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  • Melanie Beard

A Passion for Wine in Chiang Mai

Pakpoom ‘Ton’ Towatcharakun was a typical hotel employee doing the best to advance his career until he was introduced to the world of wine. Today he is Chiang Mai’s first resident sommelier, working at the Shangri-La Hotel Chiang Mai.

“I was attending a butler training course a few years ago with an aim to be a butler. There was a section about wine pairing where I found myself fascinated by the concept of pairing cheeses and wines, though at the time I didn’t even know what’s what but I had never before that day hadthat unique sensation of experiencing the perfect pairing between one wine and one cheese,” said the chatty Ton, whose enthusiasm is infectious. When those flavours came together that day, a door was opened, one that Ton didn’t hesitate to step into. Ton began to study and train himself before taking his first Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) exam Level 2, which he passed with flying colours.

“Wine professionals are roughly divided into two pathways,” continued Ton, talking a mile a minute. “WSET is for those focusing primarily on wines - no service involved - and is appropriate for wine critiques and such. But to be a sommelier one must be certified by the Court of Master Sommeliers. There are millions of wine labels in this world, just think of a Chilean Cabernet, with its endless number of labels. A sommelier must know the grape, where it is from and most importantly how it is supposed to taste. This knowledge means that we can then select the best value for our customers from the large selection that importers are presenting to us,” said Ton who went on to explain that a good sommelier’s knowledge and expertise extends beyond wine, “apart from a deep knowledge of wine, we also must be well-versed on food pairing, know about other beverages so that we are able to deliver an elegant service. The challenge in real life situations is how to best communicate with our customers. We can babble about our adept knowledge all we want but the essential part is to present that wine in a way that customers find attractive. Sometimes customers know more about a particular wine than us, as it is their favourite. And sometimes it is our job to introduce a new flavour to them,” said Ton who has now achieved a certified level of the Court of Master Sommeliers and WSET Level 3 along with winning multiple awards including The Italian Wine Sommelier Competition in Thailand 2014 and Thailand Best Sommelier Competition 2017.

“The wine community in Chiang Mai is still small,” said Ton who was born in Chiang Mai. “There are people who can afford hundred thousand-baht bottles of wine, but most of the people are those who appreciate the pleasures of drinking but not much in a career point of view.” After his years working in high-end hotels and restaurants in Bangkok and southeast Thailand, he is now back in his home town with an aspiration to elevate the wine culture in Chiang Mai.

As the resident sommelier at Shangri-La Hotel Chiang Mai, Ton is able to merge his aspiration with the hotel’s vision, as they work in tandem to turn the hotel into a wine destination. In the coming months, there will be many new labels introduced to the hotel’s wine list and Ton looks forward to offering guests the chance to explore world wines through his expertise, selection and if needed, advice. The hotel has recently introduced a Wine & Tapas package, starting at 488++ baht per person, which includes two glasses of specially selected red and white wines to pair with a selection of mouth-watering tapas. In November Shangri-La, with under Ton’s guidance, will be launching a unique wine lounge by the pool, with the biggest selection of wines by the glass in town, with no less than 80 labels from different parts of the world.

Start off with a glass of high-end Italian sparkling wine, Bellavista Brut, then move on to a spicy Grüner Veltliner from Austria’s Weinviertel region before rolling the plummy tastes of a South African Nederburg Pinotage in your mouth. The opportunity to sample suchgreat variety of curated wines from all over the world, by the glass, is unique in Chiang Mai, where top classics are normally only sold in bottles.

The wine bar will be located at Dahla, where guests can enjoy winter breezes in the lush tropical gardens by the pool under the cabanas enjoying the melodic vibes specially played by the resident DJ. Starting from January, Shangri-La Hotel Chiang Mai will also be welcoming Michelin star chefs who will be serving exquisite wine pairing meals. In the meanwhile, there will also be wine tasting events introducing Chiang Mai with wine producers from across the world.

“You don’t have to know anything about wine, here you can learn and getting to know wine while sipping and enjoying it,” said Ton.

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