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 !