Clothilde Le Coz learns more about the unusual history of a Cambodian vineyard, Banon Winery, just outside Battambang that is producing local wines and brandy. Photographs by Conor Wall
On the road to Battambang’s 11th century Banon hill temple lies a small family vineyard that is quietly attracting local tourists.
On the walls of an improvised bar area, pictures display the multiple honours that Banon Winery has received from the Cambodian government since it began producing alcohol from its vines. Proudly poured into glasses, the homemade products – ginger juice, cabernet-shiraz wine and a brandy hoped to become the local cognac – await tasting.
The owner’s wife, Leny Chan Thol, may warn visitors that “this is not for Europeans. Usually they do not like it, or only the brandy.” Sipping the 12.5 degree Celsius wine for the first time, you feel she might be right. But when you learn how the adventure started, you remember that life is all about the journey and that this wine is a story in the making.
By The Book
“My husband learned winemaking straight from books,” explains Chan Thol, who runs the business with her spouse, doctor Chan Thay Chhoeung.
“He bought French, Thai and English dictionaries to be able to read the books he had and started that way,” she remembers.
Fifteen years ago, she was a farmer, selling oranges to the market. But in 1994, the couple came up with an idea to develop grapes as a side-business. No winery yet existed in Cambodia and it seemed a good idea to grow the crop as an alternative to the rice that dominates Battambang’s agriculture.
When oranges failed to fetch a decent enough price at the market for the couple to earn enough, Chan Thay Chhoeung sought to find out whether the extra effort of turning grapes into wine might be a better money-spinner to support the family of six.
As soon as he started reading about winemaking, he developed an experimental lab around his house. Black Queen grapes, imported from Vietnam, were initially grown on three hectares of vines, but it is not usually a grape meant for viticulture and the couple has since planted shiraz.
Unfortunately, the Cambodian climate is tough on winemakers. It rains a lot and grapes do not need so much water, nor heat. Chan Thay Chhoeung tries to keep picked grapes at below 30 degrees to make sure they can ferment for months in plastic barrels, before transferring the mixture to stainless steel barrels infused with French oak chips – a typical budgetary shortcut among wine-makers unable to buy oak barrels.
A Family Affair
“This wine business is much more profitable,” Leny Chan Thol acknowledges. Yet 14 years after first opening the winery, the family wants to keep the business small, keeping its human dimension and mainly targeting Cambodian consumers.
Nevertheless, harvesting 8,000 plants three times a year is no easy task, and the couple’s children come to help out during the weekends. Today, the hard work has paid off and during the holidays visitors come to the vineyard to sip the young wine – none is kept to age – all day long.
While the wine could taste tart to Western palate, the brandy has a strong taste reminiscent of a young cognac, a drink that the couple has been inspired by. Wine is the most successful of their products – a glass costs $3 – and thanks to the bottles they sell every year, the family has been able to invest and buy more land to produce vines 40 kilometres from the first site.
“It is different from regular rice alcohol,” Leny Chan Thol says, adding that it is also seen as “more sophisticated” to drink their products. “But everything we do is good to Cambodians. Otherwise, we would not sell everything,” she insists.