Amid emerald rice fields, Cambodia’s first winery startles but pleases

PHUM BOT SALA, Cambodia – The fresh grape juice ferments in plastic water containers, bottles are labelled in a loungeroom and cheese has never passed the lips of the producer. But Cambodia’s first home-grown wine is proving a hit, startling foreign tourists and winning over domestic tipplers in the tropical country.

Despite being a former colony of wine-loving France, most Cambodians only drink rice wine, a cheap and dangerously potent concoction many farmers make themselves in the predominantly agricultural country.

The twisting, gnarled grapevines at Chan Thai Chhoeung’s farm are an anomaly amid northwestern Battambang province’s lush green rice fields and orange groves, set near a river swollen with tropical monsoon rains.

A thatched open-air hut by the bougainvillea-clad roadside welcomes passersby and offers generous tastings.

"At first I wasn’t thinking about starting a winery. I was only thinking about growing grapes because some neighbouring countries produce them," says orange farmer-turned-oenophile Chan Thai Chhoeung.

Both Vietnam and Thailand, which border Cambodia, have begun producing grape wines with varying degrees of success in recent years despite wine-making traditions which dictate that grapes be grown in cooler climes.

Chan Thai Chhoeung planted his first vines sourced from Thailand in 2000, followed by some sent to him by a brother in France.

When the grapes failed to fetch a decent price at the local market, the unassuming 39-year-old sought to find out whether the extra effort of turning the fruit into wine might be a better money-spinner to support his family of six.

Although he rarely drinks wine himself he decided to try, and completed his first harvest of five tonnes (tons) of grapes at the end of 2004.

Chan Thai Chhoeung now has more than 4,500 plants growing across about two hectares (five acres) divided between three separate farms. Varietals plunged into the fertile dark soil include Black Queen, Shiraz and Kyoho.

"While growing them, I met with many difficulties. This type of plant is not easy to grow," Chan Thai Chhoeung says, describing the mysterious demise of 50 Chenin Blanc vines which irretrievably withered.

"In Cambodia, there is a lot of rain and this kind of plant needs not so much water — and winter," he says, describing the battle wine producers must endure in the tropics.

After its first soak in the plastic water containers, the wine is transferred to large silver vats where it is infused with French oak chips — a typical budgetary shortcut among wine-makers unable to afford oak barrels.

At this stage, the wine is kept below 30 degrees Celsius (86 F) for the best results, although 20 C is usually preferred, Chan Thai Chhoeung says.

"It’s hard to get a stable electricity supply," he complains. Cambodia is beset with a generally poor electricity infrastructure.

Tasting his product five months into the fermentation process, he decided it was flavoursome enough to bottle, eschewing guidelines that suggested a year-long soak.

"Plus I don’t have much money, so I tried to produce the wine earlier."

The wine-maker and his wife, Leny Chan Thol, spent 10,000 dollars setting up the business, including a 5,000-dollar loan from a microcredit institution. The largest expense was a 1,500-dollar imported Canadian filter.

The amount is significant in post-conflict Cambodia, where decades of war which ended only in 1998 and included the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime have decimated the economy. Average annual income is about 290 dollars per year.

"According to the ministry of industry, it’s Cambodia’s first wine," Chan Thai Chhoeung says.

He recommends sipping his 12.5 percent alcohol volume rose or red wine — he has given up on white — with a nibble on cashew nuts or a meal of beef steak.

"I’ve never tried cheese, only prahok," he says when asked whether cheese might accompany it. Prahok, a pungent salted and fermented fish paste, is a Cambodian staple sometimes dubbed fish cheese.

The wine is distributed to the capital Phnom Penh, the tourist town of Siem Reap — gateway to Cambodia’s Angkor temple complex — and nearby Battambang, the kingdom’s second largest city. It sells for six dollars a bottle at the cellar door and a little higher elsewhere.

"I dream about being able to produce more and sell to other countries. My main problem now is getting the money together to buy more equipment," he says, adding that he’d also like to snap up more land for his vines.

The provincial governor has stepped in to lodge a request for Chan Thai Chhoeung’s businesses to be granted tax-free status for the next three to five years, in an effort to help them grow.

Another market are the 20 or so people who stop by the vineyard every day. Among them are French tourists Elizabeth Heitz, 55, and Alain Hummel, 53, whose motorbike taxi drivers suggested a visit.

"This is an event for us," Heitz says of discovering the winery. The couple live above a wine shop in Strasbourg and are pleased to put the knowledge they gained at a wine course last year to the test.

"For us, it’s a sweet wine, not a rose… It’s a wine to drink before a meal in the summer or with an appetiser," Heitz assesses after a swirl and sip of the apricot-hued rose wine.

Hummel points out that the rose should be served chilled, not poured at the steamy temperature in the hut.

"But in the south of France, we have the same wine as this. It’s drinkable," he concludes. Both prefer it over the "red" wine which they say is really a dark rose and "empty".

Hummel is concerned about the size of the vines, too, saying they look up to 20 years old despite their youth. "They have developed quickly, maybe too quickly," he says.

Regardless, the couple is taken aback by the vineyard and the obvious effort Chan Thai Chhoeung has expended in an attempt to put Cambodia on the world’s wine-making map.

"All the people who make wine are a little bit crazy," Heitz laughs.

Cracks in Cambodia’s courts prised further open ahead of KR trial

PHNOM PENH – Two recent high-profile Cambodian court rulings condemned by activists heighten fears the judiciary is ill-equipped to deliver a trial of ex-Khmer Rouge leaders free of political influence.

The UN-backed tribunal, which has been delayed for years due to negotiations over its set up, was given a green light to proceed with staffing in April but wrangling over funding continues and senior appointments are yet to be made.

Critics have long charged that Cambodia’s notoriously corrupt judiciary is also politically influenced and should not be handed the task of trying the surviving henchmen of tyrant Pol Pot, who seized power in 1975.

When his Khmer Rouge regime was ousted three years later, up to two million Cambodians were dead as a result of their ultra-Maoist policies, but no one has ever been punished for the crimes they perpetuated as Cambodia struggled to emerge from decades of conflict that only ended in 1998.

Under the agreement for the so-called Extraordinary Chambers (EC), mostly Cambodian but also foreign judges are expected to try at least six of the most culpable top members of the Khmer Rouge.

The EC’s decisions require a majority vote and must include at least one foreign vote, but human rights groups have argued this exposes the tribunal to stalemates as well as political influence via the appointment of the judges.

They say two recent cases to be tried by Cambodian courts argue their point.

On Tuesday, Cambodia’s military court found an opposition lawmaker guilty of attempting to form a rebel army plotting to overthrow the government and handed him a seven-year sentence, sparking uproar among human rights groups.

They complained about flimsy evidence, irregular court proceedings and alleged that the court was operating outside its jurisdiction by trying a civilian in the first place.

The United States also condemned the outcome, saying it "raises again questions about the competence and independence of Cambodia’s judiciary".

Last week, a similar outcry was provoked by the convictions and 20-year sentences handed to two men accused of the January 2004 murder of a prominent unionist. No eyewitness testimony or forensic evidence was shown to the court.

The men, Sok Sam Oeun and Born Samnang, are seen even by the victim’s family as being the scapegoats of a government under intense pressure to convict.

"In both cases the allegations were either fabricated or spurious," Steve Heder, Phnom Penh-based University of London legal scholar closely following tribunal preparations, told AFP.

"The problem here is the real criminals were those who conspired to misuse the law and the courts to suppress political and social dissent in violation of domestic Cambodian legislation and Cambodia’s international legal obligations.

"So obviously this bodes very badly for prospects that the Cambodian law and judiciary can be relied upon to do its part of the Khmer Rouge tribunal job properly. I agree with those who see things going from bad to worse."

Kek Galabru, president of Cambodian rights watchdog Licadho, said the blatant bias in both cases deepened her pessimism about the tribunal.

"How can we hope to get a credible, independent trial that can provide justice to the victims? This is my question," she told AFP.

New York-based Human Rights Watch also questioned the tribunal’s capacity.

"These two trials, within a week of each other, bode extremely badly for the upcoming Khmer Rouge tribunal, in which Cambodian judges will play a key role alongside foreign ones," said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch.

"The current state of the judiciary simply does not justify any faith that Cambodian judges involved in the Khmer Rouge tribunal will be able to act professionally and independently of the government."

But the agreement thrashed out between the government and United Nations for the 56-million-dollar, three-year proceedings is unlikely to be wound back now, Heder said.

"It’s too late. The political and diplomatic deal is done. The donors don’t want the can of worms reopened," he said.

"There of course has been some human rights and diplomatic kerfuffle about the trials but the reality is they’ve got away with this."

One diplomat from a donor country told AFP the international judges would safeguard against any political influence on Cambodia’s judiciary.

"If we are trying to help reform their judiciary, then the inclusion of Cambodian judges and prosecutors is essential," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.