By: Hanifa Sekandi
Some say that South Africa is the only wine region in Africa that you should venture to if you ever make it to this beautiful continent. Is this true? It might be if you are unaware of the breathtaking vineyards in other countries. Viticulture in Africa has barely scratched the surface. It is not as widespread compared to North American and European wine markets. Both continents have lucrative and renowned wineries. As winemakers strive to tip the scale in competition, it is not surprising that wine savants have their eye on what many call the Motherland, where all things began. There is no question that the climate in many African countries is ideal for vines to grow. And harvesting biodynamic wines is also possible since an existing diverse ecosystem permits this with ease. Also, life in Africa is deeply-entrenched with nature. In addition, there is an understanding that all species must live in harmony. The great vineyards in Africa do not rule those lands. They become a part of its history as they plant their roots in ancient mineral-rich soils.
When people think of diversity in viticulture, they generally stay within the framework of wines made in North America or Europe. Entry into the wine market on a global scale is easier for these regions. The dominance of such wines has nothing to do with quality at times. Although, one cannot say that a vintage bottle of Bordeaux made from a prestigious winery in France is not worth every penny. South African and Moroccan wines have created a buzz, but there is still more to discover.
Thanks to the evolving times, social media and the internet document many undiscovered gems. This allows one to see that the wine industry has barely touched the edge of exploration and possibility. It is also a surprising notion since a form of wine has been made for thousands of years in many countries worldwide. What brings all these nations together? European travelers bought their vines and their winemaking to them, thus planting an interconnected web of vines and winemaking traditions globally.
Come along and explore just a few undiscovered, breathtaking and small but mighty wine regions in Africa. The first stop is Madagascar, and finally, Ethiopia on this new adventure. They are contenders for sustainable, organic and biodynamic winemaking. Sustainable practices exist in these regions out of necessity. As this movement takes hold globally, winemakers who want to cut down on waste while still producing wines that respect the land and allow nature to flourish freely may also adopt these sustainable practices.
Wines Of Madagascar
Winemaking in Madagascar started with the French colonialists. The first vineyards are said to have been established by Jesuit missionaries. The intention for growing wine initially was not for commerce or how one enjoys wine today. Records from this time show that the sale of wine at the Maromby Monastery was a source of income for
the monks. Large-scale wine sales in this region did
not occur until after the emancipation from the French in the 1960s. The Swiss saw an opportunity on this island. They intended to rebuild through a development aid program in the mid-late 1960s. Some would say it was a short-lived enterprise since they withdrew from this program in 2011. Unfortunately, even with the aid, they did not make significant headway in the wine industry. Their exit left a big gap for winemakers who have not been able to gain the momentum needed to compete on a large scale. The wine produced in Madagascar is geared towards the local market and tourists. Rum is the main export.
Vines are planted on the highlands on steep slopes and in areas with cooler altitudes. This helps prevent fungal disease and high levels of alcohol in the grapes that have not reached the ideal ripeness for harvesting. Pineapples, rice paddies, bananas and sugar cane are also planted nearby. The plant diversity among the vines demonstrates that vines can co-exist and thrive. The need to clear lands simply for grapes is not necessary. Perhaps, this is a great initiative to model for newer winemakers considering biodynamic practices. It is also an opportunity to increase their profit margins by selling other fruits grown on their land at local farmers’ markets or having an on-site shop. Yes, Madagascar is behind and nowhere near being considered successful in the wine market. But this wine region does provide a gateway to new ways to create biodynamic vineyards. Rice paddies are situated in the low-lying, damp valleys below vines nestled on the hillsides. Both benefit from the placement since the terraced slope runoff allows the rice to thrive.
Since Madagascar is off the East coast of Africa in the Southern Hemisphere, grapes are harvested in the rainy season during February. The process of winemaking here is unique. Winemakers here allow their senses and instincts to determine when grapes are ripe—a simple yet effective method to replace a refractometer. From here, grapes are fermented in large concrete vats, where a mechanical press is used for extraction. The liquid is transferred to another concrete vat that contains sugar and preservatives. It will further ferment for approximately six months. The richness of color in the red wines made here is due to the skin remaining on the grapes during fermentation. Ready-to-bottle wine is bottled in previously used bottles by hand. The entire bottling process is done by hand, including labeling and corking. Wasting bottles is not an option. The labels of old bottles are peeled off, and bottles are cleaned and reused.
Seven of the eight wineries on this island use a French-American hybrid grape. Only one winery, Clos Nomena, uses Vitis vinifera, a European grape varietal touted by sommeliers, who say that the finest wines are made with these grapes.
The Growing Vines Of Ethiopia
Tej is a traditional Ethiopian wine once consumed by the nobility and that dates back centuries. It consists of water, gesho and honey. Gesho is a plant that is similar to hops. Although this drink does not contain grapes, it is still classified as wine in this region. Many liken it to mead, an alcoholic beverage made by fermenting water, grain, spices, fruits and honey. Although wine in this country has existed since the first millennium A.D., the presence of large-scale vineyards with methods attributed to European wine cultivation only began in the late 1950s. The oldest and most well-known vineyard in this region is Awash Winery. It was established in 1956 under the helm of real estate developer Mulugeta Tesfakiros and politician Ras Mesfin Sileshi. In 2013, it was acquired by the Blue Nile company and partnered with 8 Mile, a company chaired by legendary musician Sir Bob Geldof. This partnership aims to expand its global reach and scale of production by building another distillery.
Approximately 10,000 million bottles of wine, primarily consumed within Ethiopia, are produced annually by Awash Wineries. The second winery, Castel Winery, produces the remaining bottles, approximately two million bottles annually. It was established in 2007 and located in Zway, south of Addis Ababa. Awash Winery is in Awash Merti Jersu. The proximity to the equator allows for harvest to occur twice a year due to a shorter vegetation cycle. Harvest occurs from June to July and from November to December. This is a great benefit that European vineyards do not get to experience. Perhaps this makes up for some of the other shortcomings that the Awash vineyards must navigate. Harvested grapes are transported for seven hours down the vineyard winery path. It is a somewhat long journey that leaves them vulnerable to the scorching sun burning their skin. Even with a protective shield placed on top, the sun’s powerful rays can still permeate this barrier. To ensure that the grapes are cool enough before pressing, they are left overnight in the truck, a method that offsets the day’s travel under the beaming sun. At the Awash Winery, there is a small selection of wines offered. Axumit Sweet Red Wine is a much-loved wine by Ethiopian locals. Similar to Madagascar wineries, the bottles are recycled for rebottling purposes. The bottles themselves are collectibles since some have been used for over five decades – true history in a bottle indeed.
Castel Winery is a partnership between the Ethiopian Government and the Castel Group. Partnering with a company responsible for making and distributing premier beer and wine brands is a formidable venture. Both parties believe that this winery will be able to compete with South African wineries since it is in a region located 1,600 meters above sea level and where temperatures sit evenly at around 25 degrees Celsius each year. The sandy soils also benefit from the approximately 650 millimeters of annual rainfall. Bordeaux vines were imported and planted in this region and occupy most of the space in these vineyards. There are two ranges of wines produced at Castel. The most notable wine is Rift Valley. It is a premium wine aged in French oak barrels. With the help of the European Union’s Everything But Arms program and AGOA program, Castel Winery plans to expand into European and North American markets.
The undiscovered gems for African wineries do not stop in these two countries. As you know, when a seed is planted, growth is inevitable. Other African countries are taking note. So, this journey into the unknown world of the Motherland’s wineries will continue. Like the bottles that have circulated in the hands of many, there is more to this story. For now, dream of an evening in Antananarivo, Madagascar spent drinking Clos Nomena-made wine or a day in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia having your first sip of Tej.