GRAPE trellises and vines surround the home of Chan Thay Chheoung and his family, about 13 kilometres from Battambang in Banon district.
The former orange farmer was a pioneer in planting vineyards in Cambodia – teaching himself how to determine the right soil for grapes and then how to make wine.
Now his vineyard draws tourists from all over the world, keen to taste the curiosity of wine grown in a tropical country.
Leng Chan Thol, 43, Chan Thay Chheoung’s wife, says their Phnom Banon brandy and red wine draws up to 50 tourists a day, a number that’s increased noticeably as the vineyard’s fame spreads.
“Some customers who come here say that they go to Siem Reap because they want to see Angkor Wat temple, but come to Battambang because they want to taste my wine,” she said.
Because she has more customers coming directly to drink wine at their home, Leng Chan Thol has opened a barbecue restaurant next door and keeps enough wines on hand for her customers to taste and buy.
Selling for between US$6 and US$15 a bottle, the family doesn’t yet produce enough wine to distribute to restaurants and hotels in Battambang, Siem Reap or Phnom Penh.
Leng Chan Thol says her family produces three different kinds of alcoholic beverage – Roger, Ripe and brandy. Most is made from the grapes on her farm, mainly shiraz and a variety called Black Queen. She says they produce a ginger drink as well, which also interests customers.
Back in 1999, when her family first started to grow grapes, Leng Chan Thol, says nobody expected her family would make the vineyard succeed. Her husband, who had plenty of experience growing oranges, taught himself all about grape cultivation by reading books in French, laboriously translating each word from a French-Khmer dictionary.
“Because oranges didn’t provide a good income for us, he wanted to change to another crop. So he researched several plants, and he found that the soil PH and temperature here was suitable for grapes,” said Leng Chan Thol.
When he’d learned enough about grape cultivation, he asked relatives in France to send vine cuttings.
“We first grew several vines, and after they blossomed well and produced good fruit, we grafted more and more plants,” she said.
Later on, her husband expanded his vineyards to 2 hectares, using water irrigated from the Sangke river nearby.
At first they grew grapes suitable for eating, but in 2004 took the plunge and began making wine. Using equipment imported from France and setting up their own bottling line, their new careers began as winemakers.
Now their vineyards have expanded from 2,000 vines to 12,000. So far, laughs Leng Chan Thol, her neighbours aren’t interested in taking up the industry, but people from Banteay Meanchey province and Battambang’s Rottanak Mondul district have come to learn how to grow grapes from the family, and have planted their own small vineyards at home.
“Some people think grapes can only be grown in other countries, but in fact grapes do very well in Cambodia,” says Leng Chan Thol. “People in other districts have grown them on ordinary rice paddies and the plants grow very well.”
One advantage of Cambodia’s tropical climate is that the family can get two or even three grape harvests per year, unlike in France, where one a year is normal. The family is proud of its pioneering role in viticulture – and in agricultural tourism.