Beer, whisky and strong, home-brewed moonshine have long been Cambodians’ favorite tipples, but with an ever-growing middle class, tastes are changing and if you’re part of the new elite, it is increasingly important to know your Pinot Gris from your Pinot Noir.
To help enhance one’s nose and palate, a relatively new profession has sprung up in Phnom Penh’s finer establishments—the sommelier—or wine steward.
Ten of the country’s premier sommeliers on Wednesday took part in a training competition—the first of its kind in Cambodia—and the two winners, Eden Gnean of Sofitel Cambodia and Hak Seyha from Topaz Restaurant, will fly to Singapore next week to compete in the annual Southeast Asian Sommelier Competition.
It will be the first time Cambodian sommeliers go up against their more experienced counterparts from Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Vietnam, and while they are not expected to win, the regional competition should prove good experience.
Wednesday’s event, held at Topaz, was organized by Thalias, Asia Wine Institute, the Cambodian Hotel Association, beverage marketing and export consulting company Red and White International, and was chaired by Tommy Lam, the founder of the Singapore Sommelier Association.
“Traditional volumes here are still concentrated towards the higher wealth category of Cambodians and the expat communities and tourists in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, however, the growth in consumption amongst the Khmer middle class is noticeable and is expecting to continue for many years,” said Justin Wright, managing director of Red & White International.
“Whilst it is true that the more recognized and expensive wines such as Bordeaux Grand Cru are available and often distributed as gifts amongst wealthy Cambodians, the market has matured a great deal both here and regionally over the last decade. There is a genuine interest within the growing middle class towards experimentation with and the enjoyment of wine regardless of price,” he continued.
The contestants hailed from some of Phnom Penh’s top restaurants and hotels, including Raffles, Sofitel and Topaz, and were judged by an expert panel on wine identification, description and recommendation.
Mr. Lam, the only person to run official sommelier accreditation courses in Asia, said that while it was his first visit to Cambodia, wine consumption—and production—was growing rapidly in the region as a whole.
“Asian consumers are becoming more knowledgeable in wine,” he said, singling out China—where he provides frequent sommelier courses—as one example. Wine has become a status symbol in the world’s most populous nation over the past few years—not to mention big business.
Mr. Lam said since there was no particular standard here—with Cambodian sommeliers being trained mainly in-house by their managers—he thought there was a place for accredited sommelier training. If there was enough interest, he would bring his courses to Cambodia, he said.
Despite its history as a French colony, Cambodia has never been a wine-producing nation—save the French colonial curates who cultivated small vineyards for church consumption—and while one Cambodian family in Battambang has started up its own vineyard—using Google as a guide—their wines have received scant praise.
However, nearby Burma is a possible new frontier, according to Mr. Lam, who said that as the country opens up, he expects local wine production to follow.
Judging the final segment of the competition on Wednesday were Mr. Lam, Anna-Maria Nugent from the Australian Business Association of Cambodia, Armand Gerbie, owner of Armand’s restaurant, and Ansel Ashby, senior marketing coordinator at Red & White International.
The sommeliers were tested on a number of skills including the service of a sparkling wine, decanting and a formal blind tasting.
One of the winners, Sofitel’s Eden Gnean, was given a glass of Savignon Blanc from New Zealand and had to tell the judges what dish she would recommend to go along side it.
“The taste of Savignon Blanc is high acidity,” Ms. Gnean said, “so you could eat with oysters…[or] could have papaya salad because it has a little acidity and will go very well.”
After sampling a second glass, a Bordeaux, Ms. Gnean recommended it be accompanied by a beef wagyu or lamb dish.
Then came the blind taste test. Ms. Gnean sampled both a red and a white—the bottles’ labels covered so as to be indiscernible—and gave her opinion.
“The color [of the white] is a pale yellow, which means the wine is probably young. It has the flavor of citrus and this tends to be Savignon Blanc…. It tastes like guava, minerals—it’s a dry wine,” she said, as Mr. Lam nodded his approval.
Waiting in the wings for their turn in front of the judges were Sok Kanthei, 24, from Pour Un Sourire D’Enfant, a French NGO that operates a hotel school for young people, and Mr. Seyha (another winner).
Both said they had had little experience of wine before starting their training.
“I had never tasted wine before, I was 21 when I first had wine,” said Ms. Kanthei, who recently spent one month in France to further her studies as a sommelier. “But now I think Cambodians start to know well about wine.”
For his part, Mr. Seyha said it took him years of working at Topaz to really appreciate the taste of good wine.
“The first time I was confused because I never know about wine. At first I didn’t like it,” he laughed, adding that Pinot Noir is now his preferred beverage.
However, when he’s with his friends they still drink beer, he said.
“[Cambodians] aged 20s, they like beer. Just rich people and older people [like wine].”