From beer to Bordeaux in 25 years
When Lisa Sol was the charming PR Manager of that iconic haven of fine food and wines, Boathouse Wine & Grill on Kata Beach, she opined that Phuket had been a "beer and som tam culture" when she arrived some 20 years previously.
"I can clearly recall, that you couldn’t actually find a good bottle of wine around the Nai Harn area where we lived”, she said. “Phuket in the late 80s was very much a ‘beer and som tam’ island. The demand for wine hadn’t really started and many of the foreigners who did live here were ‘yachties’ like us and had 'grotty yachtie' tastes."
The grape escape
How times have changed!
In the intervening years, Phuket has seen a huge influx of well-heeled foreign residents and repeat tourists from all parts of the globe that has fuelled the demand for the best in food and wine. Unsurprisingly, where there's a well-funded demand, a complementary supply rapidly springs up to satisfy it, and so today's wine market in Phuket is close to world class in the selection of wines available, and probably ahead of world class in the dining situations in which they can be enjoyed.
Phuket's marvelous tropical ocean-side vistas lend themselves to perfect restaurants and resorts such as Boathouse, Villa Royale, Baan Rim Pa and Catch Beach Club, in which fabulous wine events are regularly staged.
Phuket’s wine pioneers
Boathouse is a personal creation of renowned architect Mom Luang Tridhosyuth Devakul, better known simply as Mom Tri, a descendant of the King Mongkut Rama IV. The Boathouse was the first location in Phuket to seriously promote a local wine culture in the early 1990s and regulars flew into Phuket just to wine and dine there.
Boathouse undoubtedly has one of the best wine cellars in Thailand, which is overseen by famed wine guru Georges Ciret. The cellar includes 750 labels and 7,500 bottles from 18 countries and guests are offered some 30 wines by the glass.
Georges explains, “The enjoyment of fine wine is a composite human experience which embraces setting and environment, complementary cuisine and good company, as well as music and even art.” Certainly Boathouse through the years has been a leader in all these aspects of Phuket’s wine revolution.
Next came another legendary pioneer, Tom MacNamara at Baan Rim Pa, ‘the House on the Cliff’ on the Kalim headland just north of Patong Bay. Tom came to Phuket for game fishing in 1988 and in 1990 turned his lovely house into a restaurant serving Royal Thai cuisine. To accompany this, he built another fine cellar and staged many wine events, bringing in Steven Roberto to oversee them. Steven went on to open Envison in Surin and started opening up the wine culture in that sector of the island.
Randy Chinn, Baan Rim Pa Group’s Director of Wine says, “When I first arrived in Phuket in the mid 90s, the dominant wines in the market were from France and mostly at the lower end of the quality spectrum. Basically France shipped wines they couldn’t sell at home to a naive locality like Thailand where people used to ‘drink the label’ meaning they drank more for ‘face’ than from any real appreciation of what was in the bottle.”
The millennial revolution
From around the turn of the millennium, the sophistication of Phuket’s wine market started to grow exponentially, driven by burgeoning tourist arrivals, settling retirees, villa owners and sailing and maritime sports enthusiasts – many of whom were well-heeled and knew a thing or two about good wine.
Wine dinners and visits by wine makers became regular events with resorts and restaurants like Trisara, Boathouse, Villa Royale, Baan Rim Pa, The 9th Floor, and latterly Acqua and Blue Elephant leading the charge.
Twin Palms Resort on Surin Beach pioneered both Sunday brunches and beach clubs with their fashionable Oriental Spoon and Catch outlets, both of which also became havens of quality food and wine consumption
Randy Chinn observes that, “Importers today have really increased the variety of wines available in Thailand and, unlike in the mid-90s, we see a lot of New World wines from America, Chile, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa which tend to be more fruit forward and easier to drink.”
The wrath of grapes
Phuket’s enthusiastic embrace of all things oenophylic [Ed: had to look that one up! Basically means wine-loving.] has not been bolstered by successive governments' wine taxation policies. Says Randy Chinn, “Thailand’s wine tax is one of the highest in the world, so the prices compared to western countries are very high.”
But why pay through the nose?
So far, we've been talking about the 'posh' places where you can enjoy wines from "OK" to the "pretty damn good" in splendid luxury. But what about drinking wine at home – which, after all, accounts for the majority of wine consumption in the west? Today, it's hard to believe that 12 years ago there wasn't a single dedicated wine shop on the island. Wine Connection put that right 11 years ago.
"Wine Connection was the first speciality wine shop to open in Phuket 11 years ago in Chalong. Since then we've grown to be the largest chain of wine shops in South East Asia," said Michael Trocherie, Wine Connection's founder and CEO.
With 40 outlets in Thailand alone, ranging from pure wine shops to bistros, delis and bar/grill restaurants, Wine Connection has led the market in affordable wines, with a choice of more than 500 carefully selected labels from around the world.
2014 and all that
Phuket’s wine market today displays enormous variety and sophistication. Newly-opened Kata Rocks offering the island’s first Enomatic wine dispensing machine, featuring 24 different wines served under argon gas with a stored-value swipe card to allow you to tipple to your heart’s content. Or 9th Floor sending their gorgeous waitresses for sommelier training to upgrade their skills. And of course the wine dinner, brunching and beach club bonanza just keeps on growing.
But let’s give the final word on all this to Ian Lancaster, Charge de Presse of the Chaine de Rotisseur gastronomic society in Phuket who says, “Life is too short to drink inferior wines and SKI (Spending the Kids’ Inheritance) leads you into drinking even better wines.”
We’ll drink to that!