Unbelievable. Senegal produces wine! In a country where the French colonial legacy lasted nearly three centuries – the independence of Senegal dates back to 1960 – no wine project has ever been attempted. Until two men, driven by the same passion, recently realized the unthinkable : putting Senegal on the world wine map. Let's explore together Domaine Du Clos Des Baobabs, so far the only vineyard in West Africa.
We landed early in the morning on the runway of the new international airport of Dakar, freshly built in late 2017, an hour east of the capital. "Welcome to Senegal!", exclaimed Philippe Franchois, co-founder of Domaine Du Clos Des Baobabs, who was waiting for us on the tarmac, smiling. I was so excited about the idea of discovering this vineyard lost in the bush. Especially because this is a major surprise : I never imagined that Senegal could embark on viticulture. And yet...
"French settlers never made wine here because they did not have the knowledge to adapt to this type of climate. We are therefore wine pioneers in West Africa", Philippe testified. The world of wine is definitely full of surprises.
Along the R1, the main national road going from Dakar to Bamako over 1300 kilometers, it took us just 15 minutes by car to reach the estate. "This new airport, at the door of the vineyard, is a blessing for us!“, Philippe explained. Domaine Du Clos Des Baobabs is aptly named : three hectares of vines planted on the edge of a sumptuous baobab forest, with trees one more majestic than the other, with their hundred-year-old trunks.
A paradise lost in the region of Petite Côte, only 15 kilometers from the sea. The place left me speechless.
Domaine Du Clos Des Baobabs is above all the story of two French entrepreneurs, lovers of Senegal, in search of adventure, brought together by destiny to create a wine project out of the ordinary. The first one, Philippe Franchois, born in Dakar and passionate about wine since his adolescence, had only one desire in mind after a long stay in Burgundy in the insurance industry : to come back to this country and to take up the challenge of a viticultural project that would put Senegal on the map of wine producing countries.
The other, François Normant, decided in 2008 to expatriate with his Senegalese wife to Nguékhokh, in the region of Petite Côte, to develop an innovative agricultural project on land he had acquired. After being put in contact by mutual friends, the two men realized the complementarity of their mutual projects and decided to associate, by creating a vineyard on the land of François. In January 2013, three hectares were planted on sandy-clay soils, including two hectares of Grenache and one experimental hectare of 5,000 plants, consisting of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsaut, Sangiovese and Syrah. So Domaine Du Clos Des Baobabs was born.
"Apart from a tropical episode and heavy rains between September and October, the rest of the year is very dry and requires irrigation", according to Philippe. From the beginning, the two neo-winemaker friends, assisted by their chief viticulturist, Abdoulaye Ndiaye, tried to find solutions to adapt to this unique tropical viticulture in West Africa.
Starting by working the estate with a horse, a common agricultural practice in Senegal. But the most important thing was to find a form of artificial vegetative rest for the vineyard. "Temperatures never drop below 14°C here, which means that the vine does not receive the signals necessary for its dormancy, unlike in the classic wine countries, where the sap comes down in the roots of the vine with the first cold", Philippe explained. And to find at the same time how to lift the dormancy of the plant. "The only advantage in all of this is that you can schedule the harvest when you want, depending on the pruning", he added. Very convenient.
Their research led to a first micro-harvest in July 2014, then to a second in April 2015 and finally to a third in June 2016, the largest, which gave birth to 300 bottles ! And do not count on a 2017 vintage, as small as it would have been : the monkeys have eaten everything!
A real plague, as devastating as it was unexpected for both men, since the monkeys seem to have managed to catch the grapes through the nets, squeezing them and drinking the juice directly on the spot! It will be necessary to double vigilance at the next harvest.
And that's not all. Other dangers are facing the Senegalese vineyard : termites, which attack some vines; palm rats, which drink the water from drip irrigation systems and nibble the pipes; or the harmattan(1), a devastating hot wind, capable of burning all the flowers and grilling the vine. Despite these constraints, and although the project is still in the experimental stage, the motivation of the two men remains intact and forces admiration. The ambition of commercialization is even considered for 2019, with new plantations. Philippe and François are also testing vines on lateritic soils (2). A case to follow closely.
We concluded our stay with a touching moment : a tasting at the foot of Philippe's favorite baobab tree. A strong and unforgettable souvenir, where our hosts were pleased to open one of their rare bottles, remaining of the 2016 vintage. A 100% Grenache red wine, still fruity and charming. And already full of promises for the future. Good luck to these self-taught and talented winemakers, as friendly as they are welcoming!
Thank you to Philippe Franchois and François Normant for their warm welcome at Domaine Du Clos Des Baobabs. Thank you also to the Réserve de Bandia for having opened its doors to us ; a very nice park to visit : http://www.reservedebandia.com/accueil.html.
(1) The harmattan occurs in the Sahara and in Central and West Africa, a wind coming from the Sahara, very hot during the day, very dry, gradually loading small particles of sand and dust overheated during the day, blowing between the end of November and the middle of March.
(2) Laterite is a red or brown rock, rich in oxidized iron, which forms by alteration of rocks in tropical climates. Lateritic soils are lean, leached and depleted soils of silica and nutrients.