Marissa Carruthers meets the president of the newly launched Cambodian Sommeliers’ Association (CSA) to find out about the rise of top-quality wine in the Kingdom. Photography by Rudi Towiro.
How did you become a sommelier?I worked at Topaz for eight years, but before I was a bartender and knew nothing about wine. I was then promoted to a wine steward and after a few months [my employer, Arnaud Darc] asked me to become a sommelier. I spent about three years training, learning about the different types of wine, the qualities, bodies, acid, fruitiness and taste. For me, this was a totally new experience, but I really enjoyed learning about the flavours and variety. To many Cambodians, wine is just wine.
What is a sommelier and how does it differ from a wine steward?
A wine steward is someone who serves wine but doesn’t have any specific knowledge about wine. A wine sommelier has great knowledge on the quality, taste and pairing of a good wine with good food. They have also received professional training to be able to recommend quality wines to customers. It’s quite difficult because Cambodia is quite young when it comes to wine compared with other countries.
What does your job involve?
My job is to serve and taste wine and recommend wines we buy from suppliers. I taste wines for the customers, if they want me too. I advise on what types of wines go with certain foods and explain why. For example, if you want fish, chicken, seafood or pasta, a white wine goes best. For meats, like beef and pork, then red wines are better. But then you have to look at the sauces they are cooked with. If you have a table with several dishes, then I recommend a Pinot Grigio because it is lighter and fruitier. For oysters, I always suggest champagne.
When did you first taste wine?
I had never tried wine until I started working for Topaz restaurant. Like many other Cambodians, I just drank beer. My boss asked me to try it before I became a wine steward and I really liked it, especially because there are so many different tastes, qualities, characters and types. I feel that as the quality and variety of wines available in Cambodia continues to grow and develop, more Cambodians will change from drinking beer to wine. Here, Cambodians are slowly learning about wine. There are also the health benefits of drinking wine over beer – it is much healthier and better for the heart.
What benefits come from having a sommeliers’ association?
Cambodia is a developing country and many restaurants and bars are in demand of mature and professional sommeliers to ensure a high level and standard in service. Because of a lack of knowledge and training in this field, CSA aims to enhance and bring together Cambodian sommeliers not only to get well trained in various workshops by the association, but also to be able to expose their ability on the national and international level. We hold regular meetings with suppliers and restaurants and bars so they can learn more about it as well.
What wines are popular in the Kingdom now?
Traditionally, wines that came from France were seen as the only good ones in Cambodia, and the only ones Cambodians were interested in. Now we have especially good and popular wines coming from Chile and Australia. This is something I can only see improving into the future as we attract more suppliers from different countries.
Have you taken part in any competitions?
I have been working as a wine sommelier for the last three years and was [in March] awarded best sommelier during the wine stewards’ competition by the Cambodian Restaurant Association. I also recently competed in the Best Cambodian Sommelier 2014 contest and in August will go onto compete in the [Asia-wide] finals in Hong Kong. It is very exciting to be able to represent my country in an international competition.