Written by Stephanie Mee
When Leng Chan Thol and her husband Chan Thay Chhoueng decided to grow grapes for wine production just outside Battambang city, people thought they were crazy.
"You would have to be very strong, courageous or foolhardy. Wine grapes are not a profitable Cambodian crop, and they are sure to fail,' were the types of things people whispered," said Leng Chan Thol.
Fortunately, the young entrepreneurs didn't let the idle chatter discourage them from pioneering Cambodia's first valiant attempt at viticulture.
The couple planted their first vines in 1999, and in 2004 the first bottles of Cambodia's only home-grown grape wine were ripe for drinking.
"Our families have always been farmers," said Leng Chan Thol from the small wooden tasting gazebo, set amid snaking grape vines and lush tropical foliage on the Chan Thay Chhoueng plantation, 16 kilometres south of Battambang.
"In the past we grew oranges on this land, but in the late '90s my husband saw ads on television about making wine, and we became interested in the process," she said.
" Each day we get anywhere from 10 to 100 tourists tasting our wine ..."
"At first, it was not easy, and we faced many challenges with the grapes, like insects, birds, over-watering and disease," she said. "But we are farmers, so we just kept growing them, keeping an eye on them and learning from each challenge."
Leng Chan Thol explained that, although some grapes do grow naturally in Cambodia, they are not necessarily the best variety for wine production.
The grapes grown and harvested at Chan Thay Chhoueng are mainly Shiraz, cabernet sauvignon and merlot varietals imported from France, America, Australia and Japan.
Typically, these varietals take well to warm climates, and the 3 hectares of mineral rich and fertile soil at Chan Thay Chhoueng, combined with plentiful sunshine and adequate rainfall, work together to provide an abundant harvest for Leng Chan Thol and her family.
"November to March is the best growing season for the grapes, but sometimes we can harvest the grapes up to three times a year, unlike Europe or the Americas where you might only get one harvest a year," Leng Chan Thol said.
"Usually it takes about six months to a year after harvesting for the wine to be ready to drink."
After harvesting the grapes, Leng Chan Thol and her family crush them by hand in large plastic containers. They then transfer the wine to stainless steel vats where yeast is added to aid in the fermentation process, and the wine is left to ferment for six months to a year. All bottling, corking and labelling is done on-site.
The most popular product is the 2005 vintage Shiraz-merlot blend, which retails at US$15 a bottle. Typical of young Shiraz and merlot varietals grown in hot climates, the wine is a rich ruby-red colour, with aromas of blackberries, raspberries and chocolate.
Another big seller is the Phnom Banon brandy produced at the plantation and named after the nearby mountain and ancient temple site.
Caramel-gold in colour and 40 proof, the brandy packs a powerful punch but is not harsh, with a smooth, sweet aftertaste reminiscent of tropical whiskeys without the bite. Bottles retail at $12.
The Chan Thay Chhoueng plantation also sells a sweet, blush-coloured rose for $6 and a light, fruity, non-alcoholic grape juice for $1.50 per bottle.
For Leng Chan Thol and her family, the effort and risk has paid off.
Small buyers and wholesalers now come from all over Cambodia and abroad to buy their products, and in 2006 Prime Minister Hun Sen paid Chan Thay Chhoueng a visit, lauding Leng Chan Thol for her pioneering spirit.
"Each day we get anywhere from 10 to 100 tourists tasting our wine," she said.
"So now, all those people who thought I would fail, well, I think they are quite embarrassed about their lack of faith."
And Leng Chan Thol's ambition doesn't stop there. Her plans for the future include purchasing more land to plant different grape varietals and a small restaurant that serves dishes using fresh, organic produce grown on-site.
Chan Thay Chhoueng plantation is located at #72, Bot Sala Village, Banon District, 16 kilometres south of Battambang City. For more information call 012 665 238.