BANGKOK – Since moving to Thailand, winemaker Kathrin Puff has been almost as devoted to competitive exercise as to vines, and has the muscular physique to show for it.
Puff, from Krefeld, near Düsseldorf, Germany, is at present preparing for her fifth “Ironman” triathlon, in addition to 10 others she participates in each year.
She didn’t move to Asia to run in a tropical climate, though, but to take the helm at Thailand’s Monsoon Valley Wine and solve the riddle of coaxing world-class wine out of vines just 15 degrees north of the equator.
The 36-year-old chief winemaker at Monsoon Valley moved to Bangkok in 2007, after a German consultant for the company got in touch.
Monsoon Valley had cash to spend on the right person: it is owned by Siam Winery, whose chief, Chalerm Yoovidhya, is also chairman of Red Bull UK and a serious wine buff. Monsoon needed someone experienced to guide the cellar team and Puff was young, energetic and European-trained.
“They made an offer that was quite interesting — I’d never been to Asia before. I thought I would go and see.”
Her languages were also a draw: thanks to apprenticeships everywhere from Spain to New Zealand, along with a head wine-making job for five years at Dievole in Tuscany, Puff speaks Italian, Spanish and English fluently, as well as German.
The biggest attraction for Puff was escaping the “Old World” as she believes it is “too stuck in its ways”; in fact, she had lined up work in New Zealand when this job came through, and Thailand’s non-traditional status as a wine-producing country suggested to her it “would be even more open to innovation and easier for a young person to put in new ideas”.
Puff’s interest in viniculture began at an early age. At 16, she started making notes of the varietal wines her dentist father pulled from the cellar at home, and saved all the wine labels that she liked. After several apprenticeships, and a double diploma in viticulture and oenology, she landed the Dievole job.
Fast-forward to Puff’s current post: under her stewardship, Monsoon Valley’s wines have won dozens of awards, including a Gold medal in the 2013 Decanter World Wine Awards (for a dessert wine) and Bronze for a blended white in the same year.
The portfolio — which sells domestically and internationally — is short and sweet, with Colombard and Chenin Blanc (white) and Shiraz (red); there is also rosé and sparkling.
Puff is busily trialling several different grapes because finding those that can grow well at Thailand’s latitude is a significant challenge.
But some grapes have produced good-quality wine, with one — the Cuvée de Siam Rouge 2008 (available only in Thailand) — blended from Sangiovese and Shiraz grapes. Competing against wines from the rest of the world, it won Gold at the International Wine Challenge in Vienna in 2010.
Coaxing grapes into nectar through scorching heat and a violent rainy season is a technical process, involving an extra harvest for resting the grapes, innovative grape canopies, constant experimentation and a big budget.
Fortunately, Puff likes technicalities, and having freedom away from Old World strictures allows her to play with the “rules”. “I’m a practical person and like to know why certain things work out . . . I don’t believe in magic. Some winemakers do things because their fathers have done it and so on, but I’d do it differently. I have my way of thinking.”
Puff’s working week typically consists of one day in the company’s 200-hectare vineyard near the resort of Hua Hin, 150km south of Bangkok, with its elephant rides and fine-dining restaurants. The remaining four days are spent at the winery in Samut Sakhon, also south of Bangkok, conducting tastings and quality control. “And every morning I devote time to Chaorai, the viticulturalist,” says Puff. Chaorai is her right-hand man and just as fanatical about experimentation with wine-growing technology.
When Puff got the job, she had only just begun a relationship in Tuscany with the man who is now her husband. Matthia was in a band, she took guitar lessons and they met through rehearsals at a farmhouse.
Six years younger than Puff, Matthia opted to move to Thailand too and finish his studies there. He is now photo editor at the European Pressphoto Agency in Bangkok. The couple live near Rama 4, a “cute little area” between the high-rises of central Bangkok. Puff says the city’s charms include “being near Asia’s many paradise spots, lovely food, and a smorgasbord of interesting residents”.
She says her new job has been a big challenge, adding: “There was the language barrier. But the work culture here is different. And I like how people deliver even bad things with a smile . . . it’s refreshing.”
By Zoe Strimpel