Tilting his long-stemmed wine glass at a 45-degree angle, Sambath Nado inspected the deep-red color of the wine sluicing around inside.
Bringing it to his lips, he took a sip and looked pensive. After swallowing and breathing deeply, he bobbed his head while conferring his opinion.
“It is very good,” said Sambath Nado, assistant manager and unofficial sommelier for the Thai Hout Market.
He, along with about 100 other guests Tuesday night, had the opportunity to be the first in Cambodia to sample wines made by Anura, a South African winery looking to break into the country’s relatively untapped market.
Despite a global economic slowdown, Anura is betting the undersized Cambodian wine market will develop and grow as more people cultivate a taste for the largely luxury item.
Spending two days in Phnom Penh, Anura owner Tymen Bouma said meetings with eager distributors and conversations with potential customers showed an economic vibrancy in Cambodia.
Bouma, who owns and manages the 120-hectare Anura vineyard with his wife and son, said his vintages are already established in Thailand and Vietnam, making Cambodia the next logical choice. The country also welcomes more than 2 million tourists a year and counts several luxury hotels in the capital and Siem Reap, he said, creating a lucrative market for wines.
“Tourism is going to grow; it’s not going to stop,” he said, adding the vineyard is planning to launch its product in Cambodia within the next two months.
Pouring free glasses of its vintage served up with a spread of gourmet dishes, the evening marked more than just Anura’s first foray into Cambodia. It was also a chance for the nation of South Africa to introduce itself to the Cambodian public and possibly boost the amount of trade between the two nations.
For the most part, Cambodians are still oblivious to South Africa and its wares, officials said. But occasions like the one Tuesday were part of the effort to change that perception.
“What we needed was for South Africa to raise its profile,” South African Ambassador Douglas Gibson said in between sips from his glass of Malbec. Cambodians “don’t know where South Africa is or what it stands for or what it can offer them.”
Based in Bangkok and serving for just over a year, Gibson said he hopes to close the trade gap between the two countries by increasing exports from South Africa. According to figures from the South African Embassy, Cambodia imports roughly $463,000 worth of South African products, the majority of which are vegetables. On the other hand, Cambodia exports about $1.7 million worth of textile products to South Africa.
Cheam Yeap, CPP lawmaker and chairman of the National Assembly economy and finance commission, said Cambodia does not have much of a trade relationship with South Africa for the time being. However, he expected that shortfall to change in the future, saying Cambodia could learn from South Africa’s growth over the years.
“We might have a South African embassy in our country and vice versa,” he said Wednesday. “I hope we will have a stronger investments and diplomatic relationships.”
Despite the legacy of French colonial rule, most Cambodians imbibe palm wine or homemade rice wine, a high-octane drink that is brewed from rice and occasionally spiced with herbs or tree bark.
“Wine is a luxury product at the end of the day,” Jeroen Van Daalen, owner of the Red Apron wine shop in Phnom Penh, said. “It’s a very ‘pioneer’ market for them.”
Van Daalen said while access to fine-quality wine has grown over the years the recent financial and tourism crunch would result in a corresponding reduction in people buying wine.
Gibson said the embassy chose to promote wines because of their growing popularity overseas. South Africa already exports more than 4 million liters of wine annually.
Tymen Bouma estimated the retail price of a bottle of Anura could range from $10 to $30 (40,000 to 120,000 riel); a steep fee for a country where The World Bank says the average annual income of a citizen is less than $1,700. Still, he noted, for the quality of the wine the price was about three times cheaper than its competitors.
“Wine is very appreciated by the Cambodian people actually,” Sambath Nado said Tuesday night at the Inter-Continental Hotel on Mao Tse Toung Boulevard. “They know how to drink it.”
He said customers at his shop were a healthy mix of Cambodians, expatriates and foreign tourists looking for varietals from Europe, South America or Australia.
On Tuesday night, he said the Sauvignon Blanc from Anura was “flowery” and “very perfumed” but the Chardonnay fell flat.
“I drank it and I didn’t feel anything after drinking it,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Phorn Bopha)