Battambang Burgundy | The Cambodian Couple Growing Grapes Where Few Others Dare
Amidst arid heat and tropical monsoons, one couple has managed to produce authentic Cambodian wine. But does it taste as bad as the reviews say?
Lacking both a wonder-of-the-world temple complex, and a vomit-laden Pub Street, the Cambodian city of Battambang is in the shadow of nearby Siem Reap with regards to drawing international visitors.
It’s a shame, although the comparatively lower amount of Chang beer-branded vests bobbing down Battambang’s riverside streets is part of its appeal. Other drawing points include a cave from which millions of bats fly nightly, cycle routes to low-key temples, and lime pie.
With a population of 200,000, and none of the exhaust pipe-belch intensity of Cambodia’s capital city Phnom Penh, it’s a good place to chill. It’s also home to Chan Thai Choeung, Cambodia’s only winery. It’s an enterprise that seems pure folly on paper, but that has somehow found success in a tropical climate that you’d expect to be viciously unfriendly to grape growing.
I headed to Battambang to discover the secrets of this unlikely boozy outpost, and whether reviews comparing its product’s taste to that of floor cleaning fluid had any validity.
I took the train from Phnom Penh: a jogging-speed trundle route re-launched last summer after almost 20 years dormant. After dealing with the nasty ticketing structures and vile customer service that characterise the British rail network, it was quite the tonal shift.
Tickets for the full 400 kilometre route to Poi Pet on the Thai border were free, remaining so for the rest of 2018, after which they will cost less than US$10. Flip-flop-wearing staffers helped customers roll motorbikes up ramps into cargo wagons. Carriage doors remained open as passengers sat in the entrances, warm air tousling hair as we passed palm tree-dotted fields. In the absence of a buffet carriage, the train stopped at villages, allowing us to hop off for frogs on sticks.
I met John Guiry, Aussie CEO of Royal Railways Cambodia: the man in charge of the resurrection of this line and the country’s only other active route, running from the capital to Sihanoukville. He was proud of the renewal of the system, much of which was damaged during the Khmer Rouge’s invasion of the country in the late-1970s.
Pol Pot’s murderous regime, responsible for the deaths of millions of Cambodians, used train lines to transport citizens from Phnom Penh to work stations around the country. In 2016, You Chhang, director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, spoke to the Phnom Penh Post about journeys such as these, comparing them to the Nazi’s transportation to and from concentration camps. He described the train he was placed on as “a snake which took you all the way to hell”.
The hope is that such dark connotations for Cambodia’s trains will be lightened by the new routes. Indeed, the atmosphere on my journey was fun and friendly. A young food stall worker travelling to Poi Pet bought me a bottle of sweet milky drink after quietly telling me about his respect for the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), who briefly offered hope that Cambodians could vote out their authoritarian leader Hun Sen, before their dissolution by authorities. An elderly lady with a cloth on her head glanced from side to side, her gaze following trees swooshing past the window. Children on bikes raced alongside us, often nudging ahead of the train as its speed ambled below 20km/h.
The line, Guiry explained, was not quite free of death and destruction yet. “Some of the guys out here go out at night hunting frogs, fish, snails, and eels, and they get tired,” he said. “They lie down on a concrete sleeper – it’s warm, like laying on a bed. They put their head on one rail, their feet over another… the next thing, a train is coming. We’ve had people decapitated, legs cut off.”
Then there’s the suicides – “about four in the last three or four months” says Guiry – and murders. “People have been chopped up then put on the railway line. How do we know that? Because the injuries are different when you chop someone with a machete. Railway wheels squash the body, whereas a machete will cut a body.”
Despite his grim observations, Guiry insisted that, overall, the railway line was raising travel safety levels in Cambodia, where 1,780 people died due to road incidents in 2017. The line was taking passengers from cartoonishly overcrowded vehicles on pothole-riddled roads, to slow-moving carriages. Campaigns to raise awareness of the dangers of trains passing through villages – and of bedding down on railway tracks – were, at the time of visiting, ongoing.
After seven hours, my train arrived at Battambang without decapitating anyone, and the next day, I took a 40-minute tuk tuk ride out of the city to one of Chan Thai Choeung’s two vineyards. It was a damp, overcast day in the midst of Cambodia’s rainy season, but pretty green arches of grape plants near the muddy car park helped lift the atmosphere.
Seng Chanthol, who ran the winery with her husband Chan Thai Chhoeun (whose name determined their business title), was directing a handful of local tourists through the grape rows. The colour of both her lipstick and the flowers patterning her dress matched the candy-pink of the wine bottle labels in the nearby bar area. Chan, a relaxed man, aged “52 or 53 – I can’t remember”, explained how the pair got involved in this unlikely industry.
Cheap, locally-made palm and rice wines are traditional tipples in Cambodia, alongside domestic beer such as Angkor and Cambodia Lager. Imported foreign wine is available in foreigner-friendly restaurants in urban centres, but is an expensive, niche option that Chan was never exposed to. Instead, with the country under French colonial rule when he was young, he became aware of wine by watching European films.
“In the movies, they always celebrated with wine or champagne,” he said. “It seemed romantic and modern. Then in 1998, my friend came to my house with two bottles of wine. I didn’t actually like the taste, but I liked the feeling and atmosphere of drinking red wine.”
Chan and Seng’s grape adventure began due to business rather than romantic aspirations, however. They originally farmed oranges, then in 2000, tried shifting to grapes to escape restrictive price structures. After a series of failures – including forays into pineapple wine – they had made a grape wine in 2005 that they deemed good enough to sell. Now, they shift between 6,000 and 8,000 bottles a year, plus brandy and grape juice. Their signature red wine is sold for $15 a bottle, mainly direct to tourists.
Seng glug-poured me a glass of red shiraz. It tasted… fine. Tart and sweet, lacking the fuzzy warmth of a good French rouge or whatnot, but far from the horror-sip some tourists had alluded to.
Chan explained that getting this level of quality in Battambang’s tropical environment was all about timing. The Cambodian rainy season usually runs May to November, during which grape plants would be at risk of over-watering. To avoid this, Chan and Seng harvest in two time blocks a year: January and February, then in May and June. Mainly due to the lower heat the first period, only the grapes harvested in the former one are good enough for wine. The second harvest is for brandy and grape juice.
“It was hard at the start,” said Chan. “We went through a lot of grape plants – they really don’t get on well with heat and water. But after years of experience, we learned to let them flower in October, then give fruit in January and February, because at that time it’s cooler and drier.”
He quietly exhaled a laugh when I asked if he’d ever enter his wine into an international competition. He doesn’t hide the fact that his wine is sold on its uniqueness rather than its pedigree, and it has enough of the former to keep up healthy trade.
The sight of a family loading boxes of red into their SUV in the car park as I left the winery attested to this. Nobody else will be bringing a bottle of Cambodian claret to their next dinner party, that’s for sure.
See Royal-railway.com and Royalrailway.easybook.com for information about the railway service in Cambodia. Call +855 12 665 238 for information about Chan Thai Choeung winery, or ask hotel staff in Battambang to sort a tuk tuk trip there.
Jamie Fullerton is a roving travel journalist. Keep up with him on his website , and on Twitter .