What? How? Wine Explorers are also writing about fruit wines?!? No, dear readers, rest assured. Wine Explorers is indeed the first global survey of countries where wine is produced “from grapes”. And it has occupied us very well. However… It appears that there were vines in Mauritius in the 90s! We had no real confirmation of this, yet being the curious explorers that we are and being only being a few kilometers away from Mauritius – we were in La Reunion – we decided to go and check for ourselves !
After arriving on the island we conducted our survey with the Oxenham family, major players in the production, importation and distribution of wines and spirits in Mauritius. Steve Oxenham, the winemaker of the group, explained to us that Mauritius has been effectively experimenting making wine from grapes, first by importing dried grapes from South Africa, then replaced in the 60s by concentrated grapes.
But what about the vines ? « In the early 90s, sugar farmers planted wine grapes instead of table grapes by mistake », Steve told us. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Muscat, Chenin and Sauvignon Blanc. That presented a great opportunity for trying to make wine! But the experience was short-lived.
The climate of Mauritius doesn’t lend itself to viticulture : too little sunshine exposure and harvesting time during the rainy season… « In hindsight, we realized that it wasn’t a coincidence that the settlers planted sugar cane in Mauritius and vines in South Africa. They understood the issues related to these two types of plantations well », Steve explained, smiling. The wine experience in Mauritius only lasted five short years…
Light disappointment for Wine Explorers, but short lived. If Steve is Oxenham’s winemaker, it’s because there is a type of wine production in Mauritius… wine made from fruit other than grapes: pineapple and lychee! The Oxenham’s are the only ones to produce these types of wines on the island.* So we decided here to make Mauritius “the exception that confirm the rule”, we’ll explain to you how to make fruit wine. And you will see, the process is very similar to the production of traditional white wine.
We were invited to attend the production of pineapple wine. The ripe fruit are harvested and hand cut – only the head is removed. Then the pineapples are mechanically crushed. A great show!
The must thus obtained is immediately yeasty to start fermentation. Cold maceration (10 ° C) is done in stainless steel tanks with added yeast for 2-3 days. A few pumpovers (mixing action in the tank to improve maceration) are done. Then the fruit is pressed to collect the juice. Fermentation is followed by chaptalization (addition of sugar), to increase the final alcohol content to 12% vol. After adding a little SO2 the wine is stabilized, filtered and bottled.
Lychees are shoveled, pitted and lightly crushed. Juice extraction is complex because it is important not to crush the kernel : its bitterness is such that it would destabilize the balance of the final wine. Everything is done by hand! The rest of the process is similar to pineapple wine production from fermentation to bottling.
After the demonstration was completed, we tasted the wines. They were simply fascinating! True gastronomic wines in which we found the purity and delicacy of pineapple and lychee fruit. It would be easy, during a blind tasting, to think that the lychee wine is an Alsatian Gewürztraminer… imagine.
Alan Oxenham, marketing director of the Group, took the opportunity to tell us a story : « if you drink a glass of pineapple wine after taking a bath in the sea, the salt you have on your lips will amplify the taste of the pineapple and will offer more intense flavours ».
Seriously? The idea seemed simultaneously crazy and great to us. So we decided to test it ourselves. Luckily we were hosted in Trou aux Biches, in the north of the island, in a beautiful bungalow facing the sea. Here we were, putting on fins, masks and snorkels, going for a diving trip to discover the local fauna and flora.
Back from our « water walk », eyes still filled with images of harlequin fishs, corals and other clownfishs (I thought I saw Nemo), lips tasting of iodine, we savoured a delicious glass of fresh pineapple wine. Oh surprise – sea salt marries perfectly with pineapple and sublime scents… An unlikely equation which recalls the magic of sweet-savory dishes…
Mauritian fruit wines haven’t finished to make good noise, that’s for sure!
Thank you to Oxenham family for its warm welcome.