Kenyan wines: A well-guarded treasure20th May, 2014 by Jean-Baptiste Ancelot
Having arrived 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 our 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 tyre) 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 national 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 authorisation 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. Refreshing, and well balanced. A perfect companion for barbecue!
Yatta Winery and Tetra Pack
Satisfied, it was time to get back on the road. It was 6am and another winery, three 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, surprisingly, 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!
“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 1litre 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…
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. But for now, let’s focus on Ethiopia, our next stop!