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Applying a knowledge of Old World wines

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Remie Fujiwara, director of Vintage Wine Cellars. Photo by Stuart Alan Becker

One of Phnom Penh’s most knowledgeable people about wine, Rémie Fujiwara, of Vintage Wine Cellars, located at 404D Monivong, recommends Austrian white wines from the Kamptal region for their compatibility with most kinds of Khmer food.

The Kamptal region of lower Austria is named for the River Kamp that runs through it. It’s a tributary of the Danube, on which Vienna and Budapest stand.

At the centre of this area is the Austrian town of Langenlois,  Austria’s largest wine community.

“I’m a huge fan of these wines, and I think they are fantastic for the climate in Cambodia,” Fujiwara says.

“They are dry, with a little bit of residual sugars, slightly sweet, and they go amazingly well with Asian food.

“Hands down, these are my favourite wines to have with an Asian meal – any kind of Cambodian fish dish, spicy salads, banana-blossom salads, sour mango salads: anything with a little bit of tartness and a little bit of spice.  These are a fantastic marriage in your mouth.”

Vintage Wine Cellars opened for business last Christmas. Fujiwara and her business partner, managing director Sopheap Phean, are former employees of Celliers d’Asie, Cambodia’s largest wine-importing company.

“We both have a long history in wine,” Fujiwara says.

“We’re both really passionate about wine. We just concentrate on Old World wines, and the reason for that is because we are a small niche boutique wine store and we didn’t want to compete with the big boys here.”

As people begin drinking more wine in Cambodia, Fujiwara wants to increase the understanding and appreciation of wine.

“What I would really like people to understand is that we are really trying to bring the appreciation of wine culture into Cambodia.

“Wine consumption is here and is on the rise, so we focus on mid-range to high-end wines and we really try to give each of our customers as much expertise as possible on the grapes from different regions and the different qualities of the wines that make them so great.”

One important thing to remember is that in Cambodia, even red wine needs to be chilled.

“If you pull out a bottle from the shelf and it’s 26 degrees, you’re just going to get a flabby mouthful of grape juice with an alcohol twist, and that’s no fun. The chilled- down aspect gives your palate the ability to discern flavours. Once everything gets too hot, it just blends together.

“I don’t think you should put ice cubes in your wine, but I think it’s OK to chill your red wines to a good serving temperature.  Serving temperature is very important.”

Another important factor is the shape of the glass the wine is served in.

“I won’t drink wine out of a plastic cup,” Fujiwara says.

“The size and shape of the glass really do matter.  Wine should be enjoyed with the best possible tools and if you don’t serve a wine in the right manner with the right etiquette, with the right passion, you’re not going to experience something life-changing.

“That’s why you should choose the people you drink with very carefully, so you can remember good times with good people.”

Fujiwara, an ethnic Japan-ese Canadian and daughter of famous Japanese author, political commentator and geologist Hajime Fujiwara,  enjoys sharing her knowledge of the origins of various types of grapes which, combined with the growing area, provides the basis for fine wines.

She lived in Calgary, Canada as a young girl, followed by teenage years in Paris and then the US, graduating from high school in Kansas City, Missouri, followed by studies in psychology at the University of Chicago,  specialising in neuropsychological pharmacology – “all about brain and behaviour”.

Fujiwara later worked for pharmaceutical giant Pfizer in its neuroscience department in Groton, Connecticut for five years before leaving for Australia to study wine at Monash University for two years, earning an MBA in wine technology and management.

Since coming to Phnom Penh, she has applied her knowledge of wines, helping all her customers with rich background information to contextualise whatever event they have in mind.

“People can come here and taste wines, organise tastings and wine classes.  We have a private room in the back, so people can have private parties – so its kind of, anything to do with wine we can do here, and we can also organise large events, corporate parties and trainings,” she said.

For Christmas and New Year, Vintage Wine Cellars is offering all kinds of gifts and hampers that people can give as gifts. 

Fujiwara considers Italy to the grandfather of the wine business because so many vineyards have been cultivated there for so many thousands of years.

“I am the expert in most other regions, but my favourite is Italian wines from the Piedmont region, on the northwest side of Italy, close to Milan in rolling hills.

“For grape variety, Italy is the most complicated: they have 3,000 varieties of grapes.

“Italy to me is the fruiting grounds of wine, where a lot of the wine-making, the passion, and the varieties got weeded out into the rest of Europe.”

For Italian red wines, Fujiwara describes the Barbaresco and Barolo varieties as “in between a pinot noir and a cabernet.  These wines come from the Nebbiolo grape and it is extremely delicate, but it is one of the more coveted.

“It’s kind of like the Bordeaux of Italy. It has as much regard as Bordeaux but has the subtleties of a French pinot.

“When you go to Italy and you taste the food and absorb and digest the culture, there is so much good living there,” she says.

Fujiwara describes Vintage Wine Cellars as an “upper echelon” wine shop.

“We don’t do anything less than $12 bottles,” “she says.

Besides Italy, Spain and Portugal are Fujiwara’s favourite Old World wine sources.

“Spain has some fantastic varieties like Tempranillo,” she said. “Spain is one of the more progressive European nations making wine today because they know how to cater to the modern palate.  They are a plateau desert and they have an ideal climate for wine.

“Grapes love sun, and Spain has its fair share of mother nature’s rays.”

Fujiwara finds parallels between the qualities of grape vines struggling to survive in rocky environments and human beings – both with richness given by their strife.

“Vines are plants that love to struggle. The more they struggle, the better the wine – kind of like human beings. The more their lives are misery-filled and grim, the better thoughts come out of them. The more you get dragged down and kicked, the more you struggle.”

Fujiwara says that in  certain areas of the Rhone Valley of France, the vines struggle to grow over huge rocks.

“In New Zealand, the vines also struggle through fields of broken rocks, and those vines produce great riesling. It doesn’t mean they need to be struggling, but it’s better not to be overwhelmed with good things, and they don’t have the pizzazz, they don’t have that spark. It is just like people: honestly, if you give them too much, and they are too spoiled, then they don’t amount to much most of the time.”

Fujiwara and her life partner, Frenchman Olivier Belloy, a consultant in mechanical and electrical engineering, have a baby son Jaya, born on September 14.

“The beauty of wine is that each vine has its own time and its own kind of mind, and each harvest is as unique as a gene in a human being.  Each harvest is different every year. The assembly line doesn’t work.  If you drink a five-dollar cheap bottle of wine that you buy in the gas station, you get nothing out of it.  Wine should be an experience every single time.

“All the wines in our shop have that special touch; there has been passion involved, people who really love what they do  – and that shows in our bottles.”

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