As Khao Yai has become more popular as a weekend escape from Bangkok, so the winery has flourished into a full-blown tourist operation, with a stylish cellar door and tasting room, a charming restaurant serving delicious European-style food and a guest house offering seven rooms. Sixty thousand visitors pass through the cellar doors annually, with around 10,000 of those joining a winery tour.
Linguine with prawns, basil and olives in white wine from VinCotta Restaurant 

GranMonte cellar door 
Tours are held three times a day, and include wine tasting at a cost 270 baht per adult.

For more information, visit

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Paddling with a Legend: John Gray's Sea Canoe

"Sometimes I think I'm responsible for what Phuket has become," John Gray sighs as we stare out at limestone cliffs looming on the horizon. "It was so quiet and beautiful when I started here in the '80s. That's the problem with being successful."

With his full white beard and hulking physique, 70-year-old John Gray cuts an imposing figure, the sort of man who makes an impact wherever he goes. Affectionately known as Ling Yai (meaning 'Big Monkey' - not 'ugly monkey' as I mistakenly thought!) by his Thai crew, Gray is indeed a legend, a name synonymous with the island of Phuket. His sea kayaking tours through the 'hongs' of Phang Nga Bay are one of the most popular day trips out of Phuket - a classic Thai experience that, in my mind, should be on every traveller's bucketlist.

Myself and John Gray on board his tour boat

John Gray's Sea Canoe tours have been part of the Phuket experience since 2001, when this Californian-born adventurer decided to expand his successful Hawaiian sea kayaking business into South East Asia. "I started the business on just 700 baht," he recalls. From the start, the focus was on the environment, with Gray keen to share his love of nature, science and low-impact exploration. He was the first to delve the caves and hongs of Phang Nga Bay, discovering hidden openings into the magical and surreal world inside the limestone karst islands; but, of course, many since have followed in his wake.

"Did you know there's no such thing as a sea canoe?" Gray asks me. "They are kayaks, of course. I just registered the same 'sea canoe' to throw off imitators. It didn't really work!" he laughs.

The yellow kayaks used by John Gray

Today there are several other operators offering "sea canoe" trips from Phuket; Gray is the only one, however, using the distinctive yellow SOTAR kayaks, safe and untippable rafts which can be easily manoeuvered through tight cave openings. Gray's tours are also recognised for their safety, use of local guides and for the quality of food - which is indeed excellent.

Gray himself tries to join at least three or four trips a week, with his clients always keen to hear his stories, ranging from riding huge waves in Hawaii, to kayaking in a typhoon, to hand-rearing a sea eagle that one day flew away to freedom - a tale that leaves the big man fighting back tears. But on the days he can't personally join the tours, his guests can rest assured that his all-Thai team are doing a great job, being personally trained by Gray in safety, environmental practices and eco-tourism.

John Gray explaining the geography of the 'hong'

The day of our tour is a landmark occasion for Gray - it's the first time he's paddled his own kayak in five years, with arthritis, a knee injury and a blood clot to the brain as recently as last year rendering him less-than-fit.

It's also one of the first times his company has hosted a baby under the age of one - my granddaughter Ellie.

I must admit to some nerves before our tour: tiny lifejackets don't seem to exist in Thailand, with the smallest being suitable for three-year-olds; while the Hong by Starlight tour is a long day for a baby, setting out from our hotel at 11.30am and not returning until 9pm.

After lengthy consultation with Gray, however, I was assured Ellie would be safe. We could bring along her pram for her to nap in on board the mothership, while Gray promised to allocated a dedicated staff member to her care and attention. So while her parents Jo and Nic paddled off on the first kayak excursion, I stayed on board with guide Toy, watching Ellie snooze in her pram during her afternoon nap.

Ellie with Toy

On the second kayak outing, however, Nic decided that holding Ellie would be quite safe; and indeed it was wonderful to watch her bouncing in his arms with excitement, leaning over to touch the water and fascinated with the sounds and sights inside the hong.

Ellie enjoying the kayak experience

"Who knows, maybe she'll grow up with a great love of caves and the water," Gray reflects afterwards. "Hopefully, subliminally, she'll retain a memory of this. Wouldn't that be incredible?"

I have to agree...

Happy baby! Pics: Julie Miller

Further information: