Message in a Bottle: Thailand’s Top Sommelier

Georges Ciret, wine director at Mom Tri’s Villa Royale, describes how a chance encounter at a Phuket beach resort more than a decade ago marked the start of a great collaboration in creating some of Thailand’s most celebrated wine cellars. 

Life is good! Fine wines and sunset views at Villa Royale.

We meet Georges Ciret on the restaurant terrace at Mom Tri’s Villa Royale on a blustery day and as we talk wines we watch a surfer navigate the waves rolling in at Kata Noi Beach below. Feeling privileged to finally meet the man and the mind behind the wine cellars that have scooped up numerous international awards, we’re delighted when he lets us into the resort’s cellar for a peek.

Inside the stately cool room are hundreds of bottles with labels from around the world, all arranged under huge chandeliers made with 200 wine glasses designed by Villa Royale’s owner, the artist and architect Mom Luang Tridosyuth Devakul (better known as Mom Tri), a descendant of King Rama IV.

Following his bliss – around the world

Born in Paris, Georges’ career path took him around the world, working at hotels in France, Senegal, Colombia, South Africa, Miami, mainly for Accor, before arriving to Phuket about 15 years ago. He bought and managed a guesthouse in Patong, but just a few months after arrival he went to The Boathouse resort on Kata Beach for lunch. There he met the General Manager Louis Bronner, where, Georges said, “I told him my life’s passion is wine and he said we need you here.”

It was the start of a fruitful collaboration in creating an elaborate wine collection celebrated by wine-thirsty guests that went on to win numerous awards for The Boathouse, which was built by Mom Tri in 1989 and is now under new ownership.

The Wine Cellar at Mom Tri’s Villa Royale.

A Stellar Cellar

In 2006, The Boathouse earned a “Two Glass” Best of Award of Excellence from Wine Spectator, a coveted accolade given only to wine cellars that are “destinations for serious wine lovers, showing a deep commitment to wine both in the cellar and through their service team.” The award came about “by accident”, Georges said modestly. The wine cellar at Mom Tri’s Kitchen at Villa Royale under Georges’ direction has also won several awards, including the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence since 2006.

Being a sommelier in a country without an age-old wine culture like France is not without its challenges. One of the greatest difficulties in building up local wine expertise and appreciation in Thailand has been the steep cost of imported wine. Georges said that with astronomical import duties, the practice of daily tastings among the staff to develop their knowledge and find the best food and wine pairings cannot be done due to the high costs. And Thai cuisine, with its complex mix of chilli, sugar and herbs presented Georges with a bit of a puzzle at first.

Cooking up fresh pairings

To learn more about Thai food and how it would work with wine, he found a way around the prohibitive costs and worked closely with The Boathouse Chef Tummanoon Punchun, whose Thai cookery courses were among the most popular in the country. Georges explained that at the end of the classes, students would eat their creations and they would be served three glasses of wine. “We always asked them which wines they liked with each dish and over time, with some 500 people taking the class, we learned a lot.”

Georges said that for Thai cuisine you need a special wine, something very strong. “In general, for Asian food people think about Riesling, but now I think about Viognier wine because the taste is minimal, not too fruity.” White wines tend to be paired more often, he said, especially as the tannin of red wine doesn’t go with seafood. He also suggests blending some sparkle with the spices: “Prosecco is usually good with Thai food.”

The wine list at Mom Tri’s Kitchen is changed every three months and Georges collaborates with the chef to develop the wine and food menu. Evolving with the changing demographics and tastes of their guests, Georges said the wine menu has more “wine by the glass” selections than ever before, with more organic, biodynamic and vegan wines available. There’s even a kosher wine from Israel, prompted by a special request by a guest.

Most of the cellar is stocked with imported wine but Georges said that a small number of Thai winemakers have overcome the difficult conditions of Thailand’s tropical climate and are producing some quality wines. His favourite Thai wine is made by GranMonte in Khao Yai. Owned by Nikki Lohitnavy, it’s a small winery that works in the French style.

During our visit, Georges invites us to a staff wine tasting presented by Argiano, a super Tuscan winery in Italy. Two bottles of red are tasted and mulled over by Villa Royale’s chef, sommeliers and restaurant staff, and as they discuss the wines and which dishes would work best with them, we catch an inside glimpse at how the resort’s celebrated menu is developed and honed. Georges said that 60% of his time is spent on staff training, crucial for impressing their discerning, well-travelled clientele. “Guests like the Thai smiles, but it’s not enough,” he said.

Meeting the wine ‘pope’

One standout moment for Georges in his life as wine director came when he had the chance to meet respected wine critic Robert Parker, who he calls the “Pope of the wine universe”. “He has a great talent for tasting and he has a 100-point rating system for wine. If a wine maker is given 100 points, they’re rich.” They met at a wine dinner hosted by the Wine Gallery distributors in Bangkok. Putting on a wine event for the world’s most famous and feared wine critic must be somewhat terrifying, and Georges said that at the dinner, no expense was spared … they served only 100-point wines.

A sadder moment came in December 2004, when The Boathouse was struck by the tsunami. Luckily, none of the hotel’s staff or guests were lost and it was able to reopen in just a few months … but 70% of its wine cellar collection was destroyed.

A number of bottles were, however, recovered intact from the beach but they had lost their labels in the waves. Turning this unusual situation into a fund-raising opportunity, Georges said the resort sold off the bottles for charity. Buyers wouldn’t know what they’d bought until the bottle was opened and the wine maker’s stamp on the cork could be seen. The ultimate blind tasting challenge.

(This article was originally written for Insider Asia magazine.)