Fruit wine sparks passion for sweet and sour flavours at Mondulkiri vineyard

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Prime Minister Hun Sen holds a bottle of passion fruit wine at a fair. SUPPLIED

When he was an agriculture student and learning about all of the potential crops for each province, Bo Sopheak noticed that passion fruit from Mondulkiri province were somehow different from any other source he’d come across.

He said that passion fruit is available from almost every province of Cambodia and you can tell where they are from once you’re experienced enough because even passion fruit from Kampot – famous for its nutritious soil – are different from passion fruit in Mondulkiri, in that they taste less sweet in the coastal provinces and very sweet in the eastern provinces.

That is why this young man from Kampong Chhnang province chose this kind of fruit as his base ingredient in the processing and production when he decided to contribute to Mondulkiri’s unique assortment of local wines.

“My purpose in setting up this passion fruit enterprise is to solve the problem of providing farmers with a domestic passion fruit products market after inspiring people to grow fruit here rather than import them from abroad, which is wasteful, and without focusing on only profits like other factories,” Sopheak told The Post.

Move to Mondulkiri

As an alumnus of an agricultural school, he first travelled to Mondulkiri in 2012 to work on a company’s project in the north-eastern province.

Sopheak took to Mondulkiri immediately, though he spotted few if any of their iconic wild cattle. He said that when the project and his employment ended there he began looking for other companies and potential products from that area.

After finding favourable geography to launch his dream from, the 35-year-old had the idea to do something of his own to raise the province’s profile in the field of agro-tourism. He inspected all kinds of crops but was particularly interested in passion fruit, which grows very well there and tastes different from that of other provinces.

“I see potential and demand, but this product has to be imported from neighbouring countries, especially Vietnam. If we inspire farmers to grow these fruits, then we can generate income for farmers because we know that the geography of Mondulkiri is good for growing crops, without having to import from abroad,” he said.

In 2013, Sopheak rented a 4,000-square-meter plot of land to grow passion fruit on as a model for other farmers. He set up a trellis system and invited farmers to see if anyone was interested. About half a year later, some of the local people in his part of Mondulkiri began to grow passion fruit on large plantations.

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The passion fruit wine is produced by graduate students in Mondulkiri province. SUPPLIED

It occurred to Sopheak that since they had planted later than others farmer did, they should be prepared to process the passion fruit into something if they find the market is flooded with raw produce.

“I’m interested in making beverages, but the modern way of doing it has high costs with the use of technology and hygiene systems, but with our output only being production on a craft scale, we cannot compete with cheaper imported products,” he said.

He turned to wine production because wine can be stored for a long time, and in some cases, the longer it is stored – the more delicious it tastes. Mondulkiri Passion Wine’s earliest experiments started to undergo testing in 2014.

Fruitfully passionate for winemaking

That year, he produced passion fruit wine through trial and error by distributing it to friends and getting their feedback on it until it had an acceptable taste. Then it was registered with the Ministry of Commerce in October 2016 and became Mondulkiri Passion Wine Enterprise.

Sopheak said that there is nothing difficult about the production of passion fruit because he is an alumnus of an agricultural university and has work experience in the agriculture sector. He said that locating the necessary capital to make production run smoothly was much harder.

“I don’t mean to exaggerate the quality of my product, but both the taste we achieve and our methods of production are excellent. But we do not know what will happen next, we do not know. We see other passion wine from various sources, including Kampot and Battambang, but after a while they’ve disappeared,” he said.

As a depot owner and a retailer of Mondulkiri Passion Wine, Chea Lina said that she usually orders between 100 and 200 bottles of the wine each time due to the strong support for the product among her local customers.

“It has a sweet and sour taste and it has gained a lot of support from Cambodian customers, but only a few foreign buyers during the Covid-19 pandemic. Now, because people are struggling economically, not all businesses are favourable to pursue,” the Ko Prey roundabout shop owner told The Post.

For the processing of passion fruit, Sopheak uses a small passion fruit grinder and has the help of five staff members during the harvest and production period of each season and then they go to work on the passion fruit farm to grow more.

Initially, he planted passion trees on his own plantation. Then later friends of his who owned a large passion fruit plantation in Mondulkiri signed a supply contract, and lately the farming has spread into the communities as he has been working with the Dak Dam and Bou Sra communities.

Nowadays, he’s reduced his own planting and instead buys from the community to spread any success he has around to others.

On average, he said, 4 kg of passion fruit produces a bottle of passion wine, depending on the type of the fruit as some have thick skins and some have thin skins.

Mondulkiri Passion Enterprise produces two types of passion wine: One is Mondulkiri Passion, which is naturally yellow and the other variety is the colour red because he uses a Taiwanese variety which can be grinded with the whole skin.

“We keep it for six months before considering opening any of the bottles and the longer it can sit in the bottle before being drank, the better. Mondulkiri yellow passion wine has a 10.5 per cent alcohol by volume level and Taiwanese red wine has a 13.5 degree alcohol per cent. Both are the same price of 60,000 riel per bottle,” he said.

Mondulkiri Yellow Passion Wine has a sweet and sour taste and goes by the brand nickname “First Love”.

Taiwanese Passion Wine has four flavours: sweet, sour and bitter and then one more when you combine them together, which is called the “Taste of Life” – and that’s also the brand nickname.

Drunk from profit?

Phum Sopheary, the owner of the Mondulkiri Online Agricultural Market in Chroy Changvar, said that she is the only large passion fruit wine vendor in Phnom Penh, as she usually orders between 70 and 80 cases of 12 bottles each at a time.

The Mondulkiri Online Agricultural Market focuses on produce from Mondulkiri, which she claims are unique from other provinces, but fish and meat products she imports from Kampong Chhnang.

“There are a lot of orders among other products from Mondulkiri in our market. However, Sopheak’s enterprise has not yet been able to meet the needs of our orders,” the owner of the online market said.

In one season, Sopheak’s enterprise is capable of releasing between 5,000 and 8,000 bottles of passion wine, which he said is not yet in-line with market demand.

“I see that by producing at least 5,000 bottles every year, it means that our products are not over-supplied on the market. We have the support that motivates us to continue to produce more local products,” Sopheak said.

As for his agro-tourism dreams, Sopheak plans to create a recreation area some day. However, due to the location of the passion fruit plantation, which is distant from any population centre, and the difficult road conditions to travel to his land located in the area of Bou Sra Waterfall while the wine shop is in Sen Monorom, it makes the establishment of agro-tourism impossible to pursue as yet.

“I will get another chance to put my plan into action when I create a new plantation that is closer and easier to get to. We hope by then that travel will be back again and the visitors to the area can come to the passion fruit plantation and taste our wine while in Mondulkiri,” he added.