Water of Life, Cycle of Life
Untamed Travel, May, 2006
Feeling that he should get out an exercise more, but unable to tear himself away from the bar, Cameron Cooper combines the two by examining Khao Yai's vineyards from the saddle of a bicycle. Photos by Daniel Cooper.
At first glance, wine and cycling may appear to be strange bedfellows. But if you devote a little thought to it, it makes sense. Cycling is good for the cardiovascular system and so is wine - laced with antioxidants, minerals and other mysterious substances, according to the latest research.
When it comes to wine, the Italians go so far as to commit blasphemy on the subject saying: "A barrel of wine can perform more miracles than a church full of saints." And they ought to know, because they swill down enough of the stuff. The Italians are also huge proponents of cycling. Come to think of it, the French, no small-time imbibers of the grape themselves also are big on wine and cycling. So there is a connection, however tenuous, and who was I to question an invitation to join a cycling and winery tour organised by SpiceRoads, skirting the edge of Kao Yai National Park for the day?
Leaving Bangkok at dawn, we headed two hours north to Khao Yai National Park, a lovely mountainous spot of growing popularity, to convene at the Khao Yai Winery, a comfy resort surrounded by rolling fields of grapes and about twenty other fruit varieties.
After a few clumsy self-introductions (journalists can be a paranoid and standoffish lot) we struck up a genesis of friendliness with a British freelancer named Al, an increasingly sardonic chap dressed in a long-sleeved flannel shirt, owing to his sensitive skin. Then on with the helmets and off to the races, a 30km circuit stopping at the Granmonte Vineyards.
Auke, an affable Dutch fellow who was the main leader of the tour took the lead, apologizing over his shoulder that the first two kilometres were at a 45-degree angle. It felt to my untrained (yet alluringly lithe) legs like climbing a telephone pole, and a few of the Thai journalists were lagging behind from the outset, moaning and breaking into a rare sweat.
But what goes up must come down, and next thing we were rolling at high speed down a dirt track, trying not to go arse over tea kettle. Good fun really, as most scary things are when you come out the other end unscathed.
After a mildly nasty climb we arrived not a moment too soon at the Granmonte Estate, 100 rai (around 50 acres or so) of grapes, where we were led on a tour of the grounds by a friendly and classy man in his 60s named Mr Visooth. He explained a thing or two about the burgeoning yet infant wine industry in Thailand. "Thailand is the first truly tropical area where grapes are being grown for wine. It is still in the experimental stages, but is getting good results." This led to some talk of alcohol taxes and duty stickers and how the importers can cheat a bit on the value, which inevitably led to politics (Thailand being currently mired in political controversy), and opinions began to surface. Al and I, by instinct, leaned in with poised notepads, "Yes, go on..." but Mr Visooth decided to steer the conversation in another direction.
Granmonte is a pleasant little estate with a pond and a plush restaurant, though no accommodation as yet. We had small samples of the wine (we still had several uphill kilometres to pump through), and though I'll admit that I'm no expert, I found it not particularly flavourful - a bit lacking in tongue-punch. But the vineyard is young yet. Wine has been around for at least 7,000 years now and Thailand has only gotten into the act in the last decade.
Back on the road, uphill again, I waited until nobody was in sight, got off and walked for a bit, then things took a turn back towards the pull of gravity and we coasted the last couple of kilometres back to Khao Yai Winery, where flagons of water and a multi-dished Thai lunch awaited. It is impossible to judge food after you've just cycled 30km, but I was shovelling it in and sampling largish snifters of the wine. Al wrinkled his nose at the first one and was in the middle of damning it, "drinkable enough, but not really up to all that and..." when our host and hospitality manager Heribert Gaksch, a ruddy-faced energetic man of classic Bavarian physique, approached the table. "This is a very good wine for spicy food," he said, chatted a bit more, told a joke I didn't quite understand, and moved on. Al picked up where he left off: "Bollocks! I don't buy this 'this is for spicy food, this one's for beef' nonsense. It tastes good or it doesn't, you know?"
Lunch and its several varieties of wine was followed by a mini-road-train tour of the estate and the winery itself, where we gazed in awe at mechanised grape crushers (virgins' toes are now considered the old fashioned way) and huge oak and steel barrels. We returned to the main pavilion and the tasting continued until the first van departed, leaving only Dan, Auke, Al and I, sitting around a cocktail-bar table, having just the one more. "This one's quite nice, which one is this?" Al asked, his eyes rolling like Al Jolson's. "It's the one you said was crap earlier on." "Hmmm, well it's perfectly drinkable now - must have aged a bit." And so it went - with every glass, the wine just got better. Auke was the perfect tour leader, indulging us and joining in until we were all half-blind for the journey home, during which Al was amusingly obnoxious. I'd share some of the funnier quotes, but to be perfectly honest the notes are unreadable.
A hearty big thanks to SpiceRoads for the invitation to join the tour, and to the wineries for continuing to tilt the bottles long after we should have gone home. For more info on the wineries, see www.granmonte.com and www.khaoyaiwinery.com. To book this tour or one of several other 20+ tours that SpiceRoads runs throughout the region, visit www.spiceroads.com