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.