Thursday, September 17, 2009

Duo growing grapes in Sendayan - Star

Sept 17, 2009 By C.S.NATHAN

GRAPES here? That can’t be possible. That’s the response I got after telling friends of my visit to the Sendayan Fruit Valley — a vineyard and orchard located on a 20ha site, practically in my own backyard.

But for software engineer turned grape grower Azrul Nazim Abd Aziz, it was the question of “Why not?,” that encouraged him to try his hand at cultivating grapes here.

“In Thailand, they have been growing grapes for decades so why not here? After all, we share the same climate.

Good crop: Azrul (right) and Baumann showing off the fruits of their labour.

“No doubt we may not be able to cultivate a large variety but we can still churn out good-quality grapes for local consumption,” he said.

Azrul, the managing director of A-WINN Global Market Services said he approached grape growers in Thailand for their expertise in the field before setting up his first vineyard.

“We started off a few years back on a plot of land in Selangor. With Thai know-how, we experimented with different varieties of grape until we had a winning formula for sweet table grapes.

“Once we were confident of a good product, we started scouting for land and that is when we decided to set up in Sendayan,” he said.

The vineyard is just a 20-minute drive from Seremban’s town centre (about 80km south of Kuala Lumpur), located on land leased from the state government.

Set up in 2007 and aiming to produce grapes on a commercial scale, Sendayan Fruit Valley is neither the first nor the only vineyard in the country but Azrul believes the high investment cost may be a deterrent for many other hopeful grape-growers.

“There are a couple of small-scale vineyards here but not many people are willing to take a chance on cultivating grapes commercially. Costs are high and we ourselves have put in about RM6mil into the business.

“The bulk of the costs were chanelled into research and development and we spend about RM10,000 monthly on labour, maintenance and equipment,” he said.

However, the 35-year-old is pleased with his venture and has no regrets despite the many challenges he faced in the beginning.

“It took some time to get it right but that first harvest makes it all worth it. It’s a very satisfying labour of love.

Currently, the vineyard is home to 6,000 grapevines with four varieties namely the black opal, shiraz and black pearl — all dark grapes and the white malaga, a green variety.

For a start, the grapes are harvested twice a year and 1,000 vines yield about three tonnes (3,000kg) of grapes which works out to an average of 30 tonnes (30,000kg) per year.

Yield is also dependent on the variety of grape as the size of the fruit differs.

At present, less than half of the land is used for grapes and Azrul is sure production will leapfrog once more vines are put in.

“By the middle of next year, we hope to have a continuous supply of grapes all year-round. Grapes are grown in a cycle and it takes about a year from seedling to fruit.

“We are also growing mangoes, lychee, dragonfruit, guava, bidara (Chinese apple) and longan here among others so there’ll be quite a harvest of fruit,” he said.

Azrul is assisted by his Swiss-Thai project director Arthur Baumann @ Adil Mustafa Abdullah, 49, who is just as passionate about growing grapes as he is.

In fact, Baumann had been growing grapes in Thailand for over a decade before he was roped in to help.

“I jumped at the chance as my wife is Malaysian and had wanted to come back for a long time,” he said.

Grapes need tender loving care to grow well and for that Azrul has employed four local women, whose job it is to check on the vines daily.

There are no machines involved as the grapes have to be picked entirely by hand.

Another five people including two Thais work on the vineyard full-time while Azrul and Baumann make weekly trips to check on its progress.

For a taste of these locally-produced grapes, consumers have to visit the vineyard as they are not in the market just yet.

“Our grapes are much cheaper than the imported varieties plus it is good for you. Pesticides are kept to the minimum and we use our own organic fertiliser,” said Baumann.

Bonsai grapes and grape seedlings — starter kits for aspiring home grape-growers are also for sale at the vineyard.

Although the vineyard does not resemble its Napa or Loire valley counterparts in the Napa or Loire just yet, it is still a nice place to visit for a change of scenery and a taste of made-in-Malaysia grapes.

Both Azrul and Baumann hope that the Sendayan Fruit Valley will become an agro-tourism site where visitors can come and pick their own fruit and have picnics among the vines.

“Now, all we have to do is wait for the trees to mature and to provide a cosy spot for picnickers and the like. That’s what this is really - a sort of orchard, only with grapes instead of durian.

“You’ll not find a combination like this anywhere else,” said Azrul.

As for me, a visit to the vineyard with my friends are on the cards — nothing else will wipe the disbelief off their faces than a taste of one of those sweet crunchy Sendayan Fruit Valley grapes.

To buy grapes from the vineyard, contact 016-228 8819 (Arthur Baumann) or 012-376 4751 (Farah).

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