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Wine Explorers: The vineyards of Ethiopia

Welcome to Ethiopia! A country of touching beauty where it feels good to be alive.

Pictures by Ludovic Pollet

We just landed in Addis Ababa, the highest African capital, perched at 2,300 meters altitude. An amazing city in full cultural revolution and a living testimony of past civilisations. 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 flavoured with gersho leaves, similar to hops. But did you know that the country is home to an ancient wine producing culture, has 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.

Pictures by Ludovic Pollet

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, the famous Irish musician and activist for the African cause, prospects for development now appear 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 has to be replaced) and the cellar is old, but once the site is finished, wine quality will improve.

Abraham de Klerk and JBA @ Awash Winery. Pictures by Ludovic Pollet

For now the winery isn’t far from producing 10 million bottles 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 greeted us throughout our journey, all in a patchwork of colours worthy of the finest clichés.

Pictures by Ludovic Pollet

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). “The vines will return to their normal cycle by November”, Abraham de Klerk, Awash winemaker, explained to us. Even though we were only a hundred kilometres away from Awash cellar in the centre of the capital, (Ethiopia routes can be (very) bad, especially for trucks), it takes more than seven 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. 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.

Pictures by Ludovic Pollet


Awash Winery’s wine range

Once the vineyard tour ended we returned to Addis Ababa where 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 resinous wines: Awash White wine 2014* and Gouder Red Wine 2013.

A peculiarity at Awash is that 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 expand the range in November.

Pictures by Ludovic Pollet

The time has come for the sheep

Mr. Mulugeta Tesfakiros kindly organised 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 arrived at Castel Winery, in the town of Ziway, 163 km south of Addis Ababa.

Pictures by Ludovic Pollet

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 No. 2 beer producer 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.

Pictures by Ludovic Pollet

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 and average temperatures of 25 degrees year round with sandy soils, Castel Winery has good conditions for the development of quality wines, and its 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 and a sweetness in mouth, which is very popular and appreciated by 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.

Pictures by Ludovic Pollet

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.

The Scarecrow watches over the vines. Pictures by Ludovic Pollet

Rift Valley Syrah 2013, the most interesting wine we tasted, with hints of spice, black fruit and violets. Nice surprise.

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.

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!

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.

Follow the Wine Explorers’ adventures on their website, Facebook page and blog.  

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