Morocco, a vineyard in full change

For 40 years, the Moroccan vineyard has been radically changing for the better. First, with a diversity of styles clearly displayed. Secondly, with the rehabilitation of forgotten vineyards. To our delight. Because do not forget that Morocco remains one of the cradles of the last wild vines. A Kingdom where the first wines were cultivated around the 6th century B.C., during the installations of the Phoenician and Greek counters.

Today, thirteen wineries give Morocco its nobility back, sharing nearly 7,000 hectares of vines, for about 50 million bottles produced per year(1). There are even three AOCs and a few AOGs(2). Which delights our curiosity. From Meknes to Casablanca, an overview of a vineyard under the sign of sunshine.

The vineyard along the foothills of the Rif

We embarked with our campervan from Spain, aboard the ferry company FRS. It took us just one hour to cross from Tarifa to Tangier. And a little less than two hours to reach the region of Meknes, north, on a road network new and pleasant to drive on.

Our first visit took us to between Rabat and Fès, to Domaine Castel (Société de Vinification et de Commercialisation du Maroc), one of the major players in the country. Suddenly arriving at the foot of Mount Zerhoun, facing the foothills of the Rif, where acres of vineyards stretch out as far as the eye can see, we had no more doubt : we were well arrived ! The show was grandiose.

Despite the altitude (700m), it was already 32°C at 10am during our visit mid-August. “The temperatures raised to 46-48°C in July”, Paul D’Herbes, the oenologist of the estate, told us. We visited the vineyard of 500 hectares, a single parcel, mainly planted in Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Grenache and Cinsault, and worked in reasoned culture(3).

In total, the Castel estate covers 1,400 hectares. One of the specialties of the estate – which produces a wide range of wines – is the Vin Gris, a delicious wine with a pale pink color, very refreshing and obtained by direct pressing of Grenache and Cinsault grapes.

Les Celliers de Meknès, on the initiative of Morocco’s first AOC

Welcome to the Celliers de Meknès, along the foothills of the Atlas. With 2,400 hectares of vineyards, it is the main – and unavoidable – actor of the Moroccan viticulture since the 50s.

Thanks to the protection of the mountains, the region remains more temperate than others, with 34°C on average in summer, and strong climatic variations in winter. It is even not uncommon to see snow in January. A very specific terroir, with unique clay soils, that Brahim Zniber, founder of the Celliers de Meknes(4), has always wanted to highlight.

The Celliers de Meknès were thus the pioneers in the establishment of controlled origin appellations, with the creation in 2005 of the Coteaux de l’Atlas, the first Moroccan AOC. Then in 2012, with the first traditional method wine of the Kingdom and the creation of the AOC Crémant de l’Atlas.

“We are also converting 400 hectares to organic farming since this year”, Josselin Desprez De Gesincourt, the export manager, said. An initiative to highlight and which is part of the revival of the Moroccan vineyard. The wines of Château Roslane, the iconic property of the Celliers de Meknès, are very promising, especially in red (Cabernet sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah). A very nice estate that can be visited and which will soon open a luxury hotel and a gourmet restaurant. A good excuse to come back.

The region of Rommani retrieves a name

Another beautiful discovery: the region of Rommani, in the province of Khemisset (halfway between Rabat and Fez). Probably one of the most promising terroirs of Morocco, with an average temperature of 5°C less than in Meknes.

Here we visited the Hacienda des Cigognes, the wine pioneer of Rommani. A domain initiated by the Moullablad family, established in the region since 1914. In the 90s, Abdeslam Moullablad and his son Karim, the current owner, replanted the vineyard on these former viticultural lands, thus giving life back to viticulture in the region.

The new cellar, under construction, already has sumptuous vaults, called “cathedrals”. A cellar shape in height, typical in Morocco, allowing a better ventilation of the buildings and playing the role of a natural thermal regulator. The tanks are mainly concrete, for a wine production focused on the fruit and with more freshness. The whole complex is very impressive. However, we will have to wait a few more months before seeing the first vintage in bottle… which we are already longing to taste!

For now, we discovered the 98 hectares of vines of the estate, spread over two sites and mainly planted with Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Carignan and Tempranillo. The teams were in full harvest.

“In Morocco, it is the women who make the harvest, as well as the cutting and the other meticulous works of the vine”, Boris Bille (sommelier and founding member of the Association of the Sommeliers of Morocco(5)), expained to us during the visit.

With the great variety of women’s tunics, all more colorful than the others, the vineyards had a festive atmosphere.

Another spearhead of the AOC Côtes de Rommani: La Ferme Rouge. Created in 1908, the estate is now in the hands of the French winemaker Jacques Poulain. “La Ferme Rouge enjoys a unique location in the heart of the Zaer region: 450m above sea level and 45km from the ocean, the vineyard still benefits from a strong Atlantic influence. It is also protected to the west by the valleys of the wadi Korifla and south by the foothills of the Middle Atlas”, Jacques explained.

This estate of 300 hectares, planted in one piece, has a wealth of exceptional soils: ancient sands, schists, red and ferric clay, on clay-limestone subsoils. As for the wines, they are vinified and matured in an ultra modern winery. La Ferme Rouge has everything needed to make very nice wines.

Generous and gourmet red wines

Our stay ended 50 km north-east of Casablanca, at the Domaine des Ouled Taleb de Benslimane, operated by Thalvin company since 1968 and now in the hands of the Zniber family. This magnificent property, created in 1926, is the oldest winery still in operation in Morocco. Over the last few years, the estate has seen two talented French winemakers: Jacques Poulain (now at La Ferme Rouge) and Stéphane Mariot, director of the estate since 2011.

Thalvin is a great example of the potential of the Moroccan vineyard to produce generous and fruity red wines. Especially with the red grape Arinarnoa, a discovery for us.

This cross between Tannat and Cabernet Sauvignon produces gourmet wines with notes of blackberry and blueberry. This 240-hectare estate is also planted with Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Viognier, Syrah, Grenache, Cinsault, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Here too, it’s harvest time. And the enthusiasm of the workers around us, as well as the excitement that reigned over the property, was a pleasure to see!

We could not conclude this visit without mentioning Aït Souala, the former state wine cellar, which we had the chance to visit ; the cellar stopped its activity with the vintage 2011.

An intense and emotional moment, in this ghostly place, which was, during the splendid period of the Moroccan vineyard (1970-1990), the the largest cooperative cellar in the world, with some 650,000 hL capacity.



Thank you to Castel (Société de Vinification et de Commercialisation du Maroc), Celliers de Meknès, La Ferme Rouge, Thalvin and Hacienda des Cigognes, for their warm welcome. A huge thank you to Driss Mouhib, Josselin Desprez De Gesincourt and Boris Bille for organizing this colorful Moroccan program. Finally, thank you to Karim Moullablad and the team of the Hacienda des Cigognes for these beautiful traditional hats that were offered to us. A friendly nod to the traditional hats of the workers in the vineyard.


(1) 2016 figures.
(2) Morocco has three appellations of controlled origin (AOC): Coteaux de l’Atlas, Côtes de Rommani and Crémant de l’Atlas ; six main geographical designations of origin (AOG): Zaer, Zenata, Ben M’tir, Guerrouanne, Zemmour and Berkane.
(3) Rational culture is the application to viticulture of the concept of reasoned agriculture, ie global operations management approaches that aim, beyond compliance with regulations, to reinforce the positive impact of agricultural practices on the environment, also reducing their negative effects, without jeopardizing the economic profitability of farms.
(4) Brahim Zniber, who died in September 2016 at the age of 96, was a Moroccan businessman, farmer and winemaker, known as one of the pioneers of the revival of Moroccan viticulture.
(5) Created in 2012, the Association of Sommeliers of Morocco (ASMA) allowed the Kingdom to have the first association of sommeliers in Africa and to integrate the elite of international sommellerie. At its head, Michèle Chantôme, who is also secretary of the Association of International Sommeliers (ASI).

Egypt – the vineyards behind pyramids

Egypt, a beautiful stranger… A country of a thousand secrets. Land of sphinxes, pyramids, pharaohs and hieroglyphs. You who made ​​us dream since our childhood. How did you become this way ?  Where in lies your greatness and your soul ?

Cheops facing Cairo

Cheops facing Cairo

We landed in Cairo and we fell from the clouds. The capital came cleaving to Gizeh pyramids : Khéphren, Mykérinos and Cheops – the only one of the seven wonders of the world to have survived from Antiquity. The aridity of the desert is felt in every street of the city. Walls barely hold stand. The atmosphere is heavy.
Nevertheless Cairo kept a modest beauty, discreet, almost embarrassed.
Egypt, as a country which has long had wine, only has a few hectares of vines, which is located halfway between Cairo and Alexandria. A beautiful postcard.

Egyptian viticulture, one of the world’s oldest

Be aware : vines have been cultivated in Egypt since 3,000 years before our era – over 2,000 years before the appearance of wine growing in France !

Far from the splendor of the Greco-Roman times, viticulture was revived in 1882, under the leadership of
Nestor Gianaclis, a Greek businessman. He created Gianaclis Wines, which reached its peak between 1930 and 1945 – during the Golden Age of Egypt – before being nationalized by Nasser in 1966 and privatized in 1999.  Since 2002 Gianaclis Wines, with 120 hectares of vineyards, belongs to Al-Ahram Beverages Company (Heineken group).
And it’s great, we have an appointment at Gianaclis for a winery tour. Let’s go !

Drought, a plague for wine in Egypt

To grow grapes in Egypt is a real challenge. Average temperatures are around 38 -40°C and it is not uncommon to reach 48°C during the day. This has the effect of blocking the phenolic ripening of the grapes*, preventing them of ripening properly.
In addition, the country lacks fresh water and reserves are very rare due to a very low average  annual rainfall of 80 – 120 mm  per year, compared to 600 – 800mm for a country like France.  Therefore they have to keep drilling deeper and deeper to find groundwater.

Salt on the surface

Salt on the surface

But the only water to be found today in the lower basement layers is fossil water, which has a very high salt content. “On the long term using this water for irrigation is detrimental for the quality of top soils”, explained Sebastian Boudry, the winemaker at Gianaclis. But rest assured, the vineyards are beautiful and the grapes are good ! Egyptians take care of their vines attentively, they use palm trees to protect it from the wind and spray only in cases of extreme necessity.
Ironically – or by a nod of nature – we began our walk in the vineyard under a rain shower. A deluge fell on us! We had to return early the next day to take some pictures…but what an improbable and magical moment.

Gianaclis , the expertise of a strong Group

Photos taken, we set off the next day for the winery, located 2 hours driving from the vineyard.  Here we were at the production site of Al-Ahram Beverages Company, a place at the forefront of technology, where a centrifuge – helping to clarify musts – is standing near three presses outdoors. This was the first centrifuge we encountered on our African trip.
Besides the 60,000 HL of wine produced every year, they also distill neutral alcohol for vodka on a large-scale. Sebastian Boudry, who welcomed us, told us that the grapes, which are manually harvested from late June (for the first whites) until the end of August, are transported to the winery in refrigerated trucks; a necessity due to the heat !

And when the full tanks are rapidly cooled with chilled water in closed loop systems to reduce the temperature of the grapes – it creates a cellar straight out of the mist that shows us its beauty.
The cellar is wonderful and a tour lead to an invitation to taste the wines. But before serious work commenced, we shared  a delicious meal with our hosts. Vegetables, spicy rice, chickpeas cream, marinated beef… perfect to gain strength before tasting the wines.

Tasting of Gianaclis Wines’ range

In addition to the Domaine de Gianaclis wines, the winery also produce wines from imported grapes from South Africa, France and Lebanon.**
We focused our tasting on wines “made in Egypt.”

Valmont Rosé NM a sparkling wine made from Tempranillo and Sangiovese. Fresh and pleasant on the palate with aromas of strawberry and redcurrant.
Domaine de Gianaclis, Ayam blanc 2012, a white blend of Viognier, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Nose of exotic fruit, dominated by notes of white fruit. Egyptian premium white wine.
Domaine de Gianaclis, Ayam rouge 2011, a red blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Carignan. Nose a bit closed. Nice spices on the nose with a touch of earth. Round mouth with elegant tannins and blackcurrant flavours.
Omar Kayyam rouge 2013, 100% Bobal (red grape variety widely used in Spain), with a nose of plum and cherry, soft tannins on the palate and a nice freshness.

10_EGYPTHE_Panorama sans titre1_EDT
Tourism, the engine in the sale of wine

Close to the Red Sea, El Gouna is the area where we found the second Egyptian winery, EgyBev Wadi. 75 hectares of vineyards owned by a passionate André Hadji-Thomas, with its lovely organic cuvée, Les Jardins du Nil. It represents about 15% of the country’s production.
Tourism – with the lure of foreign currencies – remains the bulk of Egyptian wine sales and proclamations of principle on the prohibition of wine does not overshadow the production thereof, although alcohol remains a sensitive subject in Egypt.

So here are a few Explorer’s suggestions : go for a walk in the souk in Cairo, breathe leather, spices and shisha smells. Sip a coffee at El-Fishawy, one of the oldest cafes in the city and probably the most famous in the Arab world. Lose yourself in the desert, in the middle of the pyramids. Egypt is an inviting country for traveling and will always be one of the most brilliant civilizations in History.



* The phenolics components in wine, especially anthocyanins and tannins, originates from the solid parts of the grape (seeds and skins). They have many properties : anthocyanins are responsible for wine color and tannins are responsible for taste properties that give wine its characteristic astringency.
** For more information:


Ethiopia, an African jewellery

Welcome to Ethiopia! A country of touching beauty where it feels good to be alive.
It was so hot getting off the plane! We just landed in Addis Ababa, the highest African capital, perched at 2,300 meters altitude. An amazing City in full cultural revolution, a living testimony of past civilisations.

9-Ethiopia-around Awash vineyard
Ethiopia is known to be the strategic crossroad of Africa – almost all countries of the world have an Embassy in Addis Ababa – since it hosts the African Union and the United Nation Economic Commission for Africa.
Some of you also know tedj, the Ethiopian honey wine flavored with gersho leaves, similar to hops. But did you know that the country is home to an ancient wine producing culture, have two wineries producing together 11 million bottles and has been consuming wine since the beginning of the 20th century ?

Awash Winery, the oldest estate of ​​Ethiopia

Awash Winery, which has been in existence for 70 years, is the oldest active winery in the country. This 117 hectares estate, which is situated majestically on a mountain plateau rising to 1,200 meters above sea level, will soon expand its vineyard planting another 180 hectares, alongside the existing vineyard.

9-Ethiopia-Castel vineyard
Because the estate, acquired in 2013 by Blue Nile, a company created through a partnership between Mr. Mulugeta Tesfakiros – an emerging real estate Ethiopian developer – and 8 Mile, a capital pool company chaired by Sir Bob Geldof, famous Irish musician and activist for the African cause – prospects for development now appears very good. “Continuous improvement of the quality of wine, renovation of equipment and training of Awash staff will help to establish Awash Winery as a strong brand in the country”, Mr. Tesfakiros told us. The vineyard’s potential is impressive.
Renovations are numerous (much equipment have to be replaced) and the cellar is old, but once the site will be finished, wine quality will improve.

Abraham de Klerk and JBA @ Awash Winery

Abraham de Klerk and JBA @ Awash Winery

For now the winery isn’t far from the 10 million bottles mark produced annually, with exclusive consumption on the Ethiopian market. And even though Awash Winery has already been approached by foreign customers, there are no exports planned at the moment, since there isn’t even enough wine to satisfy the local demand.

Non-standard harvests and transport of grapes : the Awash case study

The vineyard is located in Awash Merti Jersu, only 115 km southeast of Addis Ababa. However we had to get up at dawn since we had to go back the same day and as it takes a good 3 ½ hours driving with a 4X4 :the roads are very bad and we had to drive carefully. The landscapes were of breathtaking beauty: houses with thatched roofs, half-naked children playing on the floor in front of the ocher doorstep, endless stretches of desert, majestic palm trees and camels greeting us throughout our journey, all in a patchwork of colours worthy of the finest clichés.

9-Ethiopia-harvest cession at Awash wines
Here vines are to be found close to the equator, implying a much shorter vegetative cycle than in Europe or South Africa for example. It is possible to harvest up to twice a year: from November to December and from June to July. This is the case at Awash. (Except that the harvest was in April, because the purchase of the estate took a little longer than expected). “But the vines will  return to their normal cycle by November”, Abraham de Klerk, Awash winemaker, explained to us.
And even though we were only a hundred kilometers awy from Awash cellar, in the center of the capital, don’t forget that Ethiopia routes can be (very) bad, especially for trucks! It takes more than 7 hours for a truck loaded with grapes to complete this vineyard-winery path. A dangerous and high risk mission because the grapes – despite the protective sheeting on top – can get burned under the warm African sun.

9-Ethiopia-harvest cession part 2 at Awash wines
In the near future these trucks will be replaced with new refrigerated ones. At the moment the grapes are left in the truck overnight to lower the temperature of the berries before pressing them the next morning.

Awash Winery’s wine range

Once the vineyard tour ended we returned to Addis Ababa. A tasting of the wines awaited us the next day.
The range consists of four wines :
A white and a red made from the grapes from Awash vineyard :
Kemila Medium Dry White 2013*, a slightly sweet white, mainly from Chenin blanc (80%) and Grenache blanc. Golden colour, oxidative nose with notes of beeswax. Fresh mouth with white flesh fruits.
Axumit Sweet Red Wine 2013*, a blend of red Grenache (60%), Sangiovese, Petite Syrah, Gamay, Nebbiolo, Dodoma and Tinta Amarela. The most popular Ethiopian wine with a nose of red fruit and a great acidity.
And two resineous wines** : Awash White wine 2014* and Gouder Red Wine 2013*.

9-Ethiopia-Awash wines
A peculiarity at Awash: they constantly recycle wine bottles. Thus we could find old bottles, 40 to 50 years old, on the market! A great environmental initiative.
Exclusive information: a  Méthode Cap Classique (MCC) sparkling wine made from 100% Chenin Blanc will enlarge the range in November.

The time has come for the sheep

Mr. Mulugeta Tesfakiros kindly organized a visit to the second Ethiopian winery: Castel Winery, for us the next morning. “Because in Ethiopia there are no competitors, only friends and neighbours”, Mulugeta said smiling.
But for now let’s go to Langano Lake where we were invited for the night to the Langano Bekele Molla Hotel, a hotel and restaurant complex that will soon open its doors to the public. The kitchen has just been finished, but the fridges were still empty!  A team of local chefs were coming to cook during the weekend. They brought vegetables, fish and most  surprisingly…a live sheep with them!
Speaking to one’s future meal is an intriguing moment, to attend the sacrifice of the animal – within the set rules comprising both art and respect for the beast.  It is however a unique experience that I’m not ready to forget (even though I must admit that I was very pale for a few minutes after it was done).
Finally we had a lovely dinner.

Castel Winery, the Ethiopian new vineyard

After a good night’s rest in the wilderness, fully recovered from our emotional evening, we were at Castel Winery, in the town of Ziway, 163 km south of Addis Ababa.

This project vineyard was created in 2007 as a partnership between the Ethiopian Government and the Castel Group (one of the largest wine producers in the world and n°2 in the production of beer in Africa). This young estate – with 120 hectares of vines planted between 2007 and 2009 – previously sold a large part of its production to Awash Winery and has just started bottling its first vintage in the beginning of 2014. We arrived at the right time !
At Castel Winery one harvest per year is chosen, for a total production of one million bottles. The second crop is green harvested , explained Olivier Spillebout, the winemaker of the domain. “We wouldn’t necessarily produce much more with a second harvest, so we prefer to let the vines rest”, he added.
Olivier suggested to go for a ride in the vineyard with the pickup ! A nice vineyard faced us, exclusively planted with international varieties: 55 hectares of Syrah, 38 of Cabernet Sauvignon, 14 of Merlot and 12 of Chardonnay. In addition there are 42 hectares of Sangiovese, planted in the 80’s by the Government.

And suddenly, we encountered a surprise. “What all these huge trenches along the river for?”, we asked Olivier. “It’s there to protect the vineyard from hippos”, he replied smiling. In addition to being one of the most dangerous animal species in Africa, hippos could easily ransack the vines without this natural barrier !

Castel Winery’s wine range

Located 1,600 meters above sea level, with an annual rainfall of 650 mm, average temperatures of 25 degrees year round and sandy soils, Castel Winery met good conditions for the development of quality wines, and in addition to that the cellar is brand new.
The two ranges of wines at Castel :
Accacia, the tradition range, with fruity wines aged in stainless steel tanks.
Acacia Medium sweet white 2013, a 100% Chardonnay, with a taste of banana and white flowers, and a medium sweetness in mouth.
Acacia Medium sweet red 2013, a blend with equal proportions of Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese and Syrah. Nose of black fruit. Sweetness in mouth, which is very popular and appreciated from Ethiopian palates.
Acacia Dry red 2013, the same blend in a dry version, with intense black fruit flavours and good freshness.

Rift Valley, the premium range with wines partly aged in French oak barrels.

9-Ethiopia-Castel wines
Rift Valley Chardonnay 2013, a nose and mouth with peach and citrus aromas. Very fresh. The addition of woodchips gives some roundness in mouth.
Rift Valley Merlot 2013, a crunchy wine full of red fruit. Wood softened tannins.
Rift Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2013, a more powerful beautifully structured wine.  Well made.
Rift Valley Syrah 2013, the most interesting wine we tasted, with hints of spice, black fruit and violets. Nice surprise.

The Scarecrow watches over the vines

It is impossible to conclude this article without presenting a unique job…
The vine has many predators  when the grapes are growing on the vines – some more and some less dangerous. The vineyards of Zimbabwe and Kenya face monkey attacks, in a quest to find sweet berries to put in their mouths, and in this case armed guards are stationed at key points in the vineyard. It is effective and dissuasive. In Ethiopia we have seen that even hippos can be a threat. But the main scourge for many vineyards remains bird attacks! When a squadron attacks a vineyard, it can decimate a crop within just a few minutes. One method, used in countries like Namibia, is to put nets over the vines. Rather effective, but expensive if needed to cover over 100 hectares…

Scarecrow @ Awash Winery

Scarecrow @ Awash Winery

While in Ethiopia –  both at Awash and at Castel – we saw for the first time a job as improbable as unique: the job of being a scarecrow ! It is effective because labour is cheap and the sound of the whip snapping trough the air is very impressive. We found the demonstration spectacular. Imagine, every 30 meters throughout the vineyard, a human scarecrow is stationed, waving his whip with energy. A nice concert !

For us, in summary, Ethiopia has been an invitation to travel, a profound meditation to ourselves. A return to core values, where man and nature are listening to one another. This country has opened our eyes to the beauty of the world around us (if not already done, this has amplified it for sure) and it showed us how fragile our ecosystem is and that it needs to be preserved.
Go visit these two wineries, you will be very welcome, words of explorers ! 

WineExplorers’ment votre,


*The vintage is not mentioned on wine bottles.
**Ethiopians consume mostly resineous wines since the beginning of the 20th century : dried grapes – coming from Turkey or South Africa – rehydrated before fermentation.

Kenyan wines, a well-guarded treasure

Dear readers and friends, our sincere apologies for this little interruption: we had a short break in France mid-April to lighten our backpacks and to organise our visa application forms for Asia.
Here we continue our journey of wine with you, with the story of our visit to Kenya !

When we were back in Nairobi after our Tanzanian misadventure, we decided to take charge and to contact the right people. To be well guided would be a necessity… because actually finding the vineyards of Kenya would be the first challenge !
We knew that there are two wineries in the country. One of them is in the Rift Valley – west of Nairobi – and the second one on the other side, two hours drive east of the capital. It was a start…

When partnership rhymes with synergy  

An appointment was made​​ with the Kenyan team of DB Schenker, our logistics partner (through which we send and store wine samples in France in order to re-taste them). They will certainly guide us in our exploration.
In less than a morning and a few phone calls later, our information were confirmed: the two wineries are still operational. A rental car was found, the icing on the cake being that our driver happened to be a native of the Rift Valley. We always win when exploring with local people! Thank you DB Schenker for this efficiency !

Everything comes to those who wait…

After three hours on the road going west – and a flat tire! – we reached plateaus overlooking the Rift Valley, 1900 meters above sea level, with mountains around us. The view was breathtaking, but no trace of vineyards…

Our driver – who knows the region – suddenly stopped to make a phone call. He was lost! “We have to wait here”, he explained. 20 minutes later, a guy coming out of nowhere approached us. He got into the car, greeted us and began to provide directions to our man. We drove on dirt roads. No signs indicated a winery nearby. Suddenly, at the bend of a path, we came face to face with a huge gate. Guards were posted at the entrance. We arrived at the Rift Valley Winery.
The estate, which is part of the Kenya Nut Company, a privately owned company that specializes in the production of macadamia nuts, coffee and cattle, hides away from prying eyes, and in addition knows how to be desired, because going inside is another challenge…

In fact we didn’t have an appointment, as we had no contact there for the moment. So we went to the gate to present ourselves. After waiting a few minutes, the officials of the vineyard let us know that they would like to receive us but unfortunately there are procedures to be followed. We were invited to come back later. Early the next morning, we were back, making the warpath in front of the gate. The wait was long. Around noon we got a response: no authorization was received, we had to wait one more day…  But it would take more than that to discourage us, word of explorers! We would be back there first thing the next day.

Kenya is a wonderful and wild country, where man and nature coexist in perfect harmony. We went on a tour for the afternoon in a nature reserve where endemic birds and hippos are living together. The opportunity of a nice and timeless parentheses.

On the third day we returned to the gate with the hope of going inside. The verdict finally fell: we were invited to the winery to taste the wines!

Leleshwa wines, the Rift Valley Winery’s brand name

A suitable terroir for viticulture in Kenya… it’s possible! Here in Naivasha, temperatures never rise above 32°c. And thanks to the altitude – the vineyard rises between 1900 and 2100 meters – the nights are cooler. Volcanic soils benefit from a good drainage, which allows to quickly remove heavy rains in March, just before harvest time. The vineyard, established in 1992, has all the assets to make good wine.
Experimental in the beginning, the first wine was only made in 2002. For the grape varieties we found Sauvignon blanc, Colombard, Chenin blanc and Muscat of Alexandria for the whites, Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Alphonse Lavallée for the reds.
The Rift Valley Winery, which markets its wines under the brand “Leleshwa wines”, currently produces 60,000 bottles and displays serious ambition. “In less than ten years we will plant more than 150 hectares of vineyards and aim to produce one million bottles”, confided Emma Nderitu, the young, promising winemaker of the estate.

4 wines : Leleshwa Sauvignon blanc 2012, a dry white with a touch of Chenin blanc (10%), Leleshwa Merlot-Shiraz 2011, and Leleshwa Merlot-Shiraz semi-sweet 2011, a successful red wine in Kenya.
Special mention for the cuvée Leleshwa Rosé semi-sweet 2012, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. A nose of blackberry and violet and a mouth that remindes Tavel (a powerful rosé from southern Côtes du Rhône region). Refreshing, and well balanced. A perfect companion for barbecue !

Yatta Winery & Tetra Pack

Satisfied, it was time to get back on the road. It was 6am and another winery, 3 hours east from where we were, was awaiting us. It was better to leave at dawn to avoid the traffic on the outskirts of Nairobi, especially at rush hour time…
We arrived in Yatta, a picturesque village in the countryside. The place seemed just as isolated and inaccessible as the previous one. Military checkpoints were numerous as we approached the vineyard, but which was considered to be normal according to our driver, since the area belongs to the Government. When we arrived at the gate, surpringly, there was nobody. It was very quiet, as if there wasn’t a soul around. It was disconcerting. “Is there someone here?”, we asked. Suddenly a man in a shirt came out of a small building in front of us. The only construction in the area.
We didn’t have an appointment here either… Would he let us in? Yes! The farm manager, Juma Dennis, with a great smile on his lips, invited us in and took the time to show us the vineyard: 13 hectares of vines planted in 1992 on sandy and clay soils. We had a lucky star above our heads !

JBA & Juma Dennis, from Yatta Winery

JBA & Juma Dennis, from Yatta Winery

“Watch your step – he said – the area is infested by snakes”. Pitons, boas, black mambas and other friendly species… Precautions taken (we walked very slowly), we began a walk through the vineyard and even met a few curious monkeys. Juma told us that he was surprised that we found the place, because the wine production is located in Nairobi and it is there that journalists and customers are received to taste the wines. Never here! We asked him if we could organise a wine tasting in the afternoon. A few minutes later Juma was back with good news. We had an appointment with the board at 2pm.
No time to lose, we jumped in the car. Juma offered us some grape juice for the road. Back to the capital – one hour late because of a traffic jam in Nairobi,  hellish! – we were invited to the building of the Kenya Wine Agencies Ltd (KWAL), owner of the Yatta Winery, where we were received by Charles Kamau, the Production Manager.
And surprise… Charles presented to us the two wines produced by Yatta Winery, one white and one red… sold in 1L Tetra Packs! Wine cardboard. “Question of cost”, he explains. And why not, after all ? Wine is sometimes packaged in Bag In Box®. We looked forward to tasting the wines anyway !

Yatta Vineyards White Wine is a blend of Chenin, Sauvignon Blanc and Colombard. Aromas of apple, lemon and sour candy. A fresh mouth feel.
Yatta Vineyards Red Wine is an original blend of Ruby Cabernet and Cabernet Sauvignon, with a nose of red fruit and soft tannins on the palate.
Vintage is not mentioned on labels. And why not, after all…

Yatta Winery

Yatta Winery

One thing is certain, Kenya is a country full of surprises. And its terroirs, nestled in the middle of mountains, far away from prying eyes, have some great potential. Friendly advise…
But for now, let’s focus on Ethiopia, our next stop !


Karibou ! Welcome to Tanzania

One can’t speak of Tanzania without mentioning the magic of safaris – meeting with his majesty the lion king, the greatness of the city of Daar El Salam or the beautiful beaches of Zanzibar…
However we didn’t suspect for one second that it would be possible to find vines in this country. And yet… Tanzania is indeed a wine-producing country !



To travel in Tanzania… you better have a (good) guide

There are different ways to get to Tanzania from Mauritius. We decided to fly to Nairobi (Kenya) and to cross the Tanzanian border by bus. This allowed us to stop in Arusha, a strategic « crossroad » between Dodoma (the production area to the South) and the Kilimanjaro to the East. Looking back on our trip, I must admit that it was the fastest option… but that was assuming we took the right bus !
Our guide – with whom we exchanged e-mails in a very schollar-like English fashion – advised us to take a bus “leaving from Nairobi at 2pm and arriving to Arusha at about 6:30pm” which seemed perfect! Well, almost… Because there are two buses going to Arusha – but that we learned only later.
The first one is an express bus departing from the airport. Bad luck, we took the second option : a mini bus from the airport to the city Center, then a bus to Arusha – which was very difficult to find and made us run like madmen in 35° C, 70 kg bags on the back, arriving right on time at 2pm to buy two tickets, soaked from head to toe. Except that this bus left to Nairobi at 5pm in reality, 3 hours more later the express… and finally dropped us in Arusha at night, at 2:00 am !

2014-03-18 12.39.50_EDT
Luckily our guide still waited for us at the meeting point. Yes, he is always there at night. It’s a small miracle.
The next day at breakfast we laughed and smiled about our misfortune over a good cup of coffee. Then  it was time to go to a Tanzanian vineyard.

Dodoma, where missionaries brought vines to Tanzania

Our guide announced that there is  wine production 40 minutes south of Arusha : Masika Brand winery. Nice scoop! We decided to go and see for ourselves. Once there, we were greeted by Erik Zweig, the owner. Ah, but where are the vines? No vines to be found here Erik explained, we only produce plum, banana and mango wines. Oops, wrong place… We took the time to chat with our host, sipping a glass of sweet wine made from banana and lemon. Erik told us about vineyards 5h drive east of Arusha : Sakarani Monastery, run by the Benedictine Brothers.
The opportunity was too good to resist! We contacted the monastery. We spent two days waiting in Arusha – where we tried going out downtown a few times but were constantly harassed by people begging for money. Taking out the camera is unthinkable in these conditions.
Still we had no response from the monastery. We decided to get bus tickets for the next day. Nothing beats an improvised exploration on the field. The same evening we received an answer from Brother Selestine : ” we effectively have a small vineyard but consider closing the winery this year. At the moment we are quite overburdened with repairs on our buildings and farm work.  Unfortunately we can’t received anybody. We’re sorry”.  A little disappointment…

Fortunately we are flexible. So we fashioned a new plan. We decided to leave for Dodoma, the capital and wine region of the country, the next day. We would depart at 6am with our guide, as there are no less than 10-hours drive to Arusha-Dodoma. However,  our guide never turned up… and only he could drive in Tanzania, pass police checks and ask for directions! We waited for three days before we admitted the obvious: our guy disappeared in the wild.
So, we lost a week and could no longer afford to stay where we were.  Time was running out and other vineyards were awaiting us, so we we spent our time searching for a new guide. No pictures of vines to be found in Tanzania dear readers, we do apologise.
But the Wine Explorers are tough ! After looking in every supermarket in the city we finally found four bottles of Tanzanian wine. A real war treasure !

Two wineries : Dowico and Cetawico

We decide to improvise a tasting at a hotel in Arusha, where we ask for two wine glasses per person, not to mix white and red. Let’s be professionals. The terrace overlooking the hotel will be the ideal place for a tasting in rules.

(Dodoma Wine Company)
Imagi Dry White 2013 : notes of apple and white fruits. Final on quince fruit. Very light. To drink cold. 11% alcohol.
Dodoma Natural Sweet White 2013 : a nose of rhubarb and surprisingly enjoyable. The same delicate scents as one of my grandmother’s warm pies leaving the oven. The mouth is short and sweet. Apple finish. 8.5% alcohol.
Imagi Dry Red 2013 : Bordeaux style nose. Nose of black fruit, leather and a touch of green pepper. Short mouth. 11.5% alcohol.
Cetawico (Central Tanzanian Wine Company)
Chenin blanc 2009 : gold colour indicating that the wine seemed to be oxidized. Nose of wax and acacia flowers. . Slightly sweet and quite short mouth.
Another cuvée exist in red : Sharye, a blend of Syrah, Aglianico, Marzemino and Teroldego.

In hindsight, I will quote here the most famous expression of the country – so incredibly appropriate to our misadventure : Hakuna matata ! Which means : “no problem, everything is fine.”
Always keep things in perspective. Tanzania is a beautiful country and we will come back, words of explorers. The wines are light and without much complexity but who cares, we had fun with this impromptu tasting. Next time, we will go straight to Dodoma. But for now let’s focus on Kenya and the Rift Valley, where new explorations are waiting for us !



*Retail price for the 4 wines: 12 000 TSH, about €5.30/bottle 

Mauritius made wine…from fruit

What? How? Wine Explorers are also writing about fruit wines?!?
No, dear readers, rest assured. Wine Explorers is indeed the first global survey of countries where wine is produced “from grapes”. And it has occupied us very well.
However… It appears that there were vines in Mauritius in the 90s! We had no real confirmation of this, yet being the curious explorers that we are and being only being a few kilometers away from Mauritius – we were in La Reunion – we decided to go and check for ourselves !

Wine “made in Mauritius” ?

After arriving on the island we conducted our survey with the Oxenham family, major players in the production, importation and distribution of wines and spirits in Mauritius. Steve Oxenham, the winemaker of the group, explained to us that Mauritius has been effectively experimenting making wine from grapes, first by importing dried grapes from South Africa, then replaced in the 60s by concentrated grapes.
But what about the vines ? « In the early 90s, sugar farmers planted wine grapes instead of table grapes by mistake », Steve told us. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Muscat, Chenin and Sauvignon Blanc.  That presented a great opportunity for trying to make wine! But the experience was short-lived.

from left to right : Steve, Dean & Alan Oxenham

from left to right : Steve, Dean & Alan Oxenham

The climate of Mauritius doesn’t lend itself to viticulture : too little sunshine exposure and harvesting time during the rainy season… « In hindsight, we realized that it wasn’t a coincidence that the settlers planted sugar cane in Mauritius and vines in South Africa. They understood the issues related to these two types of plantations well », Steve explained, smiling. The wine experience in Mauritius only lasted five short years…
Light disappointment for Wine Explorers, but short lived. If Steve is Oxenham’s winemaker, it’s because there is a type of wine production in Mauritius… wine made from fruit other than grapes: pineapple and lychee! The Oxenham’s are the only ones to produce these types of wines on the island.* So we decided here to make Mauritius “the exception that confirm the rule”, we’ll explain to you how to make fruit wine. And you will see, the process is very similar to the production of traditional white wine.

How does one make pineapple and lychee wine ?

We were invited to attend the production of pineapple wine. The ripe fruit are harvested and hand cut – only the head is removed. Then the pineapples are mechanically crushed. A great show!
The must thus obtained is immediately yeasty to start
fermentation. Cold maceration (10 ° C) is done in stainless steel tanks with added yeast for 2-3 days. A few pumpovers  (mixing action in the tank to improve maceration) are done. Then the fruit is pressed to collect the juice. Fermentation is followed by chaptalization (addition of sugar), to increase the final alcohol content to 12% vol. After adding a little SO2 the wine is stabilized, filtered and bottled.

Lychees are shoveled, pitted and lightly crushed. Juice extraction is complex because it is important not to crush the kernel : its bitterness is such that it would destabilize the balance of the final wine. Everything is done by hand! The rest of the process is similar to pineapple wine production from fermentation to bottling.

Wines that we would like to see on more prestigious tables

After the demonstration was completed, we tasted the wines. They were simply fascinating! True gastronomic wines in which we found the purity and delicacy of pineapple and lychee fruit. It would be easy, during a blind tasting, to think that the lychee wine is an Alsatian Gewürztraminer… imagine.
Alan Oxenham, marketing director of the Group, took the opportunity to tell us a story : « if you drink a glass of pineapple wine after taking a bath in the sea, the salt you have on your lips will amplify the taste of the pineapple and will offer more intense flavours ».

Seriously? Looking at our surprised faces, Dean Oxenham , 4th generation to work for the Group, added with a smile : «when I was a kid, the only way for me to eat pineapple was to take a few slices with on my surfboard and once in the water, dip each slice in the sea before eating it – similar to dipping toast in coffee for breakfast».
The idea seemed simultaneously crazy and great to us. So we decided to test it ourselves.  Luckily we were hosted in Trou aux Biches, in the north of the island, in a beautiful bungalow facing the sea. Here we were, putting on fins, masks and snorkels, going for a diving trip to discover the local fauna and flora.

Back from our « water walk », eyes still filled with images of harlequin fishs, corals and other clownfishs (I thought I saw Nemo), lips tasting of iodine, we savoured a delicious glass of fresh pineapple wine. Oh surprise –  sea salt marries perfectly with pineapple and sublime scents… An unlikely equation which recalls the magic of sweet-savory dishes…

Mauritian fruit wines haven’t finished to make good noise, that’s for sure!
Good rum too, according to Ludovic. Will keep you posted… 


*For more information :

Discovering French wine from… La Reunion !

When crossing Madagascar during our African tour, the excuse was definitely there to go to La Reunion, since it was just an hour’s flight away. The perfect opportunity for a brief stop in France on the other side of the world – 9,300 km from Paris – on an island which surface area doesn’t exceed one third of Corsica.

Wine in the heart of Cilaos

La Reunion is famous for it’s three Cirques : Cilaos, Mafate and Salazie. These are natural calderas with steep walls and a circular shape, formed by a volcanic depression. Exceptional places for all hiking and nature lovers. Of the three, we came for the Cilaos : there is a wine production there!

Panorama sans titre1_EDT
The vine arrived in La Reunion with the first settlers’ boats in 1665. Located in a tropical latitude, the vineyards are now exclusively located in Cilaos, between 600 and 1,300 meters above sea level, with no less than 51 microclimates ! The dominant climate remains hot and humid from December to March and cool and dry from April to November. Erosion, very active, requires the creation of terraces to cultivate vines on steep slopes and work is done mainly manually.
Amidst all of this, a holy curiosity remains – Isabelle :  grape variety which originated from the American species Vitis labrusca. It was the only red grape introduced to the island until 1975, when it was forbidden by law to be used for the production of wine.  Officially, it would seem that Isabelle didn’t qualify for the production of quality wine. However, it is said that if one has no right to vinify Isabelle, it is because the wine made people crazy…
Today seven grape varieties constitute the Vin de Pays de Cilaos’ appellation : Chenin blanc, Verdelho and Gros Manseng for the whites, Malbec, Pinot noir, Gamay and Syrah for the reds.

Rental car in hand, we began our ascent of the mountain. Better to be faint of heart and to have a light breakfast, wise and friendly advice to all.  The hairpin turns keep coming, all the more sinuous than the ones before.  According to the locals which we encountered on our way, there would be 400 turns before reaching Cilaos ! I thought them out in words, I stopped counting at 399.

Reunion vineyard : a cooperative and a few irreducibles

In the late ’80s, a dozen cilaosiens farmers started a cooperative together to develop modern viticulture, with the help of French and European subsidies. This was the creation of the Chai de Cilaos, a vineyard of 20 hectares planted with noble grape varieties, sprinkled around the Cirque.

Our favorite : Blanc Sec 2013, a blend of Chenin Blanc (70%) and Verdelho (30%). Bottled at the occasion of the feast of the lens in October, the wine has a nose of mango and pineapple. Fresh mouth with exotic fruits and a nice bitterness on the finish. Cellar price : €12.50.
Other wines from the range: Rouge 2013, a blend of Malbec (70%), Pinot Noir (20%) and Syrah (10%), sold at €12; Rosé 2012, sold at €8.80 and Blanc Moelleux 2012, a blend of Chenin Blanc (30%), Verdelho (30%), Gros Manseng (30%) and Couderc13 (10%), sold at €13.
In good years, the Chai de Cilaos produces about 30,000 bottles…except in 2013. “Cyclones in La Reunion can be a real problem for the vines. This year, we lost 80% of our harvest”, we were told by Gianny Payet, the technical manager of Chai de Cilaos.

But Reunion vineyard also consist of a handful of irreducibles made up from passionate individuals who continue to make wine for themselves; sweet wines mostly – because in La Reunion we love sugar. And with which variety? Isabelle of course! No label on the bottle, here they sell wine from the property, directly from the producer to the consumer. This is what we commonly name “Vin de Cilaos“. It goes hand in hand with the lenses of Cilaos, a variety of lenses planted between the rows of vines during winter, and which offers a good complement of income to the grower-farmers. Meeting with two phenomena.

JB & Fabrice Hoarau

JB & Fabrice Hoarau

Fabrice Hoarau, winemaker and owner of Domaine du Petit Vignoble, in Bras-Sec, who made wine for a few years in Alsace before returning home with his wife. He explained that there are some people like him, settled in this area. The job is hard and physical. “We are also affected by the vagaries of weather, and in addition we have no subsidies from the Government, because of the varieties we use”, says Fabrice. We appreciate Fabrice’ white Couderc13 and red Isabelle wines for the aperitif, in the shade of his terrace. Ice cube in the glass is permitted.

Eli Gonthier

Eli Gonthier

A few kilometers away, in the village of Îlet à Cordes, we met Eli Gonthier, the owner of Bon Vin de Cilaos estate, a local guy who loves his region. Eli is illiterate, but who cares. “I left school when I was 9 and it hasn’t prevented me from making wine for 40 years now”, he said, laughing. His winery produce mainly a sweet red and a sweet white (a blend of Muscat and Couderc13), plus a clementine wine, which we had the privilege of tasting in his cellar. Eli plunged the plastic pipe in a barrel, sucked briefly, brought the glasses on top… done ! Watering feet passing, it’s part of the folklore.

The Piton des Neiges

We wanted to finish our journey in style. Tomorrow it was decided, we would climb  Piton des Neiges, the highest point of the Reunion island : 3070 meters. Meanwhile, tonight it was all about bivouac into the wild with BBQ fish in foil, flambéed bananas and a night spent in a hammock. The area is perfect to do so. We were facing the cliff, amidst the vegetation. In front of us there were two waterfalls. Swimming in the river that borders the camp offered us a moment of relaxation before the following day’s efforts.

Climbing the Piton des Neiges was a real physical challenge: a 1500 vertical meter climb along 8 km. No flat surface, only  a series of steps that don’t allow  you to catch your breath. We had a lunch break at
Refuge de la Caverne Dufour, at 2600 meters above sea level, after 4 hours of walking. My legs did’t want to go any further. I had to resign myself to the fact that for me, it was time to descend.  Sometimes you have to listen to your body. Fortunately, all ended  well.  And Ludo, courageous always , went to the top to bring us this beautiful picture in the clouds.

One last night of rest Chez Lucette, in Cilaos, where a good bed and a wifi connexion will costed us only €14 (a smile and a welcome coffee included). We even left the day after with some passion fruit just fallen from the tree. A delight that we kept on the plane…direction :  our next adventure !


*More information :

Thierry Bernard, a daredevil winemaker in Madagascar

” A vocation is having one’s passion as a profession” (Stendhal)

Brat, having a military background and being passionate about rugby, weapons and comics, portrays a non-standard daredevil winemaker.

WINE EXPLORERS : Tell us more about your story.
THIERRY BERNARD : Born in December 1967 in Bergerac, I am the son, grandson and great-great grandson of farmers and wine-growers. Raised as a boy-scout and educated by Sisters in a private school, my strict childhood taught me the true values of life. At the age of 10, I already drove the tractor in the vineyard. But above all I wanted to join the Marines to protect my country.  At age 16, I did my training and a few years later I became first a paratrooper, and later a sniper.

After serving my country for many years, the need for a new challenge arose. Meeting with a neighbour, Luke Deconti, from Château Tour des Gendres, brought me the desired challenge! During a vintage (1989), I watched and learnt the art of winemaking. I started studying and reading the writings of Emile Peynaud.  Meanwhile my father, who understood my wish, decided to do some restructuring, abandoning livestock …and building a brand new winery. Château Singleyrac was reborne from the ashes. I started with vintage 90, under the watchful eyes of my mentors. The dream.  My dry white, a Sauvignon-Muscadelle, noticed by Pierre Casamayor will be served by Alain Passard at l’Arpege. A first victory. My passion, which became a vocation, would never leave me again.

WE : Where did you get your nickname of “daredevil winemaker” ?
TB : An article about Clos des Terrasses in the “Revue du Vin de France“, for which I worked, appointed me as “the daredevil winemaker of Bergerac”! This was related to my other passions: enduro motorcycling and rugby. At the origin of the creation of the 15 de la Grappe with Regis Lansade (winemaker in Pecharmant), a club of former rugby players and passionate winemakers, playing n°6, I was already named “The Irish” for my combat-like temperament.

WE : Is it right that you made wine for the English writer William Boyd ?
TB : Yes, Château Pécachard 2005, a 100% Cabernet franc, vinified in 1.20m high and 2.80m wide vats, feet crushed and aged in 500 liters barrels! An incredible memory. A nice and crisp wine noticed at the time by Antoine Gerbelle and Bernard Pivot. Also the Pécachard Rosé 2006, loved by the Chelsea football club.

WE : What lead you to Madagascar ?
TB : After a break in 1998, followed by two difficult years (divorce, a motorcycle accident, reluctance to let go), I returned to vinification for a winery, but without passion…
In 2005 I resigned and went on vacation for three months…to Madagascar . There I discovered a much less stressful way of life! It’s hot, the girls are beautiful and moreover there are vineyards ! I had to do something here. Back in France, my friend Luc Deconti asked me to replace the Head of Culture on a property in Saint-Emilion for a month, because he was sick. I accepted. The collaboration finally lasted four years! Until one day another friend, Jean Charles LUTAUD, wanted me to advise a friend of him newly appointed in Madagascar, on making wine. I accepted without hesitation and helped during my vacation in Mada. In 2009 I started my company in Madagascar, a consulting society in agriculture, agronomy and viticulture named OPEX Mada SARL.
 I was the first winemaker to have produced, vinified and marketed wine made from French noble grapes in Madagascar, with the 2010 vintage of Clos Nomena (owners: Pâquerette et Jean Allimant). An established proof that we can produce – not without efforts –  wine made from noble grapes in Madagascar.
To date, my activity as winemaker focused on Soavita and on agriculture for BIOAGRI (production of potatoes) and Artémésia Annua (artemisinin production for new anti-paludien drugs).

WE : How did you become the viticulterist and winemaker for Soavita ?
TB : Even though Soavita, run by the Verger family since 1973, is one of the most famous vineyards of Madagascar, it was a huge challenge that awaited me: the vineyard was in a very bad state. Wine sales were close to zero. Soavita was only a shadow of itself! Everything needed to be restarted again, the challenge was there! Touched by the story of Natalie, I offered her a hand in teaching her how to make wine. I fully invested myself in the vineyard and in the winery. After a lot of work, 2012 was finally the first correct vintage. The 2013 vintage was promising. Soavita has perked and sales were now increasing.


Nathalie Verger & Thierry Bernard

Nathalie Verger & Thierry Bernard

WE : Which wines are you producing there ?
TB : Kameleon NV (Non Vintage), a dry white 100% Couderc13, at 11.5%. A fresh and friendly wine to enjoy with shellfish or grilled fish. Cellar price: 12000 Ariary (around €3.70). In red, Château VergerNV, a 100% Petit Bouschet, at 12.5%. Aromas of red berries. My favourite wine. To be enjoyed with the local cuisine.  Cellar price : 12000 Ariary (around €3.70). And Domaine ManamisoaNV, a light red 100% Petit Bouschet, perfect as an aperitif. Cellar price : 10000 Ariary (about €3.10). Also a curiosity : OMBILAY, a delicious walnut wine.

WE : We talked about many issues that affect the proper functioning of the Malagasy vineyard. Can you tell us more about these problems ?
TB : There are many viticultural problems in Madagascar. Firstly, the population is poor, but people consume a lot of wine. And you need money to buy wine. Theft is unfortunately commonplace : wire, wooden stakes , grapes, everything gets stolen… Then climate is the second problem :  mainly the total absence of rain during the growing phase of the vines and abundant rainfall and cyclones during the harvest period which greatly damage the grapes.
The vineyard is also very old and it is difficult to produce hybrid cuttings here to replace the old vines and even more complicated to import noble vines (the price and paperwork required is discouraging ). The Malagasy viticulture suffers due to a lack of support by the Government – like the agricultural sector in general.
And on top of it, termites attack the wooden stakes! So it is better to use large diameter stakes if you don’t want to change them every year.  But other than that, you can make wine here – Soavita is proof!

WE : You welcome a lot of students at Soavita to share your passion with them. How do you see the progress of viticulture in Madagascar since you arrived here for the first time in 2005 ?
TB : I love to share my passion with young people from this country. I welcome a lot of Malagasy students here, but viticulture and wine production doen’t seem to be  their concern… It is not in their culture.  Moreover no school provides wine training in Madagascar, it is a pity. The solution might be to send young people to France to receive a good education. For this however, it is  necessary for the French Embassy to issue them visas. Stay tuned.

Madagascar is a country full of challenges. This is what makes it so attractive. Viticulture is possible, Thierry Bernard has proven this. You simply need to have your passion as a profession, as summarized Stendhal. 


Madagascar – behind poverty, great beauty

« Nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed »,  said Lavoisier.

If there is one country in the world where the sentence of Lavoisier is applied to the letter, it is Madagascar ! From a pencil to a shower head, through a car wreck or a pair of shoes, each daily object from our western life found here in Madagascar a second, a third, even up to a tenth life.

carcasse voiture

Between idyllic nature and permanent recycling, Mada is an affecting country

Look no further for old 2CV Citroën, Renault 5, Volkswagen 4L or other Peugeot 404 and 205 : they are almost all here, converted into a taxi ! A paradise for collectors? Probably, you will say . But here it is rather a survival instinct that we face constantly. A hard fact of life : Madagascar is a country where over 81% of the 23 million citizens live on less than $1.25 a day and 60% of the population is under 24 years old. Imagine…
When we move away from the cities, it is also a wild two-tone campaign where the green of rice fields, forests and vegetation is delightfully contrasted with the red-ocher colour of lands and roads. It is a true master painting which capture the eyes of the traveler. Day and night with the atmosphere of the city.

However, Madagascar is also and above all, as absurd and unthinkable as it might sound, a wine-producing country. There are a dozen wineries, mainly divided between Fianarantsoa and Ambalavao, two cities about 500km south of the capital, Antananarivo (Tananarive or Tana in Malagasy).

Finding vineyards in Madagascar : a true Exploration

Searching for contacts in the wine industry can sometimes be a way of the cross, like here : very little information is available and no address mentioned on the labels. Not even any vintage on the bottles… A bit complicated then, but far from impossible. Word of Wine Explorers !
We spent a few days in Antananarivo looking for phone numbers. After a lunch at Au Bon Accueil, in the heights of the city – to enjoy a delicious rice with shrimps and vegetables for less than €2.50 – we confronted ourselves to the hardness of the city. It is hot and humid. The atmosphere is unbreathable in some places. Black smoke from exhaust pipes make us cough. The stench from mounds of garbage littering the sidewalks and where children wander in search of some food, is hardly bearable.  Every child we met gripped our hands, begging for some money. Poor kids, how can one blame them? Welcome to the Fourth World. Such a sad and helpless feeling of having made ​​a leap back in time. Our morale took a hit.

Finally, after 5 hours of walking, we found Royal Spirits, the wine and spirits distributor in the city. We gained some valuable information regarding local wineries and learned  simultaneously that there is a third wine region, Antsirabe, 18Okm south. Perfect, it will be our first stop.
We had one last stop to rent a car, which came with an unexpected surprise – in Madagascar one is allocated a driver! With such misery around us it seemed unthinkable and extremely annoying to have someone to take us wherever we wanted to go, but it was unavoidable. We were told that this is nessecary because the roads are bad and dangerous, it is a safety measure. In the end I must confess that it was a great help for us to be accompanied by Mr Kiady Ramaroson, our driver, throughout the 500km drive on the N7, the famous road to the south.  In addition to being an expert on controlling the countless hairpin turns, narrow pavements, zebu walking on the road, huge holes in the asphalt and passing trucks of goods in the rises, Kiady had to ask his way several times, and in Malagasy…

Kiady, our driver

Kiady, our driver

Antsirabe – hybrid grapes and non-vintages bottles

We arrived in Antsirabe, where Stephan Chan Fao Tong, owner-winemaker at Andranomanelatra winery was waiting for us. He is the last survivor in the region. “ We were up to seven wineries here in the 70s – he told us – but they all closed one after the other, some were unable to sell their wine, others sold their land to plant fodder to feed zebus“. He fears for his own fields as well because his children live in France and none consider to take over the winery .
His philosophy : to make single varietal wines to keep the identity of each vinified variety. “Hybrid grapes – by definition grape varieties crossed with at least two viti species – adapt better to Madagascar : they require less water and are more resistant to diseases, which is why the vast majority of the wineries are using them“, Stephan explained.

Stephan in his cellar

Stephan in his cellar

Two wines which we particularly enjoyed : Seyve Villard and Rouge Viala.
Grand Cru d’Antsirabe Seyve Villard NV, (non- vintage). A red wine made from the hybrid grape Seyve Villard and aged in concrete tank to keep the freshness and crunchiness of the fruit. Nose quite similar to a Côtes du Rhône. On the palate a taste of currants and violets, with a little pepper. A wine to combine with a carpaccio of zebu. Cellar price : 9000 Ariary (about €2.80).
Grand Cru d’Antsirabe Rouge Viala NV. A red wine made from the hybrid grape Viala, also aged in concrete tank. Nose of gooseberry and candy. Morello cherry on the palate. Very fresh wine giving immediate pleasure. Goes well with spicy dishes like coconut curry chicken or pork chops with paprika. Cellar price : 9000 Ariary (about 2.80€).
Other wines from the Estate : Rouge Alicante NV (9000 Ariary, about €2.80) ; Rose Viala NV (7000 Ariary, about €2.20) ; Gris de Gris NV (7000 Ariary, about €2.20) ; Blanc Couderc NV (7000 Ariary, about €2.20)

Fianarantsoa – between sacramental wine and gray wine

We are 200km south of Antsirabe. To visit the Clos Malaza, in the region of Fianarantsoa, forget the GPS, it will not find the way. An address ? There is none. We left the main road to go into the bush, creaking dampers on narrow and potholed roads,  crossing ravines by way of precarious wooden bridges, going through muddy stretches that seemed endless, to finally find Clos Malaza, lost in the wilderness. This hidden wilderness property once belonged to the King Betsileo. Ce n’est qu’au début du XXème siècles que des pères jésuites y établirent l’un des premiers vignobles de Madagascar. Depuis 1987, c’est le groupe qui depuis perpétue son exploitation.

It wasn’t until the early twentieth century when Jesuits established one of the first vineyards in Madagascar in this location.   Since 1987, the Mac & Frères group perpetuates its operation.
Their Rouge NV, a blend of Petit Bouschet (90%), Villard, Chambourcin (parent of Pinot noir), Villardin and Varousset seduced us with its aromas of crushed strawberries and blackberries. Fine tannins on the palate and crisp fruit. To be paired with sautéed beef and vegetables. Cellar price : 10300 Ariary (about €3.20).
Vin Gris NV, (or gray wine), another wine of the Estate, is a specialty of the country. It is a blend of white wine in majority (here 90% Couderc13) and red wine (10% de Petit Bouschet). Une curiosité. A nice curiosity. With an almond nose and a very strong bitterness in mouth. A wine to drink chilled as an aperitif, with samosas for example. Cellar price : 10000 Ariary (about €3.10).
Other wines from Clos Malaza : a Blanc Sec NV and a Blanc Doux NV, a Rosé NV and a delicious dry Vin d’Ananas NM (pineapple wine).

We are going to taste the wines of Maromby Monastery, founded in 1958 by a dozen monks of the Abbey of Mont Des Cats, in Lille, which features a 7 hectares winery providing the monks their unique source of income through wine sales. 50% is planted in Courdec13, the rest in Petit Bouschet.

Monastère Maromby3
Two white wines and two red wines are produced – both dry and sweet), and a gray wine, a sacramental wine, and two orange wines. Cellar price : between 6000 and 7000 Ariary (about €1.90 et €2.20). Des vins de méditation, sans aucun doute…

Ambalavao –noble cultivars and capital of wine

We visited Soavita, one of the most famous wineries of Madagascar and held by the Verger family since 1973 and which has seen its vineyard improve in quality in recent years to reach the top of the Malagasy wines nowedays. Thierry Bernard, an oenologist from Bergerac and a vinifier in St- Emilion, has restored the vineyard of Soavita to its pedigree.
In white, Kameleon NV, a dry white 100% Couderc13. One finds an almond nose and a palate with a nice bitterness and a little oiled side. Fresh finish with notes of pear. 11.5 % alcohol for a wine to enjoy with grilled fish. Cellar price : 12000 Ariary (about €3.70).
In red, Château Verger NV, a 100% Petit Bouschet, perfectly balanced and grading 12.5 %. structure on the red fruit (blackberry). To enjoy with a chicken mushroom risotto.  Cellar price : 12000 Ariary (about €3.70).
Also Domaine Manamisoa NV, a lighter red 100% Petit Bouschet, ideal for the beginning of the meal. Cellar price : 10000 Ariary (about €3.10).

We learn that casi all wine bottles are recycled in Madagascar (take off the old labels, bottles washed, rinsed, dried in the open air… and voila!

Not far away is Clos Nomena, the only vineyard in Madagascar to use noble grape varieties. The wines we had the chance to taste date from the 2010 harvest and are at the moment the only vintage produced by Clos Nomena: 2011 and 2012 weren’t produced due to too capricious weather conditions .  However, 2010 is a delight and the two wines that we tasted will remain a great memory. Interesting : they were also vinified by Thierry Bernard.
Blanc Moelleux NV, a blend of 90% Chenin Blanc and 10% Riesling, is of great finesse. The wine has lost its sweetness but got notes of honey, spices and petrol. Delicious. “Boy, a chocolate cake with this wine please”.
Rouge NV, a blend of Syrah and Malbec displays a surprising freshness with notes of mocha, spices and leather with notes of blackberry and violet on the finish. I want a roasted lamb…

Rizière 3
Our journey ends here. Madagascar has surprised and moved us in more ways than one. We will remember the beauty of its countryside and the hospitality of the locals. One thing is sure : Antananarivo is not what we will remember about this country. This is a bubble separate from, and not representative of the country. A bit like New York and the USA if you want a comparison point.
One last espresso in the gardens of Café de la Gare, – a must to go for a business lunch –  and it is already time to hit the road again to our next destination.


NB : other areas exist in Madagascar : Lazan ‘I Betsilio S.A., a cooperative of Fianarantsoa ; S.A. Chan Foui et Fils in Ambalavao, which produces Côteaux d’Ambalavao wines or Domaine Lovasoa, Cave de Fianarantsoa. Next time.


Safari and Wine: welcome to Zimbabwe !

Flying from Namibia we arrived in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe.  At the exit of the airport we suddenly realized that we were in the “real Africa“ : damaged roads, sometimes traffic lights not working – so you drive slowly with your warnings ON –, no street names and traffic signalisation missing most of the time. But this in fact is not a problem and doesn’t really matter. What’s important is that Zimbabwe is a beautiful and lovely country with open-arms people and fantastic landscapes that you must visit at least once in your lives, like the Victoria Falls or some great safaris places.

Bushman Rock Wildlife
History of wine making in Zimbabwe dated from the XIXth century.

The pioneers brought vines to “Rhodesia“, as Zimbabwe was then called, in about 1890, but grape growing was not undertaken commercially until about 1960*. Trade sanctions imposed by Britain – after the Rhodesian government declared its independence in 1965 – forced farmers to diversify and some planted vines of clairette blanche, pinotage, chenin blanc and red muscadel. These were distributed to the Eastern Districts, Hippo Valley, Marandellas and the Mazoe Valley.

When Zimbabwe gained independence in 1980, the wine industry was integrated under the control of three wineries: African Distillers (AFDIS), Cairns Wineries and Meadows Estate. Nowadays wine industry is decreasing in Zimbabwe. From what we saw in different information sources, we thought that there were 2 wineries in the country : Mukuyu Winery and Bushman Rock Estate. However it appears that the day before we arrived in Zimbabwe – incredible but true – one of these two estates, Mukuyu Winery just closed ! (temporary or definitively ? Mystery…)

Bushman Rock, where safari & wine work in perfect harmony.

We had the chance to spend a few days at Bushman Rock Safaris and Wine Estate, a winery which was first planted in the late 30’s (with first commercial wines in the 60’s). The 102-hectares property was purchased by a civil engineer Mr. D.C. Mullins in 1949. His vision for the untamed area of woodland was a European style vineyard and winery and his wife and family helped him clear and terrace the land, put in basic irrigation and plant 12 hectares of vines, making it one of the first vineyards in the country.

In 2007 a joint venture company was established between two families who owned adjacent properties and the “Busman Rock Safaris” concept was born.
The two families set about developing Bushman Rock into a gracious Wine and Wildlife Estate preserving the natural beauty of the valley whilst working towards the production of quality wines. They developed the wine estate over the last 13 years, replanting and expanding the vineyards with new “noble cultivars” imported from the Cape like Semillon, Sauvignon blanc, Merlot, Shiraz, Cabernet sauvignon and Cabernet franc, adding drip irrigation into all vineyards and re-trellising the vines.

As a preservation program for the Zimbabwean nature, they introduced into the estate 13 of the magnificent species of African wildlife : Giraffe, Eland, Sable, Kudu, Nyala, Lichtenstein’s Hartebeest, Tsessebe, Wildebeest, Zebra, Impala, Bushbuck, Waterbuck, Duiker. They also developed facilities to cater towards equine tourism with the focus on polo, although there are also showing jumping and dressage arena.  With the focus on polo they created the Polo Arena, a full size international polo field, have built a restaurant and function venue at the winery as well as renovating existing structures into a conference and function venue for seminars as well as building a picturesque Chapel for weddings.

The Bushman Rock wine range.

Bushman Rock wine range is composed of 9 wines; 4 of them particularly drew our attention :
Dry White 2010, a white blend of Semillon, Sauvignon blanc and Perel (a white varietal from Israël), matured 6 months in 3-year old French barrels.  A nose of citrus, pear and fresh menthol. Fresh and fruity in mouth with a delicate bitterness on the finish. Structured with 12.5% alcohol. Nice match with asparagus for example. Cellar price: $4,5 (about 3.30€)
Charlevale 2010, a white blend of Semillon (60%), Sauvignon blanc (35%) and Moscatel (5%), matured 12 months in 3-year old French and American barrels.  Acacia, honey and white flowers on the nose. Fresh and clean in mouth with a citrus finish. 13% alcohol. Goes well with goat cheese. Cellar price: $7 (about 5.10€)
Alicante Bouschet  2008, a red wine made from Alicante Bouschet, an old grape coming from the south of France and matured 24 months in 3-year old French barrels.   Nose of strawberry. Light in mouth with a taste of red berries. Fresh and well-balanced. Can perfectly pair with a roasted chicken. Cellar price: $6 (about 4.40€)
Merlot 2010, a 100% Merlot red wine matured 24 months in 3-year old French barrels.   Nose of prune and blueberry. Smooth tannins in mouth with a taste of black berries. Nice match with a juicy peppery steak and French fries. Cellar price: $6 (about 4.40€)

In the resent future we will reduce the wine range and focus more on key products like the Charlevale or the Alicante Bouschet.  Because of this focus we hope to gain a certain precision and concentration within our wines that will hopefully strongly increase their quality“, confirmed current M.D Jonathan Passaportis. The addition of Nelia Kanyasa, world-class winemaker and vintner-agriculture manager at Bushman Rock Estate since 2013, will definitely help.

Other whites we tasted are Hanne 2009 (100% Hannepoot) and Moscato 2010. For the reds : Syrah 2009, Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 and Stellagallen 2009 (a red blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet franc).


For more information :

* “Encyclopedia of Wine”, ©Global Book Publishing Pty Limited 2000