« 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.
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).
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…
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.
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. It wasn't until the beginning of the 20th century that Jesuit priests established one of the first vineyards in Madagascar. Since 1987, it's the Mac & Frères group that perpetuated the exploitation.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Thank you to Clos Nomena, Soavita, Monastère de Maromby, Clos Malaza and Chan Fao Tong for their warm welcome.