Driving to the Hua Hin Hills Vineyard should be a pleasant drive in the countryside.
Around 40 kilometres from Hua Hin you just need to follow the main route (No. 3219) towards Pala U Waterfall then turn off left after 30 kilometres. The route is well signposted and an easy cruise passed a number of other regional tourist destinations.
However my passenger, the appointed ‘navigator ‘was perhaps a little too obsessed with a number of stray dogs on the road (“be careful!, be careful!’) and with a some light rain seemed to think it was more important to play with the windscreen wipers than to pay attention to the signs. The result was we missed the turn off, almost made it to the waterfall and had to ask some bemused locals for some directions.
Back on track, although half an hour late for our booking, entering the vinery property was entering a landscape like no other in Thailand. From the elevated restaurant and visitor information pavilion set high above the rows of vines we gazed across a green valley with a backdrop of hills and mountains encircling this secluded precinct. I was reminded of the many trips I have made to vineyards in the Margaret River area of South Western Australia. Only the distant forests of Eucalyptus trees were missing, replaced by the no less scenic Thai flora and flora. However this setting was once an elephant, rather than a kangaroo corral!
We had two main purposes for our visit. Firstly to experience and discuss how a new attitude towards wine appreciation is being introduced into Thailand culture and second to see firsthand how the vineyard is being developed with an escorted tour of the grounds.
Our host Restaurant and Retail Supervisor Chiraphan Permsuwan at the Sala Restaurant presented a selection of tapas creations each accompanied by a fine wine from the vineyard Monsoon Valley Wines range. The pairing of food with a particular style of wine is an important aspect of a ‘wine culture’. It’s not about being a wine snob but it is about experiencing the best pallet experience when dining.
Our chosen selections were all a delicate combination of very subtle flavour variations presented in a visually imaginative and creative way. The restaurant offers those not familiar with this pairing of food and wine with recommendations of how to choose and what to expect. A clear recommendation to anyone who is uncertain about this aspect of their wining and dining menu choices is to believe that the very talented management and staff really understand how to maximise every customer’s culinary indulgence. Once again I was reminded of my visits to Margaret River where fine dining is a priority for every visitor. The Sala Restaurant should not be regarded as a lesser quality or less sophisticated approach. This is a world class wine and dine venue which is already gaining the international plaudits it deserves.
My only personal discomfort was an expectation that I would be able to describe the individual pallet sensations in the manner of an educated wine connoisseur. My inadequate vocabulary struggled to express these subtle flavor variations. My apologies to our hosts for my inadequate descriptions and praise for such a sensational dining experience.
Next, off in an open vehicle to drive around the vineyard, stopping off to discuss with the viticulture manager Khun Cho Rai aspects of grape cultivation and managing the estate. Unfortunately our visit coincided with a change in arrangements for elephant riding around the grounds. In the near future this truly Thailand mode of transport will return as the management is now making arrangements for elephants to once again grace the vineyard grounds. Efforts are now being made to ensure that an elephant experience will be beneficial for visitors but also for the elephants. They want to ensure that this will not be insensitive or distressful for either man or beast.
The origins of the vineyard can be traced back to successful experimentation at the nearby Royal Research Station at Huay Sai in 2003. The vineyard is another testament to the foresight of this program of innovation in Thai agricultural development.
From the valley floor and looking back towards the restaurant and other visitor facilities the integration of the Thai architecture with this scenic setting becomes apparent. Not a disruption but an enhancement of the landscape.
Growing grapes for either wine production or as table grapes in Thailand is not easy. There are many different climatic, soil and pest considerations to those managed in vineyards in the usual latitudes of viniculture. One example described by Khun Cho Rai is the fear of rain after pruning the vines. Pruning takes place twice a year and rain soon after the process is likely to attract fungal disease and a major problem for the crop to come.
I couldn’t help but notice the cheerful demeanor of the field workers who, despite the hard manual work, seemed to be appreciating the ‘fruit of their labour’. Of course work at the vineyard is a bonus for the local economy and nearby villages as one of the unseen benefits of this development.
Not only grapes of five varieties are under cultivation, but also olive trees, fruit and vegetables. In most cases this means that fresh produce from the vineyards ensures the quality of the restaurant menu.
The return trip was also a little on the adventurous side, choosing to meander through the countryside, some unsealed roads and bridges under construction. Our advice – stick to the main road, especially if you are running short of fuel!