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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 away 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 !
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 !
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 !
Thank you to Awash and Castel for their warm welcome