Grape Expectations

Banan grape plantation in Banan District, Battambang province. (Supplied)

Grape Expectations

Amid fields of rice in Battambang province, one family branched out into grapes, creating Cambodia’s first bottles of locally-produced wine. Now they have their sights set on conquering the juice market.

By Chhorn Phearun and Janelle Retka

August 25, 2017

BANAN District, Battambang – Leng Chan Thol crouches down to burnt orange soil, wielding a mini machete, and whacks at weeds that threaten to suffocate the grapevines on her family’s plantation. She is dressed in vibrant purple from head to toe, the hem of a laced evening gown flirting with the earth below, chunky jewels hugging her neck and wrist.

Neither the 51-year-old’s choice of farming clothes nor her job are conventional. Rice is Cambodia’s primary crop, with mangoes, jackfruit, durian and bananas taking command of the smaller market for fruit. Not grapes.

“What we have done has been different from others,” she says. “We have been creative.”

Ms. Chan Thol and her husband Chan Thai Chheoung, also 51, have been farming since 1996. From the start, they’ve gone against the grain.

“At first, I grew oranges,” Mr. Thai Chheoung says. He studied Thai orange-growing procedures using a Thai-Cambodian dictionary to slowly translate each bit. When he couldn’t learn from books, he winged it. “I grew based on imagination.”

While Mr. Thai Chheoung eventually mastered the art of growing oranges, selling the fruit of their labors was not so easy.

Having to deal with a middleman in the sale process made it impossible to make a profit from their oranges, he says.

Chan Thai Chheoung stands in front of some of the Cambodian-grown grapes at his vineyard in Battambang province. (Supplied)

They needed another way of making money. The lightbulb moment came in 1999 with an idea that had never been tried in Cambodia before and might have seemed like pie in the sky. They decided to start making wine. In a country with no history of producing grapes.

Mr. Thai Chheoung heard about wine production from family members in France and became interested in the untapped industry. His relatives loaded eight varieties of grapevines, costing about $18 each, into suitcases “and they flew over.”

Five years later, the Banan Grape Plantation in Banan district’s Chhoeuteal commune had produced Cambodia’s first bottles of locally made wine, a red blend that remains the plantation’s sole wine.

“We started with our bare hands,” Mr. Thai Chheoung says.

Overcoming challenges, not least a climate not ideal for growing grapes, the couple worked hard to make the business work.

In the beginning, they would crush the grapes by hand in large plastic containers, before transferring the liquid to large steel vats for fermenting. Ms. Chan Thoi would painstakingly apply the label to each bottle by hand. These days, this work is done by modern machinery, bought with a loan.

The couple produce about 10,000 bottles of wine annually, with each of the two batches taking six months to prepare, according to Mr. Thai Chheoung. It’s sold only onsite at a cost of $15 or $25, depending on a bottle’s age.

The couple are not the only Cambodians to challenge the status quo of fruit agriculture—although it is a rarity. Strawberries have also recently made an appearance.

In Pursat province, Ouch Sambo and his Spanish business partner began planting strawberries imported from the European country earlier this year, battling with a climate unfavorable to the fruit’s growth—which their first plot did not outlast—as well as international imports.

The machinery used to bottle the wine produced at the Battambang province vineyard. (Supplied)

They joined a Japanese agro-entrepreneur, Eiji Izuka, who has harvested 30 to 40 kg of strawberries in Cambodia five months annually for the past three years.

But the obstacles in creating a successful business in grapes have been a tough test for Mr. Thai Chheoung and his wife.

“Over here, there is a lot of rain,” Mr. Thai Chheoung explains.

“When the level of rain is excessive and the temperature and atmosphere are excessive, it could cause disease” in the grapes. Other issues included battling insects and creating a space in the market for wine.

“There were a lot of obstacles to enter the market place. Our designs aren’t similar to others,” he adds, and if a cork is misplaced or the bottle gets damaged, the product is ruined.

Finances have been a struggle, he says. In 2001, the couple took out a $10,000 loan to buy winemaking equipment.

They’ve only recently caught up with finances, Mr. Thai Chheoung says, having paid another hefty sum in 2013 for a second, 50-hectare plot in the province’s Ratanak Mondol district. This vineyard is known as Chan Thai Chheoung Winery.

Despite financial ups and downs, the couple pressed on.

They went from planting about 200 vines on their 0.4-hectare Banan district plantation in the early 2000s to about 50,000 plants now between the two, Mr. Thai Chheoung says.

Demand has not always matched their efforts. Ms. Chan Thol remembers thinking as their yield grew, “If nobody wants to buy grapes, what are we going to do with all the leftover grapes?”

Leng Chan Thol holding a cup of their wine produced at their vineyard. (Supplied)

This led to the creation of a grape brandy. And more recently, the couple took another turn in their business path, focusing on grape and ginger juice, “because some customers don’t drink wine,” Mr. Thai Chheoung says.

The primary vineyard, 10 km south of Battambang City, attracts a daily retinue of domestic and international tourists—although many are there for sightseeing and tasting, rather than purchases.

When a group arrives, she quickly drops her machete or springs up from her chair, boisterously greeting them and encouraging a tasting.

“Even if you don’t buy it, you need to taste!” she calls out to a group of four.

With a sip of the red liquid, a tart note bounces off the tongue, leaving behind a light earthy flavor.

Unlike most reds, it is gentle—as if tailored to those indulging in a glass within the borders of Cambodia, graced with a hot climate year round.

Despite the many turns their path has taken, the couple say they are optimistic about making juice—rather than wine—their focus, just as they turned from oranges to grapes so long ago.

“I understand the value of plants and that’s why I keep growing them,” Mr. Thai Chheoung says. “For me, as long as I am planting, I am happy.”

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