Banan district, Battambang province – For the best Cambodian-made grape wine, the choice is obvious: Prasat Phnom Banan. Of course, it is perhaps the only grape wine produced in Cambodia.
The 3-hectare vineyard and winery of Chan Thay Chhoeung and his wife Leng Chanthol is a small oasis among the dusty roads outside Battambang town.
A thin film of brown coats all the foliage along the pockmarked road to the vineyard, giving the impression that all the plants are made of cardboard or taken from an old sepia-toned photograph.
But once there, small butterflies swirl around their flower-covered property as visitors are treated to a warm welcome at the small wine bar the couple set up outside their modest home.
Chan Thay Chhoeung said that enough of his 8,000 vines were sufficiently mature to produce the winery’s first vintage in November 2004. Today, he produces around 10,000 bottles of wine annually in two varieties: red and rosé. Both wines, he said, are created from a blend of black queen, black opal and shiraz grape varieties.
“It’s not many [bottles] because we create it with our own hands, and we have very little capital,” Chan Thay Chhoeung said. “It is a unique skill that not many other plantation owners have,” he added.
Battambang is quite a good place to grow grapes, he said, but the environment does present some difficulties when trying to turn those grapes into wine.
“The challenge is keeping the wine below 25 degrees [Celsius]” while it ferments, Chan Thay Chhoeung said. The wine will produce a foul odor if the temperature gets too high during the fermentation process, he explained, adding that the lack of electricity in the area makes air-conditioned storage impossible.
“We have developed a process of storing the [fermenting] wine in a bin of sand with water poured in to cool it,” he said. “So far there have been no problems, but this is a precaution to ensure quality.”
Visitors to his winery probably fetch him about $60 per day, and another 300 bottles are sold each month at the market in Battambang town, Chan Thay Chhoeung said. But nearly all that they earn goes into maintaining his vines and paying the four live-in workers who tend to them.
“We lack advertising, and people tend to prefer what they see on TV,” he said.
Although Chan Thay Chhoeung says that business has not expanded much since last year, they have had some successes to brag about. At their little wine bar, Leng Chanthol proudly showed off a photo album of her and her husband presenting a bottle of their wine to Prime Minister Hun Sen in Phnom Penh. Their most recent vintage was also showcased at last year’s Angkor-Gyeongju World Culture Expo in Siem Reap town.
But how good is the wine itself? Of the two varieties, the red is superior to the rosé, but neither are particularly well suited to Western palettes. Both are quite sweet—certainly far sweeter than most grape wines—and have a somewhat medicinal taste that some said reminds them of muscle wine.
Chan Thay Chhoeung said that this is intentional because Cambodian wine drinkers—his intended market—prefer their wine sweet.
But he is now working on a shiraz wine made specifically for Cambodia’s expatriate market, which he hopes to have on shelves by August.
A sample from a nearly-completed test batch of this new wine revealed it to be quite a leap forward, displaying a pleasant, mellow flavor and aroma that stands in sharp contrast to the prickly sweetness of his previous vintages—in fact, in line with Western tastes as Chan Thay Chhoeung intended it to be.
But expect to pay a good bit more for it. Chan Thay Chhoeung said that a bottle is expected to retail for around $20, because he can only produce a single bottle out of each of his shiraz vines.