When Nou Virak first made wine from wild grapes in the local forest, his neighbours thought he was mad. Bennett Murray heard how his bottles are selling in the thousands.
Pursat’s Krakor district, located on the southern bank of the Tonle Sap lake, is known more for its prahok factories than wineries. But instead of fermenting fish, one local entrepreneur has reaped the forests’ wild grapes to make local vintages. Sweet and sour with a light tart kick and high acidity that gives it a slight vinegary aroma, the wine won’t turn connoisseurs’ heads anytime soon, but Nou Virak’s three-person team managed to bottle and sell 20,000 bottles last year.
The Wild Grapes Association, which sells wine certified organic by the Cambodian Organic Agriculture Association in three Phnom Penh shops, was started in 2003 and is based in a single shed surrounded by paddies just off Highway 5. It began, Virak said, as a foolhardy dream that made him a laughingstock among his neighbours.
“People thought I was going crazy because I was spending so much money on making wine and buying grapes,” said Virak as he recalled the eight years he spent teaching himself how to learn the process.
“Now they don’t know what to say because they see me selling so much, and they’re afraid to ask for wine from me.”
Wild grapes grow naturally around Pursat, but are seldom eaten due to their unappealing flavour and texture. Their most common use before Virak showed up, he said, was as toys for children.
“They’re hard to eat because the seed is big, the outside is thick, and when you eat it makes your mouth itch.” But Virak, a 41-year-old Prey Veng native who was working in Pursat on an NGO-sponsored agricultural development project, decided winemaking could be a creative way to capitalise on the unused resource. Knowing little about wine production, however, he invested his savings and spent the next decade teaching himself the trade. His only prior experience had been the basic theory he learnt studying agriculture in Thailand.
Without anyone else brave enough to try his concoctions, he was forced to test all the wine by himself which caused him to be frequently sick. The project became all-consuming, said Virak, adding that he has chosen to forgo family life in favour of winemaking.
“The reason I don’t want a wife right now is because if I have a wife, I’ll waste all the money I need to make this wine. I’ll have to take care of her and the kids.”
His obsession is particularly remarkable considering that he doesn’t particularly enjoy wine.
“I will taste it, but I do not like to drink very much,” he said.
The manufacturing process is similar to ordinary wine, with grapes crushed and yeast added. They sit for three months in plastic barrels before palm sugar is added to aid fermentation and egg whites to absorb the gunk. The wine Virak has sold in the past has been aged for a full year, but he plans to soon start selling booze aged for three.
Although Virak is considering the feasibility of cultivating the grapes, he currently enlists local villagers to harvest the grapes from the nearby forests at the edge of the Cardamom mountain range. He pays 500 riel per kilo and uses around 72 tonnes to produce 20,000 bottles.
His neighbours have taken notice of his winery and have asked Virak for drinks, but Virak refuses, explaining that a single bottle carries a $6 price tag in Phnom Penh. He does, however, give free wine to women after childbirth.
“When a woman gives birth, they drink it and think it helps them,” said Virak, adding that he could not personally vouch for the claim but did not doubt his neighbours’ testimonies.
It is not just the wine that helps with women’s health issues, said Virak, adding that the roots were also in demand to treat urinary tract infections in women. This created problems for Virak when the local medicine man, unaware that Virak was using the grapes, dug out the roots of the trees that the grapevines hang off. The issue was resolved after the medicine man agreed to stay off Virak’s turf.
Virak’s wild grape wine has proven popular enough that he is now expanding his operations to Preah Vihear, where he says additional rain makes the grapes even better. He now divides his time between his Pursat winery and Preah Vihear, where he hopes the first batch is still being aged. Virak also hopes to export the wine to China, which he visited earlier this year for the China-Asean Expo in Nanning.
“They seem to like it a lot in China, and I really want to find somewhere abroad to export it,” he said, adding that he wants the wine’s unique flavour to catch on internationally.
Virak recommends drinking his wine with very rare beef.
You can buy Virak’s wine at Happy Farm Shop, #11 Street 230.