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At Topaz, Hak Seyha sniffs a glass of wine before tasting.
At Topaz, Hak Seyha sniffs a glass of wine before tasting. NICK STREET

At your service: Meet the wine stewards

There’s a new profession in Phnom Penh. Bennett Murray reports on the trend for sommeliers

Until she was 20 years old, Gnean Eden had never taken a sip of wine. When she was hired as a hostess by Phnom Penh’s Sofitel Hotel a year and a half ago, she didn’t take to the drink.

“I just thought, ‘Ooh! That’s a lot of hard alcohol!’”

Last week, however, the 21-year-old wine steward talked knowledgeably about some of her favourite food and wine pairings: Bordeaux with beef and Burgundy with chicken.

“The grape variety in Bordeaux is more full-bodied than Pinot Noir from Burgundy. You pair something that is not too strong, like chicken, with something medium-bodied. And rare red meat should be paired with a strong wine.”

Hired as a waitress, Eden developed an interest in wine after reading the books kept around the Sofitel as decoration. When staff began training her in wine presentation, they noticed her aptitude for differentiating between different tastes.

Gnean Eden holds a 2007 Opus One from Napa Valley, worth $750, at Sofitel’s Do Forno restaurant
Gnean Eden holds a 2007 Opus One from Napa Valley, worth $750, at Sofitel’s Do Forno restaurant. NICK STREET

Cambodia is hardly known for a wine culture, with beer far more prevalent at weddings than champagne and a single vineyard in Battambang accounting for the entire Kingdom’s domestic production. But, as the number of restaurants serving fine wine increases, the Kingdom is seeing the growth of wine stewardship: the art of selecting, maintaining and presenting wine by trained professionals known as sommeliers. Plans to create Cambodia’s first sommelier association are now in the works.

Last week two stewards, Eden and fellow Cambodian Hak Seyha from Topaz restaurant, were flown to Singapore to compete in the Southeast Asia Best Sommelier Competition.

There, they competed with 12 other contestants from six other countries. The event took place in the five-star Trader Hotel’s elegant ballroom, where a crowd of 100 gathered to watch the sommeliers compete in wine knowledge, blind tasting and presentation.

To secure their places, the pair had a week earlier beaten eight other Cambodian wine stewards at the first Cambodian Sommelier Competition at Topaz, which was organised by Thalias Group, Asia Wine Institute, Cambodian Hotel Association and Red and White International. Eden won first place, while Seyha took second.

Tommy Lam, founder of the Singapore Sommelier Association was the chair of the competition. Although the performance of the contestants fell short of international sommelier standards, he said, it was surprisingly good given their lack of formal training.

Although Cambodia already has a restaurant association for business owners, there is no guild for sommeliers.

“Based on what they understand in this part of the world, where wine is not a very popular beverage, and from the way I look at those candidates, I think they are pretty good.”

Bottles of 2008 Brun Despagne, a basic Bordeaux, in the Topaz cellar
Bottles of 2008 Brun Despagne, a basic Bordeaux, in the Topaz cellar. NICK STREET

Ansel Ashby, marketing coordinator for Red and White and judge at the Cambodian competition, said Eden and Seyha’s presence in Singapore was particularly remarkable given the fact that they are not accredited sommeliers.

“Officially, there aren’t any sommeliers in Cambodia,” said Ashby, adding that sommelier certification is controlled by the global Court of Master Sommeliers, which has no official presence in Cambodia.

Had it not been for a last minute phone call from Lam, who wanted to make sure all ASEAN countries were represented, Cambodia would not have been included in the competition, according to Arnaud Darc, chairman and chief executive of Thalias.

Darc considers Cambodia’s participation the first step in establishing a proper sommelier’s association in Cambodia, he said. Lam plans to return to Cambodia in October to help establish the association. “The main objective of the association will be to train the people, and possibly organise a sommelier school, and get one of the local universities to accept this program,” said Lam.

In the meantime, unofficial sommelier instruction is done in-house, with restaurant managers seeking out talented staff members and starting from the beginning.

Hak Lina, general manager of Topaz, said that Hak Seyha (no relation) started his career as a particularly talented bartender who was able to take care of the stock, invent creative cocktails and remember important details about drinks.

“He didn’t know much about the wine, but he could remember. So everyday, we pushed him little by little.”

To further his training, the management even arranged for a winemaker to fly in from France to teach Seyha the intricacies of flavour by isolating the various acids in wine and mixing them in water, thus allowing him to taste the various flavours separately.

Although Seyha said that his job has made him a wine lover, he was previously partial to beer before first trying wine at Topaz two years ago. He said that it took time for him to appreciate the beverage.

“I thought it was very bitter and very strong, very difficult to drink. But when I tried pairing it with food, I was able to find out about the taste of the wine.”

He added that he is now partial to Pinot Noir while finding Chardonnay too dry.

Seyha said that his initial distaste for wine is common with Cambodians of his age group.

“It is mostly the old men who drink wine, not young people.”

However, Seyha said that he does his part to encourage his friends and customers to try the beverage.

“I remember, we had one group of Cambodian people and they didn’t like the wine, so they ordered whiskey. But I told them about the advantages of the wine, that it tastes good with food – beef especially. They decided to try the wine, and then they came another day and drank wine again.”

The emergence of sommeliers in Cambodia corresponds to an increased appetite for wine locally, which Darren Gall, who has sold wine in the Kingdom for the past 10 years, said is steadily growing. Consequently, standards for transportation and storage are on the increase.

“If a few bottles of cheap wine are sitting in a wooden wine rack out in the hot air or sun for months on end they are usually closer to vinegar by the time they are consumed and this is not a choice anyone wants to make, but today outlets are more aware, trained and careful about storing wine in better conditions.”

Seyha said that French wines are the most popular, with any wine with the word ‘chateau’ on the label perceived as classy. However, Gall said that he has observed a consistent increase in demand for a variety of vintages.

“Red wines are still the most popular, but as more people have access to wine and different wines styles other choices are emerging,” said Gall.

For Sofitel’s Eden, the Alsace region of France can’t be beaten.

She recommends you try the Riesling.

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